This post contains spoilers for the first episode of the BBC’s Years And Years.
If I was to talk about Russell T Davies haven’t written a very political series for BBC One, you’d probably assume I was talking about last year’s A Very English Scandal. After all, that’s got all the elements of a political drama, hasn’t it? Lots of establishing shots of the Palace of Westminster, people giving speeches and getting elected, a noted actor (Hugh Grant) providing a memorable performance as an important politician (the former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe) and lots of lots of scandal.
Except that’s not the series I’m talking about. Think of it this way: where did actual politics and policy have a part in A Very English Scandal? Beyond acknowledging he was the Liberal leader, what part did Thorpe’s politics play in the drama itself? It was a political drama in the sense it was a drama about a politician, but the actual politics played next to no role in the drama itself.
No, the drama I’m talking about is Years And Years, the first episode of which arrived on our screens this week. It’s not promoted as being a political drama with only one of the main cast (Emma Thompson’s Vivienne Rook) even partially a politician — and she doesn’t even interact with the main characters during the first episode, spending her time as a person on the news or a background billboard instead.
This, though, is the key to understanding Years And Years as a political drama — it’s politics as most people experience it. There’s a disconnect in media depictions of politics and what we deem as “political” which sees most of it as what’s essentially an elite activity. The West Wing is perhaps the best-known example of this form of political drama with long tracking shots of big and important conversations between big and important men as they walk through the actual corridors of power. The consequences of any policies they enact are usually seen solely through the effect they have on their career, or on figures that they quote to each other. We rarely, if ever, get to see what effect these key plot decisions have on the people they’re supposedly governing.
On the other side, when politics affects “non-political” drama, it’s normally presented as a monolithic…