Rhys John Edwards talks to Welsh writer Matthew Barry about his brand new drama, Men Up, set to premiere this weekend which tells the story of the first clinical trial of Viagra in 1990’s Swansea.
Welsh writer Matthew Barry is experiencing a full-circle moment. As an actor in his teens, he starred in the Russell T Davies Swansea-set drama Mine all Mine and now twenty-years on, his own Swansea-set drama – Executive-produced by Davies – is set to premiere on BBC ONE Wales and iPlayer over the festive period.
A lot has changed since 2003. Matthew is no longer an actor and has since built up a very impressive résumé as a writer. Early work on continuing dramas such as Eastenders led him stateside to a number of high-profile projects, notably Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Industry for HBO. But with his latest work Men Up, Matthew has redirected his focus back home to Wales. “I knew nothing about it,” Matthew admits, referring to one of the world’s first medical trials for Viagra which extraordinarily took place in Swansea in 1994.
“I was sent a pitch for the drama by the producers at Boom Cymru which laid out the facts of the trial and I was like… OH MY GOD. My first thought was… why hasn’t this been done before?! My second was… this is basically The Full Monty with Viagra. And my third was… I HAVE TO DO THIS.”
The one-off drama which is due to air over Christmas brings together a wealth of Welsh acting talent with Iwan Rheon, Joanna Page and Aneurin Barnard to name a few – but seriously, think up any incredible Welsh actor and chances are they’re in it too. I was lucky enough to catch a preview and I can safely confirm that it’s gentle, heartfelt and hilarious, striking a perfect balance between comedy (expertly mined from the more ‘exposing’ aspects of the trial) and the serious implications that impotence has on mental health.
“It is a story about men’s mental health and communication.” Matthew says. “These men are just completely unable to talk to each other or their partners about what’s really going on. So, to portray the psychological effects of that was really important and in some ways, I think it’s still a taboo…”
There’s one scene in particular which Matthew references to illustrate the point: “I love the scene where they’re all in the pub sat around talking. And Pete (Phaldut Sharma) says – “I can’t believe we’re talking about this. It’s all we think about, but we never actually talk about it…” – I think for me, at its heart, that’s what this drama is about.”
After a string of performances in what Matthew self-deprecatingly categorises as “bits of telly”, he decided to turn away from acting and go to university to study history and politics with a view to becoming a corporate lawyer. In retrospect, he now looks back on this as a bit of a misstep. “I suddenly found myself questioning what on Earth I was doing!” But the experience did lead him to write a script about the struggles of choosing the “right path” in life. He sent it to legendary producer Nicola Shindler, who he had worked with while acting in Mine all Mine and thankfully she emailed back straight away and said she loved it.
The script didn’t end up getting made in its original form, but the story was eventually incorporated into an episode for Russell T Davies-produced series Banana later in 2015. “That script really gave me the courage to say definitively that I wasn’t going to go into law and that I was going to see how the writing would go for another few years.”
Matthew’s first prime-time slice of television was Eastenders and this is really where he believes he cut his teeth as a writer. “It is the ultimate training ground for writers. 100% of all my favourite writers come from continuing dramas, whether that’s Russell T Davies, Sally Wainwright, Jimmy McGovern… They produce such talented writers and I think a big part of it is because it’s such a machine. These shows are going to move with or without you. And if you’re lucky enough to go on to create your own show, you bring that wealth of knowledge and that discipline you’ve developed, which I think is so important.”
I ask about making the leap to LA for Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, something which he looks back on now as having been a bit of a culture shock. “There was a huge difference being part of the American writer’s room system, working with fifteen people sat around the table and having to verbally pitch stories and keep up with that collaborative process – as opposed to sitting in your room alone crying into a computer, which I was more used to at the time!”
In recent years, he believes the landscape has changed and the jump is no longer so significant. Both the pandemic-enforced practice of remote working via Zoom and the age of streaming has created a more universal approach. “I’ve noticed, especially since the pandemic, that the world has shrunk. So, there’s so much more crossover between the US and the UK. I was working on Industry – which is a co-production with HBO in the states – and all of that was on Zoom. I haven’t met most of my colleagues from that show to this day.”
Matthew thinks that process is becoming more common and has friends in the UK who work on US shows, logging on for a virtual writer’s room to start a day’s work at 6pm. “The UK also seems to be embracing the more traditional US model of having a writer showrunner,” He says, crediting Russell T Davies as a key figure in bringing about this change.
Russell T Davies and Nicola Shindler, producers of both Mine all Mine and now Men Up, have clearly had a significant influence on Matthew’s career. “When I first read the pitch for Men Up, I thought… oh this is so up Nicola’s street…” He was right and it’s easy to see why, Men Up is exactly the kind of warm and sincere television Shindler is best known for – for me, in tone, it echoes early noughties dramas like Clocking Off and Bob and Rose. Shindler quickly came on board as an Executive Producer and brought Russell T Davies along with her. Matthew was delighted at this but also a little intimidated.
“I was like… oh brilliant, but oh god. I knew Russell would really crack the whip… and he did!” He adds, “But he was completely brilliant. Working closely with Russell has undoubtedly made me a better writer. We’ve kept in touch all this time. And what was weird is we had our premiere screening in Swansea recently and it was twenty years almost to the day that we had our screening for Mine all Mine in Swansea.”
I mention how refreshing it was to watch a drama that’s set in Wales that also feels so authentically Welsh. We agree that sadly this is not always the case. “I think we’ve all seen Welsh dramas and some big films that are not written by Welsh writers and don’t necessarily feature a Welsh cast – and some of them are really good – but I think you can always tell if they’re authentic or not. With Men Up, I know the rhythms of these men. I know how they speak. I know that world. And I think that is reflected in the final product.”
Whilst Men Up represents somewhat of a full-circle moment for Matthew, it also acts as a step into new territory at a very exciting time for TV production in Wales – a climate which was inconceivable when he started out. “I think there’s been a huge shift. My relationship with Nicola Shindler was forged in Manchester because there was nothing in Wales when I was coming up. But now we have a huge industry which is essentially down to Jane Tranter, Julie Gardner and of course Russell bringing Doctor Who here. And with Bad Wolf we have Industry, Discovery of Witches, and of course the BBC have Casualty down the Bay too. I just think if you’re growing up now in South Wales, you can see all of that TV magic happening right here and there are so many pathways that didn’t exist twenty years ago. It’s just kind of brilliant, isn’t it?”
Men Up airs on BBC ONE Wales at 9pm on 29 December and will also be available to stream via BBC iPlayer.