The week in TV: Years and Years; The Virtues; Mum and Game of Thrones | Television & radio

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Years and Years BBC One | iPlayer
The Virtues Channel 4 | All4
Mum BBC Two | iPlayer
Game of Thrones Sky Atlantic

In Years and Years, the sheer gleeful inventiveness of Russell T Davies is allowed to run right off the leash and bounce like a lolloping puppy over the hills and far away. Among its many virtues, the drama has the power to splenetically enrage the most swivel-eyed outposts of both left and right. It is Davies’s state-of-the-nation attempt to distil, via a sharply clever timeline and a cast to die for, our unhinged times. It works, with splendour.

In this it is, of course, dystopian, weird, funny, chilling, prophetic. Yet Davies is too wise a writer to forget that a drama needs heart, coherence, credibility. And so, amid a second term for Mr Trump, a nuclear missile in China, an (eventual) financial meltdown to make that of 2008 hang its head in shame, asylum seekers, a hung parliament dependent on the prejudices of one ballsy northerner, we have the Lyons family, as fun, and intermixed, and liberal, and intolerant, and confused as the best of any Mancunian bunch.

There are many delights: Emma Thompson, entirely against type, inhabits “Vivienne Rook”, the entrepreneur who, via one explosive Question Time, erupts on to the political scene; Russell Tovey as Daniel Lyons, who is married to, he discovers, the wrong husband (Ralph, way down some cyber-rabbit hole, starts denying the existence of germs); Rory Kinnear as Stephen, Daniel’s brother; and Stephen’s wife, the wonderful T’Nia Miller – both are struggling with daughter Bethany’s confusion over a sense of self. Above all, there is Anne Reid: grandmatriarch, pithy and blowsy and fussy and huge-hearted.

Davies’s imagination knows few bounds. Sure to be talked about is Beth’s desire to transition, just not in the normal sense. The interjections from her achingly liberal parents are telling. Beth, who has taken to wearing a holographic “filter” of an impossibly cutesy puppy/stag thing over her face (in fact, chillingly and corporately sinister – I yearned to rip it off), tries to explain further.

“I don’t want to change ‘sex’.”

“I think we say ‘gender’ now.”

“Oh, is ‘transsexual’ not the word now? I get so confused, darling!”

But Beth wants to digitise herself: to lose, at a Swiss clinic, her corporeal body, be uploaded into a Cloud, live For Ever. Her parents react as would 1950s parents: it’s a transition too far.

Later in the series, Emma T, aka VoteViv, will posit the idea of IQ tests for voting. The Lyons raise eyebrows and josh each other about it – they are a grand family, refreshingly ripe for tearing the piss from each other – but the idea is taken seriously.

Thompson’s Rook is a fine creation, combining what we all like to think of as our “personal” common sense with a certain … rampant illiberalism. A nuanced figure, and honest, as inept and compromised as we all are, she hugely helps to explain (if not excuse) the rise in populism – for which read bafflement at the complexities of choice and a flawed reversion to absolutism.

With so much crammed into the first episode, it would be remarkable if things didn’t slightly calm down later on, and they do. Relatively. But – trust me – it doesn’t at all disappoint. Hang on to your hats. Credible, brutish, ultimately sympathetic, this is the series Russell T Davies was born to write –and it comes at the right time.

You couldn’t really get much less dramatic than the essential smallness of Mum, in which, for the six-piece final series, the widowed Lesley Manville and her own batch (son, girlfriend, inept brother Derek, brother’s dreadful snob girlfriend, love interest Michael, dead hubby’s parents) have decamped to a mansion. Pauline, brother’s dreadful snob GF, has paid for all via a divorce settlement to celebrate Derek’s birthday in a “posh” rented mansion full of towels folded into swans.

Tender, foul, awkward, human, never less than hugely funny, this has been one of the delights in my job. To see the glee of an ensemble piece – as well as Manville, of course, and Peter Mullan as shy Michael – in this last incarnation. Creator Stefan Golaszewski has said Mum has probably run its course, and he’s most likely right, but what an absence it will bring. The depth of talent was unveiled, and it was wholly right to condense this last series into one claustrophobic week; a week in which Pauline essentially admitted she was a bad person, and we remembered the very smallness of the nigglings that haunt our lives if they’re allowed to.

The entire cast shone. Karl Johnson’s grandpa Reg (his outrage at coming across a shampoo labelled “not tested on animals” was a particular joy); Sam Swainsbury as son Jason played a richly subtle balance of thick, kind and misguidedly worldly.

Mum works as drama just as much as comedy. The many moments when Jason and Michael are left alone in a room, a house, a garden, are utterly fraught: at every one of Michael’s half-gambits at conversation, every silently insolent shrug from Jason, you will cringe and gently perspire at memories of your own awkwardnesses (taking slightly too long to wash a mug, or slightly too short a time to answer with a monosyllable).

Mum, Cathy, finally snaps, in her own, nice way. Rude to nobody, she simply saunters, champagne in its bucket and Michael’s hand in hers, towards a long lovely lawn, her body language yelling a cheerful “fuck you all”. (At least she got to saunter towards a long lovely lawn. No such luck for Keeley Hawes as Louisa Durrell and Spiro: but, as war interrupted life in The Durrells, it was the smartest and gentlest way to let go of all of them. A tipped hat, and yearning.)

Stephen Graham in Shane Meadows’ The Virtues.



As a father tracing his own abused childhood, Stephen Graham gives the performance of his life in Shane Meadows’ The Virtues . Photograph: Dean Rogers/Channel 4

After two such grand ensemble constructions (no, three – The Durrells certainly was such a piece), it’s something of a shock – a good one, like being hit by a salty green wave – to remember that a whole hour can be dominated by the sheer force of one actor alone. Such an actor is Stephen Graham, and in The Virtues, Shane Meadows’s exploration of his own childhood trauma, he gives perhaps the performance of his life. If you thought his vulnerable undercover cop Corbett in the recent Line of Duty a powerful interpretation, this makes it look as if it was being played for chips and giggles.

Co-written by Meadows and Jack Thorne, The Virtues is basically the tale of one man’s unacknowledged PTSD. Graham, divorced but still speaking to his ex, with a son about to be moved to Australia and nothing left in Liverpool, gets the ferry to Ireland to retrace his abusive, unacknowledged past. His last drunken night in Liverpool is a masterclass … in film-making, yes, but also in drunken nights in Liverpool. This is a slow, appallingly sad, true and shining short series, damp and snotty and rich. It gets better every second. I know it’s a little early to be already talking about next year’s Baftas (we’ve just had them: boo for Mum winning nothing), but it would frankly astonish if Stephen Graham hasn’t already been etched on to the cup.

The penultimate Game of Thrones seems to have had a dicky reception among fans, who tend to fight over the purity of their fandom. There are the relative newbies, who weep over the indecently rushed descent of Daenerys into maniacal genocide, and the hardcore, who insist it was all there in the back story if you’ve watched from episode 1.

Whatever. Some of us have lives, and don’t have to spend them watching TV (umm …). I loved it, in its epic sprawl, its tension, its deaths, its wash of ichor, its panoramic sweeps; and am already laying bets against the One who will sit on the Iron Throne. Dany – no chance. Jon – nah. Arya?

Brienne.

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