Folk Off to America: An interview with Russell T. Davies

Scott: The American-made version of Queer As Folk starts this Sunday, December 3.

Russell: It does, doesn’t it? Bloody hell. Apparently there are billboards all over New York, and things like that happening. Marvellous! And what am I doing in Manchester, I ask myself?

So what has it been like handing the series over to a complete group of strangers?

Well, a piece of piss really, to be honest. It’s so remote and distant. It’s lovely, a massive compliment, but if you told me five years ago – or even two years ago – that something I’d written would be a twenty-two hour American series – a $22million series! – I would have been leaping about in the garden, thinking, “that’s the best news in the world! ” And the strange thing is that when these things happen in real life, you’re much more interested in getting your kitchen decorated and paying your bills on time. Real life has a tremendous talent for keeping life very ordinary. So I’m not swanning about in a limousine or anything.

Is that because you feel you’ve moved on from Queer As Folk to other things?

No, I think about Queer As Folk all the time. I think about every show I’ve ever written all the time. I don’t know if this is true of every writer, but I never quite get rid of them, they sort of tick away in the background. I think it’s because it is a cousin, you know, it’s not the original Queer As Folk, it’s a different show. The moment they said it was going to be 22 hours it became a different show.

When you first heard it was going to be that length, were you worried they might not have enough content to fill the time?

No, not for a second, because there’s so little story anyway in the series. It’s not like we sold them a murder mystery where the murder’s solved in episode six, and then it’s over. In some senses, very little happens in Queer As Folk. It’s everyday life. It’s work, it’s school, it’s friends, and family, and clubbing, and sex, and relationships. That can run for 22 years! I don’t think they were sitting there with cold feet saying, “Oh my God, are we going to run out of material?” because that’s life. I do think it would be hard to sustain unrequited love for 22 hours, and I don’t know what their plans are for that. I suspect that will change as it goes on. You know, like all American stuff they’re hoping for season two, season three, season four. If it’s in season four and the Vince character [called Michael in the new series] is still in love with the Stuart character [Brian] and still hasn’t said a word then they’re in trouble. It’s bound to change as it goes on. But that’s natural, that’s good, that’s what stories should do. There’s nothing worse than a story that’s set in stone and never, ever changes. That would be dreadful.

What sort of involvement have you had in the series?

Minimal. The nice thing is the two blokes in charge, writer/producers Ron Cowen and Dan Lipman, are gay men, it’s like a gay man’s network. I got on tremendously well with them, we had such a laugh when I met them. It was quite weird, because we’d both spent huge chunks of our lives working on the same thing, just separately. When we met we got on instantly, because we’d all been doing the same shit!

So, the odd little word here and there. I gave some notes on the first two scripts – some of which they took, some they didn’t, which is what you should do with notes – and that’s it really. I’ve read up to episode ten, but they’re filming episode 17 now. I’ve got no idea what happens in the middle, and I’ve got no idea what happens at the end, actually, so it’s quite minimal but that’s all I wanted.

How would you say your treatment by Showtime has differed from that by Channel 4?

I haven’t been treated by Showtime at all, really. I mean, they flew me out once for a visit, but actually it was a hell of a lot of publicity for them. They had a big press launch in New York. And they’re not daft; you know, every single gay magazine and every gay writer is waiting to write that article that says “Queer As Folk Creator Slags Off American Series”! Well, not every gay writer, because a lot of people have got better things to write about! But those who want to churn out a quick two thousand words will be dying for that, so it’s very much in Showtime’s interest to fly me out there and get me saying that I like it and stuff like that. And that’s publicity, that’s television, that’s good business sense.

I have to say I was treated like a bloody king! It was the best hotel I’d ever seen in my life, astonishing, and cars everywhere and they were all “stay on if you want and go shopping in New York!” In this country it’s like, “there’s your sausage roll, now go and work like a slave!” So that sense of it was weird, but I’m sure they don’t treat everyone like that all the time. It was a big press launch and with a big transatlantic deal going on, I suppose they had to do that.

And poor old Nicola Shindler [UK Queer As Folk producer] has not been asked out there once, bless her! It’s a gay man’s network, I don’t think they know she exists, which makes me laugh!

You get on really well with Nicola, don’t you?

She’s a marvel.

In your sleeve notes for the Queer As Folk 2 CD, you called her “my wife in a parallel universe”.

Which made her run! She’s not one for sentiment, that woman. She’d slap you in the face if you said anything sloppy like that! She’s marvellous, the best producer in the world. I actually believe you could have taken those Queer As Folk scripts and made them into the worst drama in the world, really, using exactly the same lines, same characters and same scenes and it could have been absolutely fucking dreadful! And she made it a classy piece of work. And you watch her other stuff, like Clocking Off on BBC One, I think is such a classy piece of telly. She knows what she’s doing, that woman! And she’ll make sure she does it, even if she has to tread on a few toes along the way. I bet she’s not easy to work for sometimes, but she’s absolutely brilliant with writers.

The series you’re currently writing for ITV, Bob And Rose, is based around a gay man’s relationship with a straight woman. Is there any foundation in that from your own life?

In me? Ha ha, no, not remotely! Not remotely at all, never, ever slept with a woman. Snogged one when I was fourteen. Although the whole point of the story is that anyone can fall in love with anyone. It did actually happen to a friend of mine, who was the gayest man you’ll ever meet in the world. He just met a woman, and he says to my face, “I will go to the grave a gay man,” but it’s beyond labels, it’s beyond stereotypes, it’s just he loves this woman. They have sex together regularly, and now they’ve got children and they’re very happy. Which just goes to show that anyone can fall in love with anyone. Most times it doesn’t happen. Most times life is just normal and we all miss the person we should be with and just carry on making do with someone else, but just once in a while… I’m not a romantic person, but I do believe that. So that’s what this is about, nothing remotely based on my own experience! No way!

And that’s what was brilliant, what was absolutely fantastic about the man it actually happened to. The prejudice he faced from gay men, from his friends, was astonishing. They all treated him like dirt and laughed behind his back – because it scared them to the very foundations of what they are, you know – out, happy, gay men. It absolutely shook them. It did me. When he first started going out with this woman, I was just laughing, saying, “isn’t this ridiculous, isn’t he stupid,” and then, I’m ashamed to say, I did everything except sit down and talk to him. Then eventually, I did – we got very drunk – and I realized that I was taking the piss out of something very real. It’s so easy to take the piss, you know, prejudice takes many forms. It’s real, and that’s something to be written about.

What’s it like working for ITV again?

Fantastic. I love ITV. You see, the thing is, I’m an ITV viewer. You know Wednesday’s schedule? Coronation Street, an hour of David Beckham (thank you very much), half an hour of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and then The Full Monty. Am I watching, or what? I am that viewer.

I love them. They’re so honest and straightforward to deal with. And all the stuff you might imagine happening – we were interviewing directors today, and the directors were asking us, “are you having any problems getting gay stuff past ITV?” And it’s the absolute opposite. They want us to work for them. They want the scripts, they want me to write whatever I want. People forget that ITV made The Naked Civil Servant and Cracker and Prime Suspect. They’ve always been an adventurous channel. The reason why there’s a lot of shit on that channel is that they get sent a lot of shit.

So would you ever go back to Channel 4?

Not at the moment, no, wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole! Until I get an idea that will only work on Channel 4, at which point I’ll swallow all my principles and go and do it. But no, actually, have they ever sorted out what slots their drama is in? They don’t know what they’re doing with drama. Everyone else has got built-in slots. You haven’t got a clue with Channel 4 when the drama is going to be on. Ironically, they only shows they do that for, the only fixed slots, are for their American imports, which is astonishing! Friends will be on a Friday at 9, ER will be on a Wednesday at 9… and they advertise, you know, “Wednesday night is ER night”. You think, “why can’t you do that for your own stuff?” They’re a very, very schizophrenic channel in that sense. It’s not because I’m cross with them, I’ve always thought that. I used to say that when I was in the building working for them. Very, very strange approach to their own material, it’s weird.

You devoted a lot of time into developing the QAF spin-off Misfits and The Second Coming for Channel 4, both of which have been cancelled.

Yes, I did. I mean, it happens, it has to be said. Things fall through. It’s not so much the things falling through I object to: we were genuinely led to believe, first with Misfits that it would be commissioned, and then with The Second Coming that it was a definite commission. It was said, “you have got a green light.” And so the amount of time and – I don’t want to go on about money, but the principles of the thing are best described in money. Roughly, you get 30 per cent when you accept the contract, 30 per cent when you deliver the script, 30 per cent when they accept the script, and then you get 100 per cent of that all over again when they start filming. So when they say it’s a definite commission… I don’t spend much money, but I went and got my entire house redecorated thinking, I’ve got money for next year, and then they take away a definite commission which is like – oh God, it’s going to sound like this is all about money – all that money’s completely missing. So they actually rob you of a living. I’m not poor but, you know, there are hacks bashing away at Casualty who are earning ten times what I’m earning. And it’s your life; it’s what you’re doing for the whole of next year.

They actually asked me to turn down other stuff, that was the astonishing thing with The Second Coming. They said, “will you turn down this project, will you turn down that one, because we want you to work on this. This is a green light, this is commissioned.” Yes, I said, marvellous – then they took it away. If I could be bothered, then I could get lawyers and sue them. Except then I’d never work again, so fuck ’em. Can I say “fuck ’em” on Oh go on!

You said you got your house completely redecorated. You actually moved to Canal Street for a while, didn’t you?

A little flat just off Canal Street, which meant I never went out to Canal Street, because I could see it out my window and couldn’t be bothered!

So you weren’t trying to capture the Stuart Jones lifestyle?

No way! It was too close, way too close to Canal Street. It was bizarre – I almost literally never went out. I became a hermit! I went out for chips of a night, very handy for fast food, that was all. I did realise – I knew, otherwise I’d have been living there anyway – that city centre loft lifestyle was not for me.

There are three main series that people associate with Manchester: Queer As Folk itself, Cold Feet and, of course, Coronation Street.

Cold Feet is disappointing this year, don’t you think? I can’t bear Helen Baxendale, actually. But anyway…

Coronation Street is celebrating its 40th anniversary at the moment, and that’s another show you’ve worked on.

Oh, very briefly, storylining it. And I wrote the most dreadful Christmas video special where Jack and Vera visit Las Vegas. In my own defence, it was written in three days and wasn’t, frankly, a highlight! Strangely, it was never shown on television! It’s a laugh, it’s like a Carry On film, as camp as Christmas!

So would you say Corrie is the opposite end of the spectrum to Queer As Folk in its portrayal of Manchester lifestyle these days?

Not particularly. It’s said by everyone, even writers who should know better, that Coronation Street is in a little world of its own, an eccentric, maybe nostalgic little world, and doesn’t represent the real world at all. I think it’s absolutely the opposite. It might not have the gritty reality of urban life, but a lot of people mistake reality for realism, which is a very different thing. And what the Street does absolutely perfectly is its tiny little moments between people who’ve known each other for forty years now.

I don’t mean the big divorces and the people in prison and the burning down of the pub sort of stuff – the tiny, tiny everyday relationships between people it gets exactly right. In fact, that is urban life more than Queer As Folk, more than Cold Feet. It’s closer in its tiny detail. And I love it. It’s full of huge, larger than life characters like Vera Duckworth and so is life. That’s what people are very afraid to admit. I can point to half my aunties who are like that in different ways, but who are mad. Life is full of larger-than-life characters. They exist. And yet, when you put them on screen people say that’s not real. And they look at EastEnders and say, “that’s realism, that’s true, because everyone’s miserable and they’re all having trouble, and it’s quite dark, gritty and real.” It’s a very great mistake that people make in thinking that television realism is therefore like real life. And do you know what? In Coronation Street, they have a laugh. And I think people in real life do. Not all the time, but actually a lot of my friends have got a cracking sense of humour and we have a good laugh. They do that on the Street and that is closer to real life than anything else. And so it’s head and shoulders above anything.

So what else have you got in the pipeline?

Ooh, I don’t know. I don’t tend to plan that far in advance. In the New Year, I’ll have a couple of conversations with people about two ideas that are floating around, but actually I’m just writing Bob And Rose. I can’t bear other writers who work on three things at once because it always reduces the quality of it. And we are paid enough to work on only one thing at once. Despite my earlier moan about money, my sisters would die if they knew how much I earned! Bob And Rose starts filming in March, so round about then I’ll start looking around for the next thing.

You were in talks at one stage about doing something for Channel 4’s proposed gay website.

Yes, Queer As Folk short stories, but I pulled out of that the second they pulled out of my stuff! It was lovely, and they were half written in my head, actually, bits on the computer, stuff like that. But it was the sort of job I would have had to use my spare time on, like Saturdays and Sundays. And when they pull out of major commitments to you and fuck up your year and your budget, you think “why am I going to give up my spare time for the sake of Channel 4?” Lovely website people, very nice people, not their fault, but tough shit, someone’s got to take the flak, and they were the only people in the firing line, so those were ditched permanently.

And that site’s been put on hold indefinitely now anyway.

It has, hasn’t it? When I got in touch with them – well, I got my agent to do it, but then I got in touch because they were very nice people and I felt a bit guilty about my childish strop. I wasn’t about to change my mind, but I got in touch with them myself, and that’s when they said, “Oh, actually, we might not be going ahead anyway.” For all they knew I’d spent the past fucking nine months writing those things and I had them all ready! And actually, in my head, a lot of it was ready. So, “thank you!” Chimps, they’re all a bunch of fucking chimps!

So could you reuse them?

Oh, you’d get caught up in copyright stuff. That’s the problem, Channel 4 own it outright.

With Misfits they said it’ll be returned to you to take to other channels after two years. Which is daft, really, no-one’s going to take an offshoot of a long dead show from another channel. And actually, even if that was the case, even if BBC Two said they were interested, then it would have been very interesting to see if the Channel 4 lawyers stood up and said, “oh look, Hazel Tyler, we own her,” things like that. So even then I think there would have many causes for making it impossible. It wasn’t worth the bother. You’d just end up paying lawyers, which we don’t want to do.

The other project your name’s been associated with on and off for the past couple of years is Doctor Who.

Yes, but that was Peter Salmon wanting that, bless him, and now he’s no longer Controller of BBC One I expect that’s dead. I haven’t heard anything for about six months. Apparently, there’s a film deal still ticking away, which would stop any television versions, so I think it just had the support of Peter Salmon and I don’t know who to talk to now. Lorraine Heggessey [the new Controller] I don’t know at all, wouldn’t know her to look at her, so I think that’s dead.

Well, we’d better let you get on with Bob and Rose. By the way, are you having a housewarming for your newly renovated home?

Let people in here spilling red wine all over my lovely new house? Am I bollocks!

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.