This interview was first published in Attitude issue 309, June 2019.
Words: Tim Heap
From the out-and-proud Queer as Folk 20 years ago to 2018’s A Very English Scandal, with Doctor Who, Cucumber and others in between, Russell T Davies has asserted himself as one of the UK’s finest modern-day queer creative voices.
Years and Years arrived on the BBC this month, presenting Russell’s vision of what could unfold over the next 15 years, shown through the eyes of a family from Manchester.
The show’s cast includes Emma Thompson, as a firebrand, wannabe politician, Rory Kinnear and Russell Tovey, as well as 23-year-old Maxim Baldry, as gay Ukrainian refugee Viktor, who arrives in Manchester seeking asylum.
Best known in recent years for playing Liam Donovan in Hollyoaks (but you may remember an 11-year-old Maxim in Mr Bean’s Holiday), he admits he felt like an underdog appearing alongside such a stellar cast.
While speaking to him before the show aired, one of his first questions is about how much of the sex scene between him and Russell Tovey made the cut.
Queer as Folk and Cucumber both found a home on the more liberal Channel 4, so apparently there were worries over how the Beeb would receive some of the elements in Years and Years — but he’s happy when I tell him that the illicit, trailer-park tryst has a fair showing.
But then, it wouldn’t be much of a Russell T Davies series without a bit of homosexual thrusting, would it?
Tell us a bit about Viktor.
He’s an asylum seeker whom we first meet arriving at an estate in the north of England, which is basically home to a large group of immigrants who are all seeking asylum in the UK.
In Viktor’s case, he’s there because he was kicked out of his home by his parents for being gay, and he ended up being tortured by the Ukrainian police and authorities.
That just struck a chord... imagine being in that situation, you’re not wanted at home, you’re kicked out, you’re tortured for your sexuality, and you basically have no choice but to leave. It’s happening today in some of these Chechnyan concentration camps, so that’s why it’s such an important story to tell and that’s why it’s so great that Russell T Davies is writing something that can resonate with these kind of world issues.
Viktor’s storyline is closely tied with Russell Tovey’s character, Daniel, isn’t it?
He comes to this estate, then he meets Daniel who’s his housing officer. They strike up a relationship, they keep seeing each other and eventually it blossoms into love.
At the heart of all these crazy world issues, Years and Years is a delicate love story between two people, and that’s what makes it profound on a lot of levels.
It’s a fictional look at Russia’s influence over Ukraine in the next five years, isn’t it?
Exactly, but there’s also a grain of truth with everything that Russell has created. It’s just awful how this is still an issue in Eastern European countries — I’m half Russian, so I know.
There’s still this kind of traditional view of what a man and what a woman should be, and because Viktor isn’t that and doesn’t fit the mould, his parents take it as a personal fuck up, so they kick him out.
How can a family not want to look after their child? He has to leave Ukraine because he’s not wanted in his own country.
The show taps into a lot of big discussions that we’re having in the world right now. How much do you agree with the state of the world that the show presents?
Russell has written a show that’s made for the 21st century, made for our way of thinking. But looking at the world in a pessimistic way is kind of futile.
This programme showcases how love and family can conquer those things. There are such epic themes and such epic emotions, that it’s easy to think we’re all doomed, but at the same time, by coming together, by being a solid family, by loving each other, by being compassionate, by fighting for what is right, we can overcome massive political entertainers and tricksters like those you see in Years and Years.
It’s written so well and it all comes down to this family and how they can change the course of Britain. It’s epic but it’s also delicate, heartwarming and touching.
Did you understand where the show was going from reading the first script?
When we were reading it for the first time, we were like, 'What is happening? This is incredible.' It’s not predictable in any way.
With regards to Viktor and Daniel’s storyline, it is all about human contact and captures the zeitgeist of our time because the world is in complete chaos, politically.
In this story, there are these two people who are fighting to be together, that’s what attracted me as well.
First, Russell T Davies and the team behind it, but also just how touching it was and how with everything going on, it’s just a story of two people desperately in love.
Was it easy to get into the role of Viktor? Did you approach it the same way you would if it had been a straight love story?
Absolutely, it’s just a story about two people wanting to be together and loving each other — and who wouldn’t want to kiss Russell Tovey?
I haven’t seen any of the show yet but there’s a sex scene in the first episode that I hope they managed to get in. I remember they were trying to see if the BBC were OK with that.
You steal Daniel away from his husband, do we feel sorry for him?
I don’t think you ever feel sorry for him. Their relationship gets kind of pointless and stale.
You know, you can just see the cracks. It’s one of those things you don’t like to say, but you observe it and you think it.
And then when Daniel meets Viktor, it’s one of those things; it’s like, 'I’m gonna spend the rest of my life with you.'
What would you do in that situation, would you just stand by people who you don’t really love, or would you find love?
Aside from your romance with Daniel, there are other storylines, aren’t there?
Oh my God, yeah. And that’s the thing: there are so many different storylines and they work well together so symbiotically.
It’s just one family at the end of the day, but fuck me, there’s a lot of shit going on.
How did you get the attention of Russell T Davies to be cast?
I got sent the script and thought, 'OK, I’m half Russian, this is good.'
So, I had a really early meeting with casting directors but I didn’t hear anything back and reckoned they didn’t like me.
Then two months later I got a call out of the blue saying, 'They love you, you’ve got the part.'
That’s never happened before. Usually you go through rounds and rounds of auditions but in this case, I was very fortunate.
You’re half Russian — is the other half British?
Yeah. [Although I was born in Surrey], I grew up in Moscow for the first six years of my life, and my first language was Russian as well.
But I had to play Ukrainian, so I had a dialect coach because I’ve got a few scenes in Ukrainian.
Was it difficult to nail the accent?
Growing up in Moscow, there’d always be Eastern European people on TV with heightened stereotypical accents.
And that really isn’t the case. So, in this role, I really wanted to make my accent a little bit more accessible, and I had this idea of Viktor growing up watching American TV.
So, I mixed a Ukrainian accent with a transatlantic one.
I hope it breaks those stereotypes that I’ve seen and heard, that I always thought weren’t that truthful.
Eastern European people are very funny and heart-warming and I wanted to channel all of that through Viktor.
How does the way that Russia is portrayed in Western media sit with you, as someone who is half Russian?
The media presents Russia as this kind of devil, and there are a lot of fundamental things that are wrong with it.
But on a human level, there are a lot of families that are incredibly compassionate and incredibly understanding.
I’m really proud to call myself half Russian, and I know for a fact that Russian people are so loving and family is the most important thing.
You don’t see that when you’re a British person watching Russia in the media, you’re kind of like, 'Oh my God, what is this scary farmland that doesn’t allow people to live as they want?'
Don’t get me wrong, there are fundamental things that are wrong with Russia, they live in a time that’s standing still, but there are a lot of people who are compassionate, loving, warm and kind.
I know for a fact that my Russian family wouldn’t have treated me as Viktor is, so that’s something that restored my faith in my Russian heritage.
Does it frustrate you that we don’t really see that side of it?
Well, there are bad parts in every country. You can go to a really dodgy part of England and you can see the same kind of thing.
Obviously, it’s different but if you focus on the bad, you find the bad. That’s what brings it back to Years and Years; it’s an optimistic show, and Viktor’s an optimistic person.
He goes through so much shit but he is constantly fuelled with positivity and he’s a warrior.
That kind of attitude from someone whose freedom and liberties have been taken away from him is testament to his mental strength. That’s what’s great about Years and Years: it takes a positive view on a world that’s going to hell.
Is that how you feel, or are you more optimistic about the world’s chances in general?
It’s about how you perceive things. You can see things through rose-tinted glasses, you can adjust your thinking. But also, there are so many things that are wrong.
Years and Years is currently airing on BBC One every Tuesday.