We don’t see many mature gay relationships onscreen. Did you feel an urgency to tell this story? I have been in a relationship now for 16 years, so I have an understanding of how they work. I can write the mechanics, the details, the nonsense and the joy that couples go through. But it didn’t feel like a campaign. It felt natural. And it felt original. Every writer should head into those empty prairies where no one else is writing. The straight middle-aged man rules the world of television – and the whole world. So I am very happy to put middle-aged gay couples onto the screen. The research for this series is decades of talking to gay men. Every conversation, my ears are open. It takes decades to build a character like Henry.
Your own relationship has been tested a lot in recent years… Yes, I’ve made no secret of saying that my boyfriend has been very ill since the summer of 2011 when he was diagnosed with a grade four brain tumour. And that is the big test. It sorts out the men from the boys in your own head, it sorts out your own priorities.
I am well aware that no matter how bad it is, having money literally helps
You had to come back from the US, cancel plans for Cucumber to be a big-budget US series because of Andrew’s illness – this was a massive life change. But I have to say I have been very lucky. Because I am very well aware, from sitting in those cancer hospitals – actually, they are more like towns, it isn’t sitting in a waiting room, it is a way of life where half of the population end up – you sit in these spaces, and half of the worry is money. How are you going to pay for your house, the kids, the electricity, food? It is terrifying. There are signs pointing towards the X-ray department, the MRI scanner and to the social services offices where they help with benefits you are entitled to because they know what a dreadful terror that is. So I have been terribly lucky throughout this whole process. Let’s face it, television is very nicely paid. I have always saved like the devil ready for bad news and along came the bad news. So I am well aware that no matter how bad it is, having money literally helps.
Did you surprise yourself with the way you coped? I have often wondered how I would react in an emergency. If someone pulled a gun out, I know full well how absolutely dreadful I would be. I would be pushing you in front of me. “Shoot him!” But with a slow-burning emergency like this, I did surprise myself. You see the strength of all these couples and the mums looking after their children. The role of carer has been comparatively light for me but actually I am exhausted. That is the truth of it. You realise how absolutely exhausting caring is. If that is how I find it, given my lucky circumstances, then to imagine how it is for people at the hard end is terrifying and mortifying and humbling. It makes you astonished for the good there is in the world, in the people who do that. My God it does.
We’re back to finding the joy in people, celebrating people – this attitude jumps out of your writing. I hope so. Because the opposite is very easy. Frankly, the planet is going to burn and we are all going to die. That is absolutely a fact. So the point of fiction and television and being social creatures is to have a good time. Having a laugh is a very profound thing between people and should be celebrated. That is why you write something different, you find the hope. Thank you for saying that because that is what I try to do. It is absolutely deliberate. I sit at this desk writing a scene that could go into simple darkness and I haul it out.
Your next project is The Boys, focusing on Aids hitting the UK in the 1980s. I’m already immersed. Since that was announced, my inbox has been bursting. I’m only now realising the anger out there. Fucking hell, the anger. The fury over what happened. I am having a word with myself because it is a great place to write from but you can’t just make a drama angry. It has to be better than angry, otherwise it is just a polemic. It has got to be wiser. Setting it in Britain is breaking new ground. I want to see British people going through it, I want to see the NHS going through it. They didn’t do enough. Thatcher didn’t do enough. No one did. I am so full of ideas bristling and burning away.