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Review: Russell T Davies, Edinburgh TV Festival


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In a 1999 episode of Queer as Folk there is a scene in which Stuart Jones (Aidan Gillen) lets down the younger Nathan Maloney (Charlie Hunnam) with very little tact; Nathan expresses his anger at being rejected by Stuart and demands to know why Stuart doesn’t want to sleep with him again. "I’ve had you," Stuart tells him.

As the writer of that seminal series, Russell T Davies said on 20th August 2019 at the Edinburgh TV Festival, contained within that scene and that line in particular, is a whole world that filled up hours of drama.

The hedonistic and arrogant Stuart, who sleeps with people once before getting bored of them, puncturing the love-sick and naïve (though far from innocent) Nathan’s dreams; relationships, sex, gay life, murky, flawed characters - this scene has so much despite its brevity, and is emblematic of the depths Davies’ writing has explored in a decades-long career as one of television’s finest writers.

Queer As Folk / Image courtesy of Johnston Publishing Ltd

That scene was played at the August event in Edinburgh, which featured Davies in conversation with Boyd Hilton of Heat magazine. Given just how prolific Davies has been over the years there wasn’t enough time to go into everything he had done, but what was explored were some of his most notable dramas, his writing style, and his experiences in the TV industry.

Davies mentioned that he’d always wanted to write for TV and mused on how, if things had turned out differently, he could have been a long-term writer for Coronation Street (I prefer Emmerdale myself). Lucky for us that didn’t work out and we have been blessed with decades of great original drama from him.

Queer as Folk was a landmark TV show, showing homes around the country the hedonism, joy, and heartbreak of characters who spent a great deal of time on Manchester’s Canal Street, the city’s gay centre. Davies offered a story grounded in the complexities of relationships, notably between Stuart and his best friend Vince Tyler (Craig Kelly), who is hopelessly in love with him. This story of unrequited love was based on Davies’ own experience of meeting two men on a night out, one of whom was clearly in love with his handsome friend, who did not return the feeling.

Gay culture has featured in many of Davies’ shows, and he's never been afraid of telling truthful, honest stories. When he resurrected Doctor Who in 2005 he introduced Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), a pansexual hero who would later star in the spin-off series Torchwood. Putting such heroes at the front and centre of popular television, Davies tells truthful stories and explores complex characters: the characters are the beginning, not their sexuality, which comes naturally to the fore without being forced or feeling like an obligation or caricature.

In the Assembly Hall, Davies spoke of the nature of his shows and his writing style. He doesn’t write treatments or plan things out on paper. He simply spends every minute of the day thinking about the story and the characters in his head, allowing ideas to percolate until putting pen to paper, and even then ideas can change and shift (alas, young writers would have to provide point-by-point treatments; Davies’ stature allows him to get away with it; as he said, he’s lucky).

Davies' latest show, Years and Years / Image courtesy of BBC

And, as he also said, many of his shows are unusual in that there isn’t a central event. Queer as Folk and his most recent drama Years and Years (reviewed recently in these pages) focus on people and their experiences, plural. The latter, which tells the story of the Lyons family through the next decade as the world gets madder, Davies had wanted to write for years, and was finally inspired to do so on the night of the election of Donald Trump in 2016 (a stormy night in Swansea, apparently).

These are only a few of Davies’ successes. He has for years been a consummate TV dramatist whose career has been filled with risks and breakthroughs, from British TV’s first major engagement with gay characters in 1999 to his resurrection of a derided old science fiction show. (Davies amusingly spoke of winning the BAFTA for the 2005 series of Doctor Who; the ‘posh’ dramas were all a bit annoyed, and Davies made sure a clip with thousands of Daleks flying through space was played just to irritate them further).

And as one audience member mentioned, Davies did the Marvel Cinematic Universe first; his reign on Doctor Who saw spin-offs tied to the main show, sharing a universe, the characters of whom came together in an Avengers-style climax in the 2008 episode The Stolen Earth. His next project is a drama about the AIDS crisis.

At the signing afterwards, Davies lamented the rise of Netflix and the death of traditional programme viewing - but his career stands as a testament to the enduring power and value of TV drama. Here’s to many more years of tales from one of the country’s finest storytellers.

Russell T Davies spoke at this year's Edinburgh TV Festival, at the Assembly Hall. His new show Years and Years is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.

Lead image courtesy of Edinburgh TV Festival

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