Ahead of tonight’s finale, we caught up with Russell Tovey and Maxim Baldry, the stars of the BBC’s ominous hit show.
Years and Years is the latest offering from televisual monolith and tastemaker, Russell T. Davies. The show charts the course of history from late 2019 onwards through the lens of the Lyons family. The clairvoyant Davies envisages a world of rising crises; a planet getting hotter, more crowded and angrier. Emma Thompson’s vile and charismatic Viv Rook is elected Prime Minister. Under her rule, concentration camps spring up to swallow society’s most vulnerable and the very estates she had canvassed throughout her campaign are walled up. At the centre of it all, the Lyons family battle for normality: the right to work, live, make love and raise children. They are brought to life by a truly magnetic cast, including Jessica Hynes, Rory Kinnear, Ruth Madeley and Anne Reid. Years and Years also stars Russell Tovey – who ought to be familiar to anyone who’s owned a television at some point in the last fifteen years – and relative newcomer Maxim Baldry.
Their portrayal of two lovers fighting for the right to simply be has both captured and broken our collective hearts. Tovey’s Daniel Lyons is a housing officer whose life is turned upside down when he falls for Baldry’s Viktor Goraya. Viktor is a Ukrainian refugee forced to flee his home when his own parents denounce him for his sexuality. Facing torture and death, Viktor runs to the apparent safety of the UK and is taken in, somewhat illegally, by Daniel. Fate, however, conspires against them. When Daniel’s ex, played by Dino Fetscher (star of Davies’ Cucumber and Banana), jealously reports Viktor to the authorities, he sets off a chain of events that leaves Daniel dead, his body washed up on a beach in England, and Viktor stranded alone in a country that despises him. Audiences are now waiting with bated breath for the series’ finale, which is due to air tonight at 9pm. If you have still yet to see Years and Years, I apologise for the spoilers and urge you to catch up NOW.
For three decades, Davies has shocked and enamoured us in equal measure. From the glorious Queer as Folk to last year’s gripping A Very English Scandal, Davies has established himself as a monumental force for good in contemporary British television. It is no surprise then, that when I met Tovey and Baldry last Saturday, they both expressed just how vital Davies’ reputation was in securing their interest in the show. ‘Russell T. Davies. Automatically your ears prick up and your eyes get excited,’ Tovey tells me, his ears (and those of his bulldog, Rocky, who accompanies him everywhere) indeed pricked up. ‘I knew within literally ten pages who Daniel was and that I wanted to play this character and I needed to play him. That’s what it boils down to – the writing.’ In Tovey’s words, ‘You know it’s going to be good because it’s him, so you feel safe.’
‘Safe’ is not the first word that springs to mind when one thinks of the show. Even Baldry never knew what to expect from Years and Years: ‘Every time you were reading [the script], you were like, “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God” … and that was Episode One!’ The safety that Tovey describes, then, is more like an absolute trust in Davies. Both actors seem fiercely loyal to the show and truly, sincerely affected by the story it tells. Baldry is practically on the edge of the seat when he describes what it was that drew him to the script: ‘it was these epic themes about […] the world in turmoil, but it was told through this family in Manchester and done in such a fragile way.’ He also felt a true personal kinship with Viktor: ‘I’m Eastern European and I’ve always wanted to kind of touch upon my own roots, and I think that the story line really struck home with me’. To prepare for his role, Baldry met with family friends who had been asylum seekers in the early eighties. He was astounded by their generosity and warmth: ‘Every single one of them had the most amount of kindness and positivity I’ve ever seen, and it was so humbling and so empowering.’ Anyone who has seen the show has doubtless been humbled and empowered by Viktor’s endless capacity for love, and it is obvious that Baldry has been profoundly changed by this part – not just professionally, but on a deeper and more human level.
This kind of deeply felt personal bond is at the very heart of the show. For Tovey, Years and Years is about ‘human connection’: ‘It’s about [how] when really fucking awful things go on in the world, you still get up, you still get on with your life – and how as families, we can all be so fragmented in our political views, so opposing but yet you still love each other. They’re still your brother and your grannie and your sister.’ The Lyons family are a complicated bunch, constantly driven apart and thrown back together by the maelstrom that surrounds them. Despite everything they say and do to each other, however, the Lyons family sticks together. As Tovey says: ‘People argue and say the worst things to their family members because they know they’re always going to be there.’
For Baldry, the Lyons clan provide us with an invaluable looking glass, not only into the future, but the present, too. Years and Years, he tells me, ‘is distilling these [themes] through this family and exploring them in a really fragile and human way, where it’s accessible and not too far-fetched … It’s very much set now’. Throughout our conversation, Baldry speaks about human displacement and about the real and ongoing tragedies to which gay people are subjected in Eastern Europe. He describes how Daniel’s unexpected death represents a real triumph for the show: ‘It gives Viktor’s storyline the chance to hit home more and bring it [the plight of refugees] to light more, and that was a massive privilege and a massive task to take on.’ Tovey believes that Daniel’s death is a something of a wake-up call to the delusional and disinterested British sensibility: ‘He thinks he’s untouchable … he’s arrogant. He’s like, “no, we can do this. People like me don’t die. People like me shouldn’t be on this boat”.’ Daniel’s death brings an often distant-feeling tragedy home, then? ‘What’s amazing about that [scene] is that it humanises those people. Katie Hopkins called them cockroaches arriving in boatloads. Vermin. And you watch that show and you’re like, “it’s anyone. It could be us.”’ That sentiment is the backbone of the show. The horrors that unfold in Years and Years are not invented; they are happening all around the world. What Davies does so well is that he brings these terrible things closer to home. ‘I think we all take for granted our rights and what we’ve achieved in this country and unless you’re politically woke with the gay issues, you don’t realise people are still getting stoned and hung literally a four-hour flight away from where we are now because of what they naturally feel … they’re being murdered for it.’ ‘Why’, Tovey asks, ‘if people turn up to this country and they’ve got a mobile phone are they deemed not desperate enough?’
No matter how dire things get for Daniel and Viktor, Tovey and Baldry insist that Years and Years is an optimistic show. ‘[What] drew me in,’ says Baldry, ‘[is that] with everything that’s going on in the world … it’s always positive, this show. And it’s hopeful. Because we still go to work, still drink; we still wake up hungover, we still have marriage problems … but we still get on with it.’ Tovey mirrors this opinion, albeit more wryly: ‘You still go past a shop and buy a nice pot to put a succulent in! You don’t stay in under the covers and slowly plan your death – you’re out there and you go, and you share this story and you bond with people over it … and whenever tragedies happen it makes people more connected … When shit happens, you have to be able to look around and go, “okay, cool, I’m not by myself with this feeling”.’ Tovey’s wryness is gone now, replaced by the same absolute confidence in the human spirit that so evidently possesses Baldry. Our conversation turns to the London Bridge terror attack that wracked the city in 2017: ‘People didn’t run away from each other; they ran towards each other at that point … It makes me wanna cry. When tragedies happen, just look at the people helping.’
Years and Years is a story about people who refuse to succumb to tragedy and chaos, a story that comes at just the right time. ‘It’s about time the BBC released something like this,’ Baldry says. ‘Thank God for Russell T. Davies.’
The final episode of Years and Years airs on BBC One tonight at 9pm.