by Tom George Hammond
When did the world stop being quite so nice? Well, according to Muriel Lyons, matriarch of the Lyons family, it was the year 2000; “nice little world. Well done the West. We’ve made it. We’ve Survived”. The Lyons family, the central protagonists of Russell T Davies’ Years and Years, convene for a lunch at Muriel’s relic of a house, over ten thousand days after the millennium and over ten thousand days into a half-fictional apocalypse. ‘Apocalypse’ is here defined in its more abstract sense, not as a definitive ending to everything, but of a smaller moment or cesura that causes the world to reel or to splinter as a result. At that lunch, Muriel reflects on where that apocalypse began; “in the supermarkets, where they replaced all those women on the till with automated checkouts”. In other words, a casual societal preference for efficiency gradually displaced an entire workforce, drawing open class divides and political divisions until a moment of collapse. It’s a compelling if muddled thesis, spoken in the concluding episode of a series that began as a meditation on the banalities of such a collapse, and ended with a damp reversal of fortune where the collapse was suddenly seen off by communal goodwill.
The concept of Years and Years tied it to a small genre of apocalyptic fiction, observed by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism, where there is; “no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn’t end with a bang, it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart”. The first episode of Years and Years features a prologue, set in May of 2019, before it leaps ahead five years to 2024. From there it follows the Lyons as they variously struggle with a splintering and fizzling world, where everything from nuclear and financial disaster occurs and one catastrophe seems to pile onto another. In this melee of destruction, the Lyons family just continue, like cockroaches, as they go to work and have parties and roll their eyes and generally get on with things. It might have been tempting to name the series; A Very British Apocalypse, or some other quaint title to illustrate the oddly chirpy nature of such a dystopic project.
When the project was at its most successful, it was when it was at its most thrillingly, throbbingly banal. The plight of Stephen Lyons, captured by the very precise Rory Kinnear, manifested this banality. Stephen is the eldest sibling, and in 2019 he is a happily married financial advisor. By 2026, he works for a courier service on a zero-hour contract, having lost his job, his money and his house in a financial crisis. The inclusion of such a courier service is as crucial an image of apocalypse as a financial crisis or a nuclear attack. It reminds one of an employment force like Amazon, where warehouse workers (or fulfilment centre workers) take twelve hour shifts on very low wages, constantly tracked by monitoring technology that proctors rates of productivity on a brutal algorithm. The terrible stories of work in these fulfilment centres have been widely reported for some time now, most recently in the accounts of the death of Billie Foister, a warehouse worker who collapsed on shift due to a heart attack and is said to have been left on the ground for over twenty minutes before receiving any medical attention. This tragedy was a result of a supreme corporation’s merciless Fordist pursuit of efficiency, and a society in which the efficiency of said corporation is valued over the individual lives of the corporation’s employees. As Muriel Lyons says in her damning speech; “we buy into that system for life”. It is near impossible to turn a blind eye to the inner workings of Amazon, but we do it anyway. And Stephen Lyons, after falling the employment ladder, is left with the terrible safety net of a low-paid unsecure position at a company that does not care about his physical or mental health, and he does this because it is the only way for him to gain capital, and that is the only way that he can survive.
So Years and Years, in the narrative of Stephen Lyons, was that rarest thing; an apocalyptic drama with working traffic lights. Mark Fisher surmised that in a capitalist apocalypse; “internment camps and franchise coffee-bars [can] co-exist”. We see that meeting of the atrocious and the banal when the character of Vivienne Rook dances to “Tragedy” with Lee Latchford-Evans, formerly of Steps fame. Rook, brought to life by a vivacious Emma Thompson, serves as the antagonist to Years and Years, and frames each episode as a political agent of chaos who nudges Britain closer to the brink. She is also the leader of the fictional “Four Star Party”, a new anarchic faction who have their own TV network, on which Latchford-Evans appears with Rook on the day of a 2026 General Election. The image of Rook and Latchford-Evans dancing plays in the same sordid hall as Donald Trump dancing to “Hotline Bling” on Saturday Night Live or Sean Spicer jiving on Dancing with the Stars. Pop-culture absorbs everything and even the bleakest characters of our current world stand the chance of being embraced by a cosy cultural bosom. Britain’s own Ann Widdecombe remade herself on Strictly Come Dancing as a creaky pantomime aunt, in spite of her history of voting against LGBT rights, her opposition to the 2008 Climate Change Act, and her support of fox hunting and the re-introduction of the death penalty. Over almost a decade, she accrued a public goodwill from appearing to be able to laugh at herself on reality television, and then, in April of 2019, she joined up with the Brexit Party and is now an MEP. Whenever a controversial political figure makes the leap into television, there is a small debate as to who is being played. Widdecombe could not samba and at first it felt like the joke was on her. Likewise, when Sean Spicer appeared at the 2017 Emmy’s, it seemed like the crowd were laughing at him, and perhaps they will still be laughing at him as he claims a six-figure salary for the joke. Given that Trump entered politics from reality television, he would stand to make an absolute killing for his eventual return. Who, after all, could resist watching the man who once threatened nuclear catastrophe now making a disaster out of the quickstep?
However adept Emma Thompson was in the role of Vivienne Rook, there was something toothless about her characterisation. As a TV personality and businesswoman, she was sort of Trumpian, but also, with her cocksure Northernness, resembled a slightly punchier Nadine Dorries. Rook’s rise to power is measured in inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric and fierce rejections of the mainstream media. Again, at her most basic she seemed to be a British Trump figure, but she also argues for a national IQ test, where the lowest scoring would lose their right to vote. It was that sort of addition to Rook’s portfolio of mad ideas that seemed to muddy her platform; no Trumpian politician would pursue such an elitist policy. She is ostensibly a right-wing figure, but Davies swerves these partisan instincts by having Rook launch the “Four Star Party”. Perhaps this was to mirror Rook to Marine Le Pen or some other third-party politician. It also evades the Fukuyama-esque struggle that is currently imposed on British and American politics. Even if Fukuyama’s “end of history” theory read as naïve or at least premature, it reflected a consensus at what Mark Fisher dubbed a “cultural unconscious”. The idea that all other economic ideologies have been exhausted or beaten by history has now entrapped Britain and the U.S. in a stagnant two-party system which functions best when the two parties most resemble each other. Currently the four major parties of Britain and America are split, even perhaps irreconcilably, but the Republicans and the Conservatives can move further towards populist right-wing ideology and not dispense of their core base because the political unknown is more frightening than an unpredictable familiarity. Viv Rook’s camp populism is portrayed as an anarchic minor force that just happens to take control, when currently in Britain the Conservative Party are performing a louche burlesque to attract the Brexit Party voters. There is a consensus in the liberal media that the wing of the Conservative Party that wants a no deal Brexit is content to wreck the economy for personal gain, a conclusion that should cause anyone in the centre to flee to the Left as swiftly as possible. However such an exodus would smack, to some, of a return to the seventies, and of a Cold War Britain were Capitalism was not the last word in governance. Since then, and since Thatcherism and Blair’s “third way”, whole generations have grown very comfortable with a liberal democratic system governed by Capitalism, and will quite possibly side with a Johnson-led Conservative Party over a Corbyn-led Labour Party, even if they view the Tories as dastardly and corrupt, because with the former they at least know what they stand to lose.
As of Fukuyama’s theory, and how it ties into Muriel’s outburst, it is somewhat neglected that Fukuyama did not envision the liberal democratic “end of history” as a genial future but rather as another apocalypse built on; “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands”. I rather suspect that Fukuyama initially tacked this conclusion onto his theory to counter any accusation of triumphalism. It’s like Harry Lime, in The Third Man, contending that Switzerland was so historically dull that it only created the cuckoo clock. The “nice little world” that Muriel envisaged at the turn of the century was a fallacy, constructed from a gulf of economic security and political stagnancy. There is a broad truth that millennials are now encouraged to invest in property and stock even with the very real scientific forecast that the planet is dying, and also the awareness that the British and American Right derive much of their support from the hugely involved over-sixties demographic. The inertia that Fukuyama foresaw exists, even if political security did not keep with it. Muriel Lyons saw a “nice little world” where millennials were only interested in what they owned and the shape of the financial market and the ease in which they received products and information. If that vision came true for my generation, it came with the price tag of also needing to figure out whether we should have children.
Until the volta of the final paragraph, Fukuyama wrote the guidelines of a “nice world” where we moved on from regressive ideological battles and settled into a gentler way of cohabiting the planet. It is that need for the world to seem comfortable, even when it is clearly anything but, that causes something like the Ellen DeGeneres scandal; she claimed her friendship with George W. Bush exists because of bipartisan kindness, but an ideological difference is not the same as a moral deficiency, and a liberal democracy cannot remain a cosy project if an administration can go to war on non-existent intel and claim the lives of 200,000 Iraqi civilians in the process. One is always reluctant to engage in any kind of conspiratorial dialogue, but what is still shocking about the Iraq War is how it is not really a conspiracy at all. There is a frosty academic discussion to consider whether the initial invasion was a sincere mistake, but in any analysis the U.S. is at best portrayed as an empire in the Pax Britannica model; a superpower and a policeman keeping the smaller nations in line. An illustration of the inertia of the time we live in is a quick consideration of how much we casually know about those in power. This is relevant to Years and Years because it ends with Rook being shamed out of office, with footage emerging of migrants in internment camps and housing estates being walled off in isolated zones. The implication of the finale was that knowledge of institutional corruption can save the world, so long as we catch the villains in the act. A reversal of fortune may have felt dramatically necessary, because even the most grimly minded viewers might be reluctant to watch the world slide helplessly into annihilation without any hope of reprieve, but the premise of the reversal was frankly trite. It throngs of the cyclical nature of a Trump scandal, and of how each time there is the hope, from the liberal press, that this new horror might spell the end of the angry orange’s regime. But we know that the President is childish, hateful and unqualified, and we know that Boris Johnson used Europe as a railing for his political ambitions, and we likewise know that Shell and Exon knew of the damage they were causing to the environment in the 1980s but continued wreaking such damage for financial gain, and we know that cherished liberal figures like Obama and Trudeau oversaw/are overseeing rises in oil production during their premierships, and we know that Trudeau has worn blackface multiple times, and we know that Bill Clinton and Donald Trump have ties with Jeffery Epstein, and we know that Epstein did not die in the way we were told he did, and we know so much more, about Facebook, about Amazon, about how the wealthy treat the poor and about how the world faces calamity and how we cannot just solve it buy not buying plastic bags. We know that there is too much toxic plastic in the food we eat. We know that there are internment camps for migrant children in the U.S. We do not need a video to emerge of these things to prove it, it is part of a swallowed knowledge that we carry with us every day because it is probably too much to unthread and we’ve bought too much into the system now anyway.
This may read as gloom for gloom’s sake, but I write it because of that crucial second definition of ‘apocalypse’; we are almost certainly not going to witness the end of everything, but in the first few episodes of Years and Years we were shown how we may now live for the next hundred years; like cockroaches some of us will survive as the world gets smaller, and the weight of the things we lose may sometimes crush us but will mostly be absorbed as an inert grief; how, in other words, can we be expected to rage and wail if, for vast swathes, there is work in the morning.