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Davies, Russell T. (1963- )

Writer, Producer, Executive

Main image of Davies, Russell T. (1963- )

Russell T Davies is one of the first major television dramatists to have been raised in an age culturally dominated by the medium. His embracing of television as both a means of entertainment and a vital form of dramatic expression has guided his work, along with his signature energy and underlying confidence in television's adaptability and significance.

Born simply Russell Davies (the 'T' was added to avoid confusion with another writer and broadcaster of the same name) in Swansea in 1963, he spent much of his early childhood watching television and creating his own stories, often in the form of cartoon strips. He continued to draw while studying English Literature at Oxford University, now for student magazines. Leaving university in 1984, he gravitated to television, initially as a cartoonist for Children's BBC. His time on the magazine programme Why Don't You? (BBC, 1973-94) saw him graduating to the role of production assistant. By 1990 he was producer of the show, steering it further toward drama and away from its traditional mix of recipes and 'makes'.

Subsequently, he wrote the well-received children's fantasy serial Dark Season (BBC, 1991), followed by Century Falls (BBC, 1993), a more serious, even sinister affair for a slightly older audience. He later admitted that this second serial was "too dark", an indication that his writing was edging him towards an adult audience.

By now he had moved to Granada, where he spent several years as producer and sometime writer of youth hospital drama Children's Ward (ITV, 1989-2000). In 1996 he won a Children's BAFTA for the 100th episode, an early exploration of the potential dangers of the internet, in which a young boy arranges to meet an online friend who he believes to be another child, but who is revealed to be a predatory middle-aged man. It was a startling and effective piece, ending with the villain not only remaining at large but ensnaring a second boy while the credits roll.

Other work at Granada included a period as story editor on Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-) and work on two short-lived soaps: Revelations (ITV, 1994), which he co-devised, introducing his first explicitly gay character, and the off-beat Springhill (Channel Four/Sky, 1996-97), which he helped to storyline and write. While Springhill never found an audience, its underlying paranormal elements marked it out from more conventional soaps. The juxtaposition of the mundane with the fantastic was becoming a Davies characteristic. Here, an impending and potentially apocalyptic conflict between the forces of good and evil on a Liverpool council estate was dramatically counterpointed by (for example) one character's discussion of her possibly lifelong attachment to an Argos shoe rack.

While Hotel-based drama The Grand (ITV, 1997-98) was uncharacteristically unadventurous and largely humourless, one episode dealt with a barman's attempt to confront his homosexuality. Davies, who came out as gay at university, realised that this was an area that he would like to explore further. It was a decision that would bring his critical breakthrough.

The Manchester-based Queer as Folk (Channel Four, 1999-2000) was his most high-profile work to date, and inevitably drew outrage in some quarters, notably over the seduction of a 15-year-old boy by an older man in the first episode. Some gay critics, too, complained that the series reinforced narrow stereotypes about gay male hedonism. Others, however, were rapturous in their praise, hailing its freshness, energy and its joyous, fearless frankness. Davies had been determined to avoid 'boring issues' and, unburdened by any semblance of worthiness, the series was embraced by audiences gay and straight. Following an abandoned spin-off project, Misfits, he brought his next drama to ITV. Bob and Rose (2001) again riled some sections of the gay press, this time for its depiction of a gay man falling in love with a woman. It failed to perform as well as ITV had hoped, but nevertheless demonstrated a more subtle, restrained side to his work.

Although both Channel Four and the BBC had both passed on The Second Coming (2003), ITV eagerly snapped up this tale of Jesus's reappearance on Earth in the form of Mancunian Steve Baxter, possibly the most extreme of the writer's juxtapositions of the mundane and fantastic. An atheist, Davies created a drama that studied the concept of faith, and the result is a powerful and provocative piece of television. For many years it seemed that mention of Davies would forever be prefaced with the words 'Queer as Folk writer', but this, perhaps, is his real dramatic legacy - confrontational but not aggressive, it is a consummately considered piece of intelligent television.

After the slightly disappointing comedy-drama Mine All Mine (ITV, 2004), which saw him returning to his Welsh roots, a cinema adaptation of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal was abandoned when his dream project became available. This was the return of Doctor Who (1963-89), with Davies as 'show runner', which persuaded him to transfer his then-current project Casanova (2005) from ITV. Casanova's lively and quirky approach to historical drama was certainly distinctive, and met with a warm critical reception, although audiences were relatively modest.

Doctor Who's re-launch in March 2005 followed months of press interest, but the degree of critical and audience excitement it generated upon its arrival was nevertheless unexpected. The BBC had offered a healthy budget, which saved the series from mirroring the sometimes feeble production values that had dogged its earlier incarnation, but more important was Davies' reimagining of the show in a way that pleased long-term fans while engaging a whole new generation. Davies and his fellow writers put more emphasis on the domestic, introduced well-rounded characters and greater emotional depth, but still ensured pacy, exciting and intelligent storytelling. In reward, he was credited with rescuing Saturday night family viewing (thought gone forever in an age of m edia proliferation), while the series won the Best Drama BAFTA, a feat considered unimaginable during its first run. At the same ceremony, Davies was presented with the Dennis Potter award for 'outstanding writing for television', honouring his entire career to that point.

More than anything, Davies has shown that dynamism is still possible in television. Along with his contemporary and occasional collaborator, Paul Abbott, he has succeeded in both updating established forms of television drama and creating a 'voice' for his own distinctive productions. He has shown a skill in writing at an emotive level alongside a rare ability to bring epic themes to the small screen, with or without special effects. With such a varied background in the field, it will be instructive to learn whether he will continue to develop writing for the mainstream or revert back to a small, but dedicated, niche audience.

Mark Aldridge

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Century Falls (1993)Century Falls (1993)

Fantastical children's drama exposing the dark secrets of an English village

Thumbnail image of Children's Ward/Ward, The (1989-2000)Children's Ward/Ward, The (1989-2000)

Junior hospital drama set in a Manchester paediatric ward

Thumbnail image of Coronation Street (1960- )Coronation Street (1960- )

Britain's longest-running soap opera marked its half-century in 2010

Thumbnail image of Dark Season (1991)Dark Season (1991)

First children's SF adventure from the pen of Russell T. Davies

Thumbnail image of Second Coming, The (2003)Second Coming, The (2003)

Visionary drama imagining the Son of God's reappearance in Manchester

Thumbnail image of Why Don't You... (1973-94)Why Don't You... (1973-94)

Popular kids-based series promoting non-TV activities

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Thumbnail image of Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)

Recently regenerated time-travelling adventures

Thumbnail image of TV Drama in the 2000sTV Drama in the 2000s

A decade of restless change for small-screen drama

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