If there’s been one running theme throughout writer Russell T Davies’ career, it’s been to not simply give more representation to LGBTQ+ individuals within British TV, but also explore their lives and relationships, rather than the oft simplistic punchlines they’d been in the past.
Dramas like Queer as Folk not only normalised, but celebrated the LGBTQ+ community like never before, while even his revival of Doctor Who unashamedly placed LGBTQ+ characters and non-traditional sexuality in front of ‘family’ audiences in ways that simply wouldn’t have been permitted had he ever got a chance to write for the original series. But it’s his latest drama, It’s A Sin, set amidst the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, that feels like his most personal, true-to-life series yet, as well as the one that most actively, angrily decries everything faced by the community at large at the time.
Based around people and places lifted directly from Davies’ own twenties, the series opens with four very different young men all coming to London for the first time in the early 80s and, in their own ways, exploring the side to themselves they’ve largely been forced to keep closeted prior. There are characters like Ritchie (Years & Years‘ Olly Alexander), who’s very much out to make the most of his newfound freedom, plunging headfirst into a new life of partying, clubbing, and sex; then there’s others like Colin (Callum Scott Howells), who’s far more unsure of himself, walking through parties dressed in a suit, struggling to even open his mouth.
The first two episodes are, for most of the runtime, an exuberant, fun ride, firmly evoking this new freedom with a gloriously nostalgic 80s soundtrack. It feels reminiscent of the comedy and sense of optimism we’ve come to expect of Davies’ work, with only a few hints at what’s to come; there’s rumours of the new mystery illness hitting America but it’s not something anyone’s taking seriously – how very 2020. When it first strikes, with the confident, happily out Henry, played by Neil Patrick Harris, it’s generally assumed to be cancer or some other lung condition, but no one will approach him. Even his nurses leave his food outside the room.
The series is likely one that will strike a different chord for those who lived through it than for those in my own generation who’ve grown up since. Though just 30 years ago, there’s still much here that, from a modern perspective, is almost beyond belief. The series is a stark reminder not just of how much HIV/AIDS was more often than not a death sentence, but also the reactions and the ignorance of others towards it.
Numerous scenes depict, at great length, the fear people had of simply touching anyone with the illness, from one character’s obsessive showering and cleaning afterwards, to another, after testing positive, literally being imprisoned in his hospital room, for fear of contamination. And this isn’t even scratching the surface of the rampant homophobia of the era, with the disease being colloquially referred to as ‘Angels In Disguise’.
“So much of this series, arriving after four years in development and thirty years after lived experiences, is finally setting free all the emotions that have been contained, but ever-growing, over the years, not only paying tribute to all those who died, but unleashing real rage at those who sat back and ignored what was happening.”
It would be easy, when creating a series dealing with this kind of subject matter, to tread too softly, to have an almost sanitised version of the epidemic, and portray its victims as tragic martyrs. It’s A Sin never holds back from the full horror of just how cruel the virus was, robbing people not only of their lives, but their dignity, their connections with others, and their sense of self-worth. One of the hardest moments to watch in the series comes halfway through, when shy, quiet Colin, who’d ‘behaved’ instead of sleeping around, not only becomes more and more feeble, but gets increasingly senile and delirious, losing all awareness of his surroundings.
This series does a great deal of work to fully immerse you in the era and in what its characters are experiencing, from how it highlights changing attitudes to the disease, to tackling a whole range of issues beyond the epidemic. One particularly memorable moment comes in episode four, where Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), who’s started as a teacher, is forced to comb through the school’s literature and remove any mention of homosexuality, as per the Thatcher government’s infamous Section 28.
The anger that’s present here in both script and performance, anger at being censored from above when there’s already virtually nothing giving the LGBTQ+ community any sense of representation or inclusion, is palpable. So much of this series, arriving after four years in development and thirty years after lived experiences, is finally setting free all the emotions that have been contained, but ever-growing, over the years, not only paying tribute to all those who died, but unleashing real rage at those who sat back and ignored what was happening.
It’s this fourth episode that really stands out, if only for the spotlight it gives to Alexander’s character Ritchie upon discovering he’s HIV positive. We move away from London to his home in the Isle of Wight, reuniting with both his family and an old, straight friend from his teens. The scenes with him and said friend drinking on the beach at night, confessing old crushes, loves, and wanks, before finally falling apart but unable to explain why, is heart-breaking, due to an incredible, deeply-felt performance from Alexander that utterly sells the character and his experiences.
It’s A Sin is ultimately a sensitive but joyful tribute to all those who lost their lives to HIV/AIDS, one that still celebrates who these people were and their relationships in spite of the tragedy of the disease. With characters that feel well drawn-out and fallible, it largely avoids feeling overtly preach-y, and is certainly up there as one of Russell T Davies’ best works.
It’s A Sin is available in full on All4, and airs weekly, Fridays at 9pm (GMT), on Channel 4.
Words by Daniel Goldstraw