Russell T Davies: ‘I wish my mum had lived to see me making Doctor Who’

Queer as Folk creator, Doctor Who regenerator: This week Jane Graham takes a walk down memory lane with Russell T Davies ahead of his new BBC drama Years and Years

My main preoccupations at 16 were Doctor Who, and thinking about being gay… Feeling a bit out of it. I have this powerful recollection of being in the school yard, and not being part of any gang, and I think that’s a gay thing, I really do. I think it explains why so many gay people go nuts in their twenties and thirties.

Because when everyone else is snogging at 14, 15, 16, running around expressing their salty horniness, gay kids are lying and keeping quiet. That’s still true now, there are still lots of gay teenagers just sitting back watching.

I’d like to go back to that time and say, hello tall, 6ft 6 Russell – don’t worry about being on the outside. Be that watcher, have your own rhythm, it’ll take you somewhere. It’s not sad, you’re not neglected or banished, your mind is busily thinking. I think that’s what made me a writer.

I was observing people all the time, and I think I got very good at analysing and understanding human nature. I continued being like that in my twenties. I’d go to Canal Street in Manchester on my own and just stand at the railing and watch. And after 10 years of doing that I wrote Queer as Folk.

My parents both taught classics, so the house was full of books about gods and legends and myths. I loved all that stuff. Then 30 years later I find myself writing for Doctor Who! Which is essentially good versus evil, love and revenge, epic stuff. As well as all the individual personal stuff – from people who think they can fly to parents who are missing their children. Just like the Classics. I also loved Asterix. If I got the chance to write a modern-day version of Asterix I’d do it at the drop of a hat.

I wasn’t too bothered about hating school because I belonged to the most phenomenal youth theatre. For me, my teenage years were all about that youth theatre. All the friends I made, they’re still my friends to this day. The man who ran it, Godfrey Evans, he kind of made me who I am. He got me writing, he got me acting, he got me to express myself. It was clear to me by 16 that I was gay. And with that came the instinct that I should be quiet about it. That’s why I loved my youth theatre so much. It was actually a gay space. A lot of us were, by coincidence, gay. That’s what theatre does, it draws together like-minded souls. We were camp as Christmas – oh my God we had a laugh. But it was wonderful to be free to be like that.

Good lord, if I could have told my 16-year-old self, you will be in charge of Doctor Who one day! And you will be so happy. Could I ever have dreamed that the thing I most wanted to do, I could actually do one day? I’m incredibly lucky. Not many people get to have that feeling in their lifetime. I’m on a short list there. What did I love so much about it? I think, marvellously, if you’re gay, if you’re being quiet about it, if you’re an outsider, there’s a comforting sexlessness about Doctor Who. I didn’t like it when people kissed on TV. When I was making it everyone put their heart into it.

David [Tennant], Billie [Piper], Freema [Agyeman], Catherine [Tate]. You know all these kids are watching and really caring and you feel a real responsibility to them. If I could give myself one piece of advice about that period of my life, I’d say take more time to enjoy it. I’m such a worrier, I’d finish one episode and start worrying about the next one.

The thing that would surprise the teenage Russell was how openly gay he could be one day. That’s why every interview I do, I mention being gay. It’s such an important thing to see you can be an open, happy, confident gay man. It’s hard to get across to straight people how massively, fundamentally straight our culture is. Pretty much every main character in every story has been straight. We can look back and add a queer slant in hindsight, but from The Bible on, every lead character for centuries and centuries has been straight.

All our history, all of Jane Austen and Shakespeare and the Brontës, straight, straight, straight. I’d love to go back and show teenage Russell Queer as Folk. He’d never believe such a thing would be allowed on screen, never mind that I would write it! I think young Russell would have a great time watching that, but let’s not go into too many details…

1979

The year Russell
turns 16

• Iran becomes an Islamic republic

• Pink Floyd release concept album The Wall

Question Time airs for the first time on BBC One

I wish my mum had lived to see me making Doctor Who. She loved it too. She would have been thrilled. Queer as Folk was quite difficult for them in the sense that a lot of people, especially of their age, just saw it as porn. The day it was transmitted was my mum’s 70th birthday and some people didn’t come to her party because I was going to be there. Not because they hated me, but they were embarrassed. You’re talking about Welsh people in their seventies and they maybe weren’t very well versed in issues like that and didn’t particularly want to be. But the most marvellous thing was, my mother didn’t care. My parents loved me and supported me. Maybe they wished there wasn’t nakedness and gay sex on screen, but they never ever said that to me. They just said they loved me no matter what. My dad was gutted when I stepped down from Doctor Who, he said, “You’re yesterday’s man now”. Cheeky thing.

I’m not a party person. I’d rather die than go to a party. Actually, I was at a party recently in Cannes, but I went to bed early, I couldn’t bear it. The noise, the heat. People always assume I love all that, they nudge me in a kind of ‘I bet you were out drinking hard last night’ way. I never go out drinking, I haven’t been drunk for years. I just sound like it. I’m big and loud and opinionated. But I like to work. I’m a very hard worker.

Queer As Folk Scriptwriter Russell T Davies And Producer Nicola Shindler Pictured In Canal Street Manchester.
1999, with Queer as Folk producer Nicola Shindler. Image: Denis Jones/Evening Standard/REX/Shutterstock

My husband Andrew [Smith] died very recently so I’m still at the stage where that’s very strange and alien. A widow told me, the six-months mark is hard. And I don’t know why that is, but it’s true. There’s a moment when you just think, oh, he’s not coming back. He’s definitely not coming back. That’s it. I’m still in the middle of that. But it would be nice to go back to the younger me and tell him he’ll find someone he loves and he’ll be with him for 20 years. That’s the glorious part. It just shows, magical things can happen at any time.

If I could get in the TARDIS and go back and watch one moment in my life I’d go back to 1998, the 12th of April, 1.50am. I’d like to stand in that nightclub in Manchester and just watch myself meeting Andrew for the first time. The moment I saw him I just thought, wow, I fancy him! I thought he was so handsome. We just locked eyes and I couldn’t believe he was looking at me. And that moment changed my life. Brilliant.

Russell T Davies’ new drama Years and Years begins on BBC One on May 14 at 9pm