Years and Years (2019) | In Conversation with Hayley Sleigh

The recent BBC series Years and Years (2019), written by Russell T Davies, captivated audiences with its dark yet hopeful imaginings of what could happen in our world over the next 15 years. Taking one family, the Lyons, through from 2019 to 2034, Years and Years explored topics ranging from political dissonance, modern concentration camps, transhumanism, economic collapse, nuclear fallout and artificial intelligence as a means to escape death. I sat down with my good friend and fellow writer, Hayley Sleigh, to discuss our favourite elements of the series, what worked about it for us, and how it engaged with our current political and social climate.

***WARNING: SPOILERS FOR YEARS AND YEARS (2019)***

So, let’s get this started and jump straight into some of the political aspects of the show.

Hayley: The BBC – do you think it’s a different show than it would’ve been if it’d been made and broadcast by a different network, eg Netflix or Channel 4? I wonder whether the BBC have been restrained at all by having to be politically impartial, in a way that other broadcasters might not. There is relatively little mention of contemporary British politicians, or criticism of British political parties.

Lizzie: I think it’s interesting that you bring up the political parties because you’re right – I think they’re only mentioned when the family goes to vote. I feel there are definite allusions to certain real-life figures – a comment about Viv Rook being a millionaire even though she pretends to be like the working to middle class has a general “Nigel Farage” air about it. Equally, I feel the comment made by Anne Reid’s character Muriel (also referred to hereafter as Gran) in the final episode, ‘[b]eware the jokesters, the tricksters, and the clowns. They will laugh us into Hell’, must have been intended to poke at Boris Johnson. But you’re right in that there are very few direct allusions. Maybe on Netflix or Channel 4 they might have taken a direct jab, but I don’t mind that they didn’t. To me it feels more about the idea that these same archetypes are appearing, or that as we enter into a technological age with so much new information, these are the ways in which politicians will seek to grab our attention; this is what we need to be aware of, this is what we need to be vigilant about. We ourselves can draw comparisons to current politicians, but I like that it also extends beyond that. It’s not saying ‘this is about Nigel Farage’ but rather ‘this is about this type of person – watch out for them’. That can be Farage, but it can also be someone other than him, before or after him. I feel like it wants us to be critical of recurring traits, and not just assume that when one politician fails or one steps down, that the problem suddenly disappears, if that makes sense.

Vivian Rook portrayed by Emma Thompson | Image source

Hayley: Yes it makes sense, I agree. I think they could’ve made an equally good show with another broadcaster, directly criticising our current parties and politicians, but they worked brilliantly with the constraints that they must have had. I love that they gave us so much space to fill in the blanks. For example, with Viv it’s hard to pin down what she actually believes. Is she a white supremacist? By making the connection to Farage and Trump, we might assume that she is without it ever being explicit.

Lizzie: I liked that as well because it feels like we’re always having to pin down the beliefs of real politicians. Viv had that sort of empty rhetoric that has become all-too-familiar, the kind that leaves you screaming ‘what does that even mean?’ and the answer is nothing, it just sounds like it might mean something, and that might be something good if you’re lucky. We can imagine she might be a white supremacist as you say, but just like Trump and Farage those notions that are potentially there are hidden under a lot of contradictory statements.

Hayley: Was there anything you didn’t love about the series, anything you would change?

Lizzie: I do feel the series sometimes teetered into the unbelievable, but at the same time that made sense. When we think of where we are now in society, we do have these realities that years ago would have seemed ridiculous. I mean, I think very few people expected a reality TV star and businessman to become the President of the United States, except for the novelist J. G. Ballard, who seemed to understand that possibility as far back as the 1980s. So in a way I didn’t mind that it occasionally wanted me to buy into Snapchat filter masks and vaguely cheesy home sex robots, or a politician just point blank saying that she ‘[didn’t] give a fuck’ and then that sparking the name of her political party (The Four Star Party, derived from the four stars used to censor the word ‘fuck’), because honestly, with the amount of ridiculous things we experience on a week to week basis now, who am I to say these things couldn’t actually happen? That’s a bit of a bleak thought. It also leaned slightly towards whimsy at the end, I think with Rosie phoning her gran to tell her she was inspired to take action before breaking down the gates with the van, that felt a little like a Russell T. Davies Doctor Who moment where we were meant to feel safe and punch the air, like, ‘yes, they’re on it! They’re going to save the day!’ when in reality political struggles are rarely overcome in such a way. That was possibly a little too neat, but it is television after all.

Hayley: The personal home-cleaner/sex robot, live face filter and Four Star Party all feel completely plausible for the world we live in!

Lydia West as Bethany Bisme-Lyons wearing a live face filter | Image sourced from episode on BBC iPlayer

Lizzie: Oh sex robots 100% feel possible, I just don’t know about the level of whimsy that was attached to them. But then I’ve never been presented with a sex robot, so I don’t know how I or anyone else would truly react to them. The Four Star party itself feels plausible, I just didn’t know about how it derived its name, whether that would really be something that would happen, maybe it would, maybe I’m trying to cling onto a shred of optimism. The live face filter probably is quite realistic actually, just maybe not for where it was placed in the timeline which was roughly, what, 2022? Mind you, get back to me in three years and see how I feel about it then and if we have them or not.

Hayley: ‘Signor, set me a reminder for 2022 to ask Lizzie how she feels about the new sex robots and live face filters we’re all using.’

Lizzie: Haha, amazing.

Signor, an artificial intelligence device similar to an Alexa | Images sourced from episodes on BBC iPlayer

Let’s think about the writing and the structure of the show.

Hayley: There were quite a number of loose ends and abandoned plot lines – Edith threatening Jonjo, Bethany’s friend’s eye, Dan’s ex inadvertently causing death – but I actually thought that added to the show’s compelling realism. I love programmes where all the parts slot together perfectly, but life is messy and random. Problems stay unsolved, villains don’t always get caught out.

Lizzie: I think Edith threatening Jonjo was just meant to be comedic, I don’t think it was meant to go further than that one scene. I’d forgotten about Dan’s ex inadvertently causing Dan’s death, but like you I didn’t mind that because that does feel like one of those awful and messy things that would be too uncomfortable or perplexing to really deal with. Maybe this is why some of the things in the final episode hit me the wrong way like Rosie phoning her gran, it was all a little too neat for me, even though it was nice as a viewer to experience something uplifting. Quite a lot had been left open previously, and then the final episode wanted to wrap up a few things like Viv Rook’s career, Edith’s death (complete with a monologue that could rival the Ninth Doctor), and give us a little bit of hope. It did feel oddly neat for the show. That said, I loved the final few seconds, where you can just hear Edith’s voice syncing over Signor’s, and you’re not sure if it really was the right choice to have her memory committed to water molecules and somehow converted into artificial intelligence, nor are you allowed to know if it was the right choice. That felt more like what I liked about the show: after it had wrapped up all these little bits and pieces, there were still these new and emotionally raw fears to confront.

Hayley: I liked Rosie’s call with Gran, but maybe more than anything because it legitimised Gran’s epic rant into something more than author-avatar Twitter and BAFTA bait (excellent though it was!).

Lizzie: It was 100% BAFTA bait, but Anne Reid delivered it so fantastically I almost don’t mind. Also, she’s right. It’s strange to have these kind of truths wrapped up in a monologue. We can feel critical about it because rarely do we go off on a rant of such epic proportions in the everyday, so it feels out of the ordinary. But she’s right, and sometimes art and television in particular can give us these moments where we can just write what has to be said. So in a way I don’t mind that monologue too much, though I hold the same slightly cynical views of it you expressed.

Jessica Hynes as Edith | Image sourced from episode on BBC iPlayer

Circling back to Edith’s death, what do we think about using A.I. as a way to extend consciousness beyond death?

Hayley: I hadn’t really thought much about the implications of Edith’s possible immortality. Yikes. Like watching 40-odd years of planetary destruction hasn’t traumatised her enough.

Lizzie: Immortality is such a strange concept morally in just about anything. You have the question of is it really Edith? What makes a person, and can we still be that person without mortal constraints? Do we become more than human when we break free of those constraints? Do we lose something? Do we lose more than we gain? What is it like to have a person you knew physically, could hug, could kiss, could laugh with, could watch the expressions on their face, become only a voice? These were all the things I was thinking about, and something I think the show wanted us to think about after Edith’s monologue as well honestly. So I didn’t really feel relieved when there was the flicker of her voice at the end there. It was more ‘what’s really happened here, what have they done?’

Hayley: Did the ending seem supernatural to you?

Lizzie: I wouldn’t say supernatural, no. I mean, I’m not sure how our memories are meant to be transferred onto water molecules or anything. Science fiction usually predicts a future within some sense of reason – maybe I’m just not in the know enough to understand why this would make sense but I didn’t get it. Honestly, I felt they just wanted the visual of the water droplets. It called to mind Roy Batty’s ‘Tears in Rain’ monologue from Blade Runner (1982), that whole idea that our memories and moments are lost like tears in rain, only here they’re not lost – water droplets are the very thing that sustain our memories, so it was a sort of nice little subversion of that. And any possible allusion to that particular monologue is fine by me. But in terms of actually imprinting memories onto water, I was a little lost, but just went with it because at that point why not?

Hayley: Perhaps it didn’t fully get my cogs whirring because the idea of sentient copies of a person’s mind and/or memories living on through technology has been done about a dozen different ways on Black Mirror at this point. Edith’s situation did feel different to the ‘cookies’ on Black Mirror though. It really seemed that they were suggesting that it was really Edith who would be flying through the airwaves, not a computer-generated replica of her mind based upon her downloaded memories.

Lizzie: I haven’t seen enough Black Mirror to know what the ‘cookies’ are – can you explain it to me please? I agree though I always felt it was Edith and not a copy, but it didn’t take away my feeling of is it Edith in the sense of is it Edith the human? I feel like so much of humanity’s experiences are grounded in the physical that to lose all of that brings into question what our existence without it would be. Is she still Edith the human, or Edith the A.I. now, or both? An A.I. informed by human experiences, which no prior A.I. would have been able to have. It’s a new form of existence entirely, with new meaning and new pitfalls. Maybe I was meant to feel really comforted by the ending but I didn’t.

Hayley: In Black Mirror they have done several different variations on the same idea, but basically it’s where a digital copy is made of someone’s mind. Sometimes they are used for torture. One commonality is that these digital copies believe they are real people.

Lizzie: Ah ok, that makes sense, thank you.

In the middle: Lydia West as Bethany Bisme-Lyons explaining her new ‘interaction nodes’ implanted into her fingers. Left, Rory Kinnear as Stephen Lyons; right, T’Nia Miller as Celeste Bisme-Lyons | Image sourced from episode on BBC iPlayer

What do we think about the exploration of transhumanism, in particular Bethany’s journey and having more and more digital elements added to her body?

Hayley: I really don’t understand how Bethany getting the internet installed into her brain meant she could spy on anyone at any time. But why not?

Lizzie: I don’t know how Bethany didn’t go insane frankly, dealing with all that information, but maybe her being so connected to the internet meant she had stronger capabilities for information processing. I don’t know how she could spy on anyone at any time either, I suppose because the plot needed her to is the cynical answer. Maybe she’s just an exceptionally good hacker.

Hayley: I think it might have been a condition of her getting the procedure – we’ll give you all this amazing hardware for your brain that you desperately want, but you have to use it to spy on people for us. She is working for a totalitarian state after all.

Lizzie: Oh that’s a point, I’d never thought of it like that. That’s really interesting actually. Especially as she did end up using it to spy on government connected corporations.

Hayley: And boy, did that backfire for them.

Lizzie: Oh boy did it. Her managing to spy on some of their most secret programmes and the movement of people into concentration camps really did backfire on them.

Top row from left to right: Maxim Baldry as Viktor Goraya, Jade Alleyne as Ruby Bisme-Lyons. Bottom row from left to right: T’Nia Miller as Celeste Bisme-Lyons, Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Fran Baxter, Rory Kinnear as Stephen Lyons, and Anne Reid as Muriel Deacon | Image source

Quickly, what were some of our favourite moments?

Hayley: Gran telling Victor that his parents are disgusting for what they did to him [outing him as a homosexual in Ukraine where his sexuality is criminalised], and that he’s ‘beautiful in the eyes of Christ and in the eyes of myself’. The MP getting decapitated by a drone on live TV. Gran telling the family that Celeste is in her will and giving her that little kiss on the head. Gran telling Ralph he looks sexy in his dungarees. So many Gran moments. Alcosynth. Family alcosynth rave with a Chumbawumba soundtrack I should say.

Lizzie: I forgot the Chumbawumba, that was great! I think some favourite points for me would have to be the relationships between Edith and Lincoln and Edith and Bethany. I thought the growth of Bethany and Lincoln was handled really well – Bethany not only coming of age but growing into her most comfortable self, and Lincoln’s acts of gender non-conformity, how they were just in the background in a way – still of note, but accepted, not elaborated upon too much or too heavily labelled. That was really refreshing. Can I include basically all of Celeste’s fashion choices as well as the amazing relationship between her and Gran? Celeste in general really became such a phenomenal character, her personal strength and sense of self, especially when faced with such adversity, was so powerful. Also the sequence with Viktor and Danny crossing the channel was one of the most compelling and hard-hitting moments of TV I’ve seen in a long time. I think showing the horrors of migration, particularly on the BBC, was really bold, and so is kind of a favourite moment of mine even if it was gut wrenching to watch.

Promotional image for Years and Years (2019) | Image source

Finally, would we like a continuation of the series or a spin-off show going forward?

Hayley: For me I wouldn’t want this particular version of the show to continue; the ending felt ambiguous yet complete. I also think the further they move into the future, the more they stray from the ‘near future’ premise which is key to making Years and Years what it is. What I would love to see is an international spin-off: the events of Years and Years from the perspective of a family in another country. Maybe in the US, living through a second term with Trump, a Mike Pence presidency and the abortion ban; Germany after the death of Angela Merkel; Spain descending into chaos under a far-left, Fascist government.

Lizzie: I agree, I also wouldn’t want this particular version of the show to continue, as you’re absolutely right, that ‘near future’ aspect is so key to Years and Years‘ selling point and its relevance to current times, as well as the socio-political horror of it all. There’s also the pragmatist in me that knows ageing these characters further would be difficult without recasting the actors, and then story wise there might be the basic family beats such as Muriel maybe passing away (and I think losing the powerhouse that is Anne Reid would be a huge mistake), Viktor moving on after Daniel, etc, that might just be too predictable. You know already I love that ending moment with Edith’s voice just flickering in, and I think leaving the Lyons on the precipice of a new family dynamic, a new age of technological and biological concerns, is the perfect place to say goodbye to them as viewers. I like your idea of an international spin-off, the US, Germany, and Spain all sound like places that would be interesting to explore. The US might work best with Years and Years‘ particular brand of political critique, especially with the rise of ICE and the direction the Republican party is currently taking. Some of those beats may of course be similar to the ones in the current Years and Years, particularly to do with immigration, but they are still necessary beats that should and must be explored. If the argument that art is necessary to disseminate society is ingrained within Years and Years‘ sheer existence, which it definitely seems to be, I can imagine it tackling that political climate as well, especially now, should they make more series going forward.

Years and Years was first broadcast on BBC One in the United Kingdom, BBC First in Belgium and The Netherlands, Canal+ in France, and HBO in the United States of America, Mexico, Poland and Spain.

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