Years and Years review, episode 5: Emma Thompson makes for a chillingly evil British prime minister
In this penultimate episode, Britain in 2028, is a grim, dangerous and, frankly, genocidal place
What might Britain and the world be like in about a decade’s time? According to Years and Years (BBC1), Russell T Davies’s thoughtful drama about the near future, it will be a grim, dangerous and, frankly, genocidal place. We’ve arrived at 2028, and because of climate change, Britain is suffering 60 days and nights of rain and floods. This, plus extensive coastal erosion, prompts mass evacuations and internal migrations, and the government passes emergency laws to force homeowners to take in displaced strangers. This is on top of a never-ending flow of refugees from upheavals and revolutions in Europe, and civil war in Ukraine.
Council estates become involuntary “gated” communities – to keep the residents penned in, rather than people locked out; there are energy shortages and blackouts; cyber-attacks and a “digital crash” to add to the global banking crash. The instability of the internet grows so severe that the country has to go back to paper – a strange, comical phenomenon to the kids of tomorrow’s world. The adolescents of the late 2020s prefer to have the government implant a computer wafer into their brains, leaving them half-human, half-iPad, and 100 per cent the property of His Majesty’s Government.
Bad as all that is, there are dark rumours about “the disappeared” - homeless people who go off to be resettled somewhere, never to be seen again…perhaps many thousands of them.
In this penultimate episode, events start to move more quickly, which makes for a very welcome change in pace. Now it is more like a political thriller, moving on from an often somewhat tortuous story of inner emotions.
The fortunes of the extended Lyons family finally start to mesh with Britain’s new prime minister – Vivienne “Viv” Rook (Emma Thompson), businesswoman turned politician and creator of her very own populist movement, the Four Star Party, so-called because she makes great play about using the kind of earthy language “ordinary people” use in the pub.
Rook wins power in a general election by stirring up a sort of dumbass, misguided sub-Churchillian patriotism: “Britain stands alone in the world. To the west, America is a lone wolf. To the east, Europe is in flames, and beyond that China is rising. In standing alone this country has never been more magnificent.”
Edith Lyons (Jessica Hynes), environmental activist and confused anti-democrat, takes it upon herself to find out where “the disappeared” are actually going, and we witness her raiding old-fashioned official filing cabinets with paper files about the secret “erstwhile” project. Still, she cannot yet grasp the bigger picture. Her brother Stephen (Rory Kinnear), however, a busted banker now grubbing a living in an outsourcing company, does stumble upon the truth. He is bag carrying for his CEO at an informal auction at Chequers for lucrative government contracts, when randomly, he comes face-to-face with Rook. With admirable self-possession he mentions to the PM that she had once met his sister – “Was I nice? Did she vote for me?” He then babbles a bit about his late brother Daniel (Russell Tovey), who drowns in the attempt to smuggle his Ukrainian refugee boyfriend across the English Channel. To this she was equally brusque – “Was he brave or an idiot?” Rook then, to this complete stranger, adds, wistfully: “If I could, I’d go. Far away from all this, just head for the horizon. Gone. Imagine if I did…They’d kill me. They’d have me killed”.
And with that intriguing thought our future prime minister, portrayed as an odd cross between Theresa May and Victoria Wood, slips away. Later we find her in informal discussions telling the companies that manage the camps not to call them camps, but rather “facilities” for housing the “erstwhiles” – that being the internal euphemism/code for the disappeared.
Stephen witnesses all this, and is shaken by it, but his overwhelming motivation now is less humanitarian – but to visit revenge upon Viktor Goraya (Maxim Baldry), the Ukrainian boy he holds personally responsible for the tragic death of Daniel. Stephen visits Viktor, who has now been arrested and placed in a detention centre to tell the grieving lad: “It is completely your fault”. He then surreptitiously arranges to transfer Viktor from the centre to an “erstwhile facility”, a concentration camp by another name.
We have an inkling of what happens there. As Rook earlier explains to her audience of profit-seeking infrastructure providers, the concentration camp was invented by the British in the Boer War, and in her spin, has since “become misunderstood”: “They simply let nature take its course. The camps were crowded, pestilent, and rife with disease. On the one hand that was regrettable. On the other hand, fitting. Because a natural selection process took place, and the population of the camps controlled itself. You might call it neglect, you might call it efficient”.
Rook is blonde, glamorous, superficially warm, straight talking with a soft northern accent and homely manner, This chillingly evil British PM is convincingly played by Thompson. We are still intrigued, however, about who she thinks might kill her if she doesn't do what they want. I reckon it’s no conspiracy – it’s the voters she’s terrified of. That’s democracy for you.