The Channel 4 drama tackles a weighty subject that Davies has avoided writing about for years: The AIDS crisis
Starring Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Lydia West, and Nathaniel Curtis
To anybody familiar with Russell T Davies’ past work, it should perhaps come as no surprise that It’s a Sin is absolutely phenomenal television. Years and Years was perhaps the best television output of the past decade, if not even further: a nihilistic and bleak portrayal of the future, accompanied by a downright scathing critique of present-day society. Davies has proved himself as a massively talented and intelligent writer, and It’s a Sin certainly embodies this. It is at turns buoyant, life-affirming, joyous, soul destroying, heartbreaking and utterly devastating.
It’s a Sin is also a spiritual successor to Davies’ previous works Queer as Folk and Cucumber: both also LGBT-themed dramas; also on Channel 4. Queer as Folk was especially culturally significant, portraying homosexual characters as three-dimensional, and celebrating their sexuality in the context of the programme, instead of existing on the periphery of heterosexual drama. They were both a wonderful celebration of self expression and freedom. However, both Queer as Folk and Cucumber balked in the face of one crucial issue: the tragic circumstances which led to such liberation – the AIDS crisis.
Queer as Folk references AIDS in fleeting mentions – Davies, at the time, keen not to reduce gay men merely to the existence of the disease. Cucumber, too, grants it a brief nod, but does not significantly linger. In particular, Queer as Folk‘s lack of inclusion of AIDS was criticised by gay critics at the time. For Davies, however, the time has finally come to come to terms and reflect upon this massively turbulent section of his youth. As an 18-year-old himself in 1981, lots of It’s a Sin is crafted from Davies’ own personal history, and this really shines through.
One of Davies’ key strengths, which can be seen in pretty much all of his work, is his ability to craft characters who truly feel real. Of course, a lot of this also comes from the direction, and from the acting, but the viewer is always given a very cohesive view of who all of these characters are. They are multi-faceted, flawed, but, crucially, distinct. Each character has their own unique voice, and it’s remarkable how quickly Davies can make the audience fall in love with them – something which shall prove incredibly devastating in a show such as this.
It’s a Sin centres its action around three gay men, on the crucial precipice between who they were, repressed and closeted, and who they can be now that they are free from the shackles of their old existence. The backdrop for this joyous self discovery and expression? London. The time? 1981. There’s Ritchie (Olly Alexander), fresh from a quiet, homophobic upbringing on the Isle of Wight; Roscoe (Omari Douglas), whose deeply religious family wish to send him back to Nigeria; and Colin (Callum Scott Howells), an incredibly sweet Welsh boy, who is so reserved and unassuming, most audience members would be forgiven for wanting to wrap him up in a blanket and protect him from all the world’s ills.
The trio collide, along with Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) and Jill (based upon an actual close friend of Davies, Jill Nalder, who plays Jill’s mother in the series; played here by Lydia West, an absolute gem) and become each other’s chosen family, living together in a flat named “The Pink Palace”. The Pink Palace is regularly the site of many hedonistic parties. In fact, the first episode makes a big deal out of the partying, the dancing: the giddy, unbridled excitement of youth. And, perhaps predictably, sex. A lot of it.
Yet, amidst this buzz, this freedom, this sense of comfort and utopia creeps an unsettling cloud. Colin’s colleague and friend Henry (Neil Patrick Harris), who has lived with his partner Pablo for many years, suddenly falls unexpectedly, and quite seriously ill, and the doctors aren’t quite sure what the problem is. Left cruelly isolated and alone in a hospital ward, Henry is denied medical attention because of a lack of understanding of the true nature of his problem and, ultimately, suffers an incredibly lonely, quiet demise. Suddenly, Colin’s dream of the future, his sense of “that could be me” when seeing Henry and Pablo’s relationship becomes “that could be me“. Something utopian, something hopeful, transformed to something dark and fearful.
There’s a sense of an incoming tide. Faceless, ruthless and emotionless. Whispers of a “gay disease” over in America edges closer and closer on the fringes of the programme, as if the characters are being hemmed in. The storm clouds gather, and fear and uncertainty spread, along with misinformation and denial that accompanies the emergence of a new disease (especially prescient in modern times). The self-important feeling of invulnerability, of touchlessness, and resistance to change that accompanies the stark reality of the situation.
That’s not to say that It’s a Sin lacks levity. In fact, despite the harsh truths and the uncomfortable, upsetting reality, it nicely balances the dark, quiet moments with moments of joy and fun. There’s a contrast here between a sexually liberated age with the profound loss and tragedy, a sense of a reclamation against the shame and stigma of a misunderstood disease.
That’s what is percolating beneath the entire programme: a seething anger and damning indictment against a society that neglected an entire community, and allowed them to burn. The insidiousness of a bent institution that was ultimately driven by homophobia, and allowed the stigmatisation of AIDS as just something for the gays to worry about – their penance for going against nature. It’s almost as if Davies was waiting for this point to produce this piece, with enough space between the event and now to see how truly repugnant and horrifying the entire process was. A society that repressed and wrapped a disease in shame, to the extent where bodies were buried without any acknowledgement of what truly happened, spinning a lie to the attendees because of the pervasive stigma that accompanied the truth. The truth being dirty. To die of sex? Gay sex? You should’ve known better. It’s that homophobia that still exists here, admittedly in the background, presented so callously, that is tremendously thought provoking and powerful.
On the flip side, the programme also gives attention to those who did step up to help, and to offer support. People like Jill, people who campaigned, and sought to understood, and not to condemn.
The main idea of It’s a Sin isn’t just to be about death, or about the tragedy of AIDS. It’s about life. It’s giving a face, and a voice, to all of those people who had been lost underneath the label “AIDS”, and their vitality, their spirit, erased. A disease eclipsing their entire existence. It’s a Sin never seeks to condemn those who contracted AIDS as stupid, or irresponsible, or to criticise the hedonistic sex of the 1980s. It’s almost celebrated; the outbreak and pandemic being the result of lack of information, which largely is the fault of a homophobic society whose response in the wake of a disease seemingly only affecting gay people was to not concern themselves with the issue.
Of course, watching It’s a Sin becomes especially resonant when considering the Coronavirus outbreak. It’s almost impossible not to draw the comparisons. The fear and the uncertainty around the condition is something that the entire world has felt. The only difference here is the fact that the concepts of shame and disgust got in the way of actually taking it seriously, leaving a dreadfully negligent death toll.
It’s a Sin is an important piece of queer history for a generation which largely ignores its historical importance. Watch It’s a Sin. You need to.
It’s a Sin is airing on Channel 4 on Fridays. It’s available to watch in its entirety on 4OD.