Interview: Russell T Davies on shelving US projects, his partner’s cancer diagnosis and coming home
He’s one of the most talented writers of his generation. He first came to prominence in 1999 when he wrote, produced and became the public face of Queer as Folk. He was later credited with reviving British Saturday night TV drama with his 2005-2010 revival of Dr Who, the success of which enabled him to create the spin off series The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood. In 2008 he was awarded an OBE for services to drama. Laurence Watts meets Russell T Davies.
Russell and I are meeting at a restaurant in Manchester. I’m hoping it’s third time lucky. Twice before we’d agreed to meet only for Russell’s plans to change, forcing him to cancel. The last cancellation has been playing on my mind. We’d been due to meet in Los Angeles, but he’d emailed me from a planned holiday in Britain to say he wasn’t returning to America. His partner, Andrew, needed long-term medical treatment and they wanted to be closer to friends and family. At the time I didn’t want to pry. Now that we meet, I’m wondering whether Russell is OK to talk about it. He is.
“There we were, living in LA and loving it,” he tells me. “I had shows lined up and everything when Andrew started to get these headaches. We wondered if it was the change of city, the water or the fact he wasn’t working. It was getting bad so we decided he’d see a doctor when we came back in August for a three-week holiday. He went to the doctor, who sent him for a scan. When we got the results they told us he had cancer of the brain. They needed to operate straight away. Three days later he was having surgery.”
“That’s where we are now. He’s had thirty consecutive days of radiotherapy and chemotherapy and we’ve got six months of chemotherapy ahead of us. He’s not allowed to drive. The lives we had in LA just sort of closed down overnight. All of my stuff, my computers and clothes were over there. We had to have everything shipped over here in crates. We were lucky we never sold our house in Manchester. Lo and behold we’re now a ten minute drive from Europe’s best cancer hospital.”
Russell is spending his days keeping Andrew company and making sure he’s healthy. This entails copious amounts of daytime television, Coronation Street and daily walks for exercise and fresh air.
“I’ve stopped work,” he says. “I haven’t worked since August. We’re lucky we’ve got enough money in the bank that, if need be, I can take the whole of next year off. I’ve always been a good saver. I’ve always had that mentality that you’ve got to be ready for a rainy day. People keep asking me if I’ve really stopped working. I used to work so hard you see, they think I must be secretly working on something, but I’m not. It was a simple decision: he’s more important. Who gives a f**k about writing scripts if I can stay at home with him and make his day a bit happier?”
Although he won’t be writing, Russell will undertake a small project for CBBC. He says it won’t take up much of his time and his commitment predates Andrew’s illness. Which begs the question: what will happen to the other projects Russell has been working on? I ask him if his much anticipated new gay series is really called Cucumber. It is. When it’s obvious I don’t share his enthusiasm for the title he explains from where it originates.
“There was a genuine scientific survey done somewhere in Switzerland about erectile dysfunction, which categorised hard-ons into four categories: tofu, peeled banana, banana and cucumber. When I heard that I knew it had to be the title of the show. Those are actually the first lines of the script.”
While Russell appreciates television has reached the stage where gay characters are no longer defined by their sexuality – nowadays they are detectives or lawyers first and foremost and their sexuality is secondary – Cucumber is very much about gay men and their gayness. That’s what he wants to write about.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to it,” he says. “It’s the best thing I’ve written in a decade. Showtime loved it. We’d just got to the point of casting when Andrew and I came back to Britain. There’s no way I’d let it happen without me. Showtime was lovely. They were like: your boyfriend needs to get well. The BBC was the same. I don’t know when I’ll start work again. I’ve got see how Andrew’s health goes.”
“It was originally written for America, but in theory I could rewrite it for Britain. It’s tricky because it’s a BBC property, but it uses much stronger language and attitude than I’ve ever seen before on the BBC. I don’t know if they’ll make it. I’m sure I can get it made, but of course when you leave the country, television executives don’t exactly sit around crying and waiting. They move on. I’ll get it made though. Or I’ll turn it into a novel.”
Russell’s hiatus also casts doubt on a future series of Torchwood. He tells me that Miracle Day, the show’s fourth season, didn’t do brilliantly. Reviews were mixed. With the head of American-partner Starz on record as saying he’d only bring back Torchwood if Russell was part of it, the outlook for the series is uncertain at best.
As a writer, Russell’s fan following sets him apart from other writers. He claims he never wanted to be famous and not to like the way he looks or sounds. He was thrust into the spotlight when Queer as Folk premiered and came under fire for its depiction of underage sex. Russell stood up to defend the show.
“You can’t expect the cast to be politically minded. They just use the material they’re given. When the show first aired the actors probably didn’t even know what the gay age of consent was. There were journalists literally waiting with bear traps, waiting for one of them to say the wrong thing. I had to step forward.”
“I went on Nicky Campbell’s Radio Five show to talk about the criticism we’d received and the underlying issues. A retired female schoolteacher called in and said she’d been so shocked by what we’d been talking about, she’d had to come in from the garden. She said: “I was a schoolteacher for 40 years and we never had any gay students.” Usually people are polite on the radio, but how often do you get to go one on one with a homophobe or someone who’s ignorant? I told her she was a failure. Did she really think she’d taught no gay people during her career? She was wrong. I said she should go back out into the garden. Nicky Campbell loved it.”
Having demonstrated that he could stand up for and promote a show he says the public relations people have never let him stop. He hopes he’s not a fame whore. He tells me he only usually does interviews when he has a show to promote. Set against that record, our interview is a rarity.
I tell him Queer as Folk was brilliant. It’s a series I go back to again and again. It remains as true to life as ever. Only the mobile phones used in the series seem to date it.
“You know, there are things that are said in there that I just haven’t seen anywhere else: like when Vince is standing in the disco and says: “That man there, I’ve known him for ten years. We just nod at each other.” It’s one of those forgotten speeches. “That man there: he went mad, he went to drugs, he died his hair blonde and now he’s settled. Don’t know his name.” I love that.”
When I revisit Queer as Folk one of the things that strikes me, in contrast to Russell’s later work, is the near-absence of gay actors. Especially for a series portraying gay men.
“I’m not deliberately casting gay actors,” he tells me. It’s just that I have no problem casting them. I would never cast someone if they weren’t right for the role. In Britain you can’t ask about someone’s sexuality in an audition. When Charlie Hunnam walked in I guess I thought he was gay because surely only a gay man could be so perfect for the part of Nathan. I only found out later he wasn’t, but it was irrelevant at that point. When it comes down to it you always have to go with who’s right for the part.”
The success of Queer as Folk paved the way for Russell to pen projects like Bob and Rose, The Second Coming and Casanova. As a lifelong and committed Dr Who fan though, Russell had always longed to get his hands on that property. Eventually he got his wish. Did he have any reservations when the BBC finally offered it to him?
“For a couple of days I had a lot of doubts,” he says. “My cleaner comes to clean every Tuesday and we always natter and put the world to rights. I sat there babbling for half an hour saying: “Should I do it? I love that show! Will I stop loving it? Will it have enough money? Will they want to put it on BBC3?” And he said: “Have you seen what you are doing?” While I’d been talking to him I’d been unpacking a big box of toy Daleks, each covered in bubble wrap, trying to find a specific black and gold one. I was like, “Yeah. I think I’d better do it.””
Having long dreamt of rebooting the then 40-year-old series, I ask him how many of the changes he introduced had been planned in his head, years in advance.
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“Less than you’d think,” he answers. “Although an old friend of mine from Granada reminded me I once told him if they ever let me bring back Dr Who, I’d cast Denise Van Outen as the companion and Thora Hird as her mother. In a way that’s pretty much what we did.”
After reviving Dr Who and creating the spin off series Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, Russell was rightly recognised as one of the most powerful figures in television. He was certainly instrumental in reviving the career of the late Elisabeth Sladen and turning John Barrowman into a household name.
“John, God bless him. What have I done? I’ve created a monster,” he laughs. “I always say though, if I ever accidentally murder someone and need to get out of the country fast, he’s the man I’d phone. He’d do it. He’d wrap me up in a carpet and smuggle me out of the country in the back of a van. He’s a lovely man. People don’t realise how kind he is.”
Official recognition, not that he needed it, for his cumulative work came in 2008 when he was made an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. The citation accompanying his medal recognised his services to drama. He tells me he has no idea where the medal is right now. I wonder if it’s in a crate he has yet to unpack.
“You know, I had second thoughts about accepting it,” he says. “I’m not a big fan of the monarchy, but I did think it was a good thing for a gay man to be publicly given. In the end I think that why I said yes. Then when they published the full honours list I found out they’d given Paul O’Grady one as well!”
Russell doesn’t need the affirmation that comes with the awarding of a medal. His work speaks for itself, as do his actions. Much as I hope he’s back at his computer and writing soon, I doubt there’s anyone who won’t empathise with his new priority. We’re happy to wait and I’m sure I speak on behalf of many thousands when I say we wish Andrew the very best of health.