TV

Russell T Davies: "No one did enough about Aids..."

Back with new drama Cucumber, Russell T Davies talks diversity on TV, the Aids epidemic, and caring for his sick partner

Russell T Davies

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.

You have been at the vanguard of telling these stories for 20 years now. And I’m protecting my position. No other fucker is going to get in! No, I can’t wait for all the 21-year-olds to come along and sack me because they are writing such brilliant stuff. At one point last year, Hollyoaks had eight gay characters in it, which is truly radical and it went unsung. But I am in a very lucky position, I do get heard. I am a loudmouth with a lot to say. I’m already thinking about what I will write in 20 years’ time about gay men in their 70s.

At one point last year, Hollyoaks had eight gay characters in it

Cucumber and Banana have diverse casts in terms of age and race, as well as sexuality. Did you have to take proactive steps to make this happen? I was shamed years ago when I went to a screening of Queer as Folk in London before a Pride march. They showed an episode on the big screen and a very brilliant, powerful and wise black gay activist stood up and walked out because it was so white to her. She wasn’t rude but she said there was nothing that reflected her or resonated for her. These things sink in. When Lenny Henry speaks about diversity on screen, I absolutely agree. A lot of people pay lip service but we have utterly acted upon it. The end result is joyous and brilliant and not token. Diversity is absolutely profoundly written into the core of the show.

For the series of E4 spin-offs – Banana – you mentored young gay writers. That whole process is exactly what you have to do in my position – it is paying forward and paying back. Working with Charlie Covell, who has written two episodes of Banana, is a joy. It is an honour to work on her first script and get it transmitted. And since we finished, Bethany Black, who is the trans actor in one episode, has started working her own scripts. She got an agent this morning, her scripts are lovely.

Do those young writers know about Queer as Folk? The young ones talk about it as if it were Cathy Come Home! But that is entirely natural. I’m glad it is remembered. It is joyous to me. But I am more busy talking about what I will write next year and in the future. Onwards…

Cucumber, Thursdays, 9pm on Channel 4

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Rebus star Richard Rankin on TV reboots, defying his late dad's advice and getting his arse out
TV

Rebus star Richard Rankin on TV reboots, defying his late dad's advice and getting his arse out

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith on friendship, TV and saying goodbye to Inside No 9
TV

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith on friendship, TV and saying goodbye to Inside No 9

Doctor Who star Millie Gibson on hope for Ruby Sunday and lessons learned from 'magical' Ncuti Gatwa
TV

Doctor Who star Millie Gibson on hope for Ruby Sunday and lessons learned from 'magical' Ncuti Gatwa

Marge starts a union and fights for workers' rights in powerful new episode of The Simpsons
TV

Marge starts a union and fights for workers' rights in powerful new episode of The Simpsons

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know