These days, a common way of introducing radio news items is with the words ‘How worried should we be about…?’ The trouble with this formula is not just the strange notion that anxiety has apparently become some sort of moral duty — even a badge of honour. It’s also that we generally know what the answer will be: we should be very worried indeed. Now, in Russell T. Davies’s Years and Years (BBC1, Tuesday), the same formula serves as the premise for a television drama.
The first episode began by introducing us to three adult siblings, scrupulously chosen to represent modern Britain — at least as seen on TV. (The publicity material duly calls them ‘an ordinary British family’.) In Manchester, Daniel Lyons was watching Question Time with his boyfriend Ralph, while also texting his London-based brother Stephen, whose posh black wife Celeste takes an oddly stern line on her teenage children drinking milk (‘Milk’s no good for you, darling. It’s just mucus.’). The brothers were then interrupted by a phone call from sister Rosie, an unfailingly feisty woman in a wheelchair who was about to give birth to a baby from a fling with a Chinese bloke.
Being a close-knit lot, the Lyons were soon gathered in the maternity ward, where Stephen welcomed the baby with an impassioned speech about the dreadfulness of today’s world. So, he wondered gloomily, what would it be like in five years’ time?
And with that the show’s high concept kicked in, as we fast-forwarded in montage form through Donald Trump’s re-election, Daniel and Ralph’s marriage and Russian troops in Ukraine — before pitching up in 2024 where everything was fine.
I am, of course, only joking. In fact, everything was terrible. China and America were in a dangerous stand-off and Daniel was working at an underfunded Ukrainian refugee camp in Manchester. Meanwhile, a populist entrepreneur called Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson, no less) appears well on the way to full demagogue status in Britain. Luckily, there was still a way for things to get worse — which they did when Trump nuked China.
The episode did have its moments. There was, for example, a nicely mischievous scene where Stephen and Celeste’s teenage daughter told her impeccably liberal parents that she was trans. Naturally, she received their full support — until it turned out that she wanted to be transhuman, by downloading her brain to the internet (or something), at which point they realised the limits of their liberalism and hit the roof.
The trouble, unusually for Davies, is that such mischievousness is in disappointingly short supply. Instead, Years and Years comes across as a rather clunky exercise in box-ticking — and one that ends up seeming not so much a liberal dystopia as a kind of liberal fantasy.
Much better, mainly because it feels less designed by committee, was the week’s other big new drama. Written by Jack Thorne and its director Shane Meadows, The Virtues (Channel 4, Wednesday) stars Stephen Graham, who was so good in Line of Duty and may be even better here.
Graham plays Joseph, a recovering alcoholic who still has plenty to drink about. The opening, largely wordless scenes featured Joseph looking mournful in a series of mournful-looking locations. But once he arrived for dinner at the house of a man, woman and child living nearby, we gradually understood why. The woman was his ex-wife, the man her new improved partner and the boy Joseph’s son — and all three were about to emigrate to Australia. Despite the distress he tried to conceal with heartbreaking ineffectiveness, Joseph did his best to say the right things, even managing to wish them well in their new lives. ‘You going to be all right?’ replied his ex-wife tenderly. ‘You’re not going to…?’
Unfortunately, Joseph was — and the extended drinking scene that followed was harrowingly perfect: starting with him holding a pint as if he could take it or leave it; continuing with him as the life and soul of the pub as he did a pretty creditable impersonation of somebody having a good time; and ending with him waking up back home marinated in vomit and remorse.
At this stage we don’t know what’s left this clearly decent man so damaged — or at any rate we wouldn’t if Meadows hadn’t explained that the series is based on his own experiences of dealing with childhood sexual abuse. It is, though, impossible not to root for him. The day after his binge, Joseph sat on a park bench, wearily opening a bottle of strong cider like a man resigned to his fate — and when he threw it away undrunk, it was hard to suppress a cheer.
Despite that stirring moment, The Virtues seems unlikely to be a jolly watch. But the first episode has already shown, once again, that nobody does visceral like Shane Meadows.