It’s A Sin: “The story of HIV has been told very powerfully, but not through a gay prism”
The latest TV drama from Russell T. Davies is an Eighties-set exploration of queer boys on the cusp of the rest of their lives – and of the AIDS crisis. It’s bold, vibrant and groundbreaking. We go on set, meet the creator and his cast, and ask: why did it take so long?
Today, 1st December, is World AIDS Day.
To mark the date, we’re reposting our feature on It’s A Sin, which originally ran in January this year. Russell T. Davies’ brilliant drama was set in the ’80s and followed a group of queer boys hitting London and hitting adulthood – little knowing that a new disease was about to change their lives, and that of a generation.
Ahead of the series’ launch on Channel 4, writer Douglas Greenwood went onset and talked to crew and cast, including lead actor Olly Alexander, singer with Years & Years. His story for THE FACE, like Davies’ hit show, reported on the devastation wrought by HIV in the ’80s and beyond.
But along with It’s A Sin’s blockbuster ratings – it was All 4’s biggest ever instantly-available boxset, and the streaming platform’s most binged show to date – came other record-breaking figures. Its broadcast was timed to National HIV Testing Week (1st – 7th February) and, according to HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust, contributed to a more-than-doubling of the number of HIV tests ordered compared to the same week the previous year.
Meanwhile, the Trust’s helpline saw a 30 per cent increase in calls the day after the first episode aired. As Ian Green, Chief Executive at Terrence Higgins Trust, said at the time: “It’s A Sin has had an amazing impact… The series examines a time in our history we must never forget – when people were dying of a mystery illness and we didn’t know why.
He continued: “But it’s also important that everyone knows how much HIV has changed since then thanks to massive improvements in preventing, testing for and treating HIV. You can now live a long, healthy life with HIV and effective treatment means you won’t pass on the virus to anyone else. We’ve seen the ‘It’s A Sin effect’ on National HIV Testing Week with tests being ordered at a faster rate than ever before off the back of the series. That’s a brilliant legacy for the series.”
Today, let’s remember those wins, but also the lives lost. To find out about fund-raising, contributing and more visit worldaidsday.org.
The article below was originally published on 15/01/2021
I miss the celebration by minutes, pulling up in a taxi to a disused high school, surrounded by housing estates, in Eccles on the outskirts of Manchester. The revellers have left. Spilt drinks have been cleaned up, boombox silenced, kisses swapped with strangers who are already a dot in the distance.
The party, clearly, is over, which is something the guests are going to have become used to.
It’s January 2020, a few months before the world goes into a viral tailspin. Dramatist Russell T. Davies, creator of Queer as Folk and rebooter of Doctor Who, is inside the hulking building, rebuilding queer history once again. He’s on the final stretch of filming It’s A Sin. It’s a five-part, ’80s-set Channel 4 series that follows five friends living in London as the AIDS epidemic starts to creep quietly and devastatingly through the city, disrupting, at first, their fun, and then their lives.
Though the show is predominantly set in the capital, almost all of it has been shot here on what for Davies is familiar turf – he shot Queer As Folk in the city in 1998, and 2019’s hit BBC/HBO drama Years and Years. Manchester’s neoclassical architecture stands in for Westminster; its cobbled streets replicate the site of anti-Tory policy protests; the former classrooms of Eccles’ Old Wentworth High have been meticulously transformed into interior sets, including AIDS hospital wards.
Within the school’s high-ceilinged former assembly hall, the friends’ four-bed South London abode, known as the “Pink Palace”, has been built from scratch. Its flaking, beige wallpaper – typical of London’s dingy rental digs, then and now – is masked with theatre posters and campy decor such as plastic lobsters on the wall. It looks and smells lived in, the floorboards flecked with the sweat and pretend booze of the dozens of extras who had earlier piled into it.
The cast and crew have been shooting a housewarming scene for the first episode. The show’s central character Ritchie Tozer, played by Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander, unveils his drag persona, Rachel, to hoots and hollers. Queer boys snog and shag and suck each other off in bedrooms. Extras mill about in era-appropriate lurid patterned shirts, pleather and string vests. But across the kitchen table, there are whispers of a strange gay plague that’s starting to spread through America, quickly finding its way into Britain, too.
It’s A Sin is set between the years of 1981 and 1991, the decade in which AIDS mutated from a murmured rumour into Britain’s biggest killer of men aged between 25 and 44. The ages of the characters correspond with that of Davies, now 57, at that time. But the Welshman insists this is not an autobiographical story. Instead, it’s one told very loosely through the lens of a close friend of his who lived in the real Pink Palace. A place he visited, and whose occupants he once knew.
“There was nothing like those years,” the scriptwriter reflects in his warm Welsh gruff, leaning against the kitchen sink in the post-party flat. “It wasn’t just about death. These were lives that were lived.”
Davies – who has spent most of his career flitting between queer storytelling and the sci-fi that most recently found form in Years and Years – is one of the few people capable of doing justice to a show about Britain’s AIDS crisis. But time had to pass – almost four decades – in order for him to reach a headspace that would allow him to confront it. It was, for a while, too sore. AIDS was the deadly trauma that leeched his generation of its freedom, happiness and hope.
“When it came to Queer as Folk, I was absolutely determined that HIV would not be centre stage,” he tells me, speaking from his Swansea home that looks out into the Bay, a year after my set visit. “I wrote that show in 1998. We had been through 18 years where I felt like we were always being defined by that disease, so I was determined to break us free from it.”
It’s A Sin, then, is the moment things change.
“I feel like I’m righting a wrong, in a sense. I’d have gone to my deathbed very sad if I hadn’t written this.”
The scenario that inspired the show’s creation has been in Davies’s head for decades: a family arrives at a hospital to find their boy dying, learning of his sexuality and imminent mortality in one fell swoop. “That’s a true story many times over,” he says soberly. “It’s been burning in my mind for 30 years.”
Those spectres come to life again on screen here, haunting characters full of the same energy boys like Davies and his generation once possessed. Ritchie, Alexander’s character, is 18 when we meet him. A wide-eyed Isle of Wight queer, he has his heart set on a London life more extravagant than the law degree his parents forced him into. He soon sacks it off, studying English and Drama instead, and finds freedom in all of the boys his new city has to offer.
As an actor (a career he admits “falling into”) you often forget Alexander – a very young-looking 30-year-old – has worked with everybody from Gaspar Noé (in 2009’s Enter The Void) to Greta Gerwig (in 2011’s The Dish and the Spoon). But the Yorkshireman had largely retired from the screen after Years & Years’ career took off in 2015. That year the synthpop band won the BBC’s Sound Of… poll, had a Number One single with King and also topped the charts with debut album Communion. But four years on, having finished touring his group’s second record, 2018’s Palo Santo, he arrived back in London to continue work on its follow-up.
“It felt like it wasn’t really clicking,” he says of the new music written in that weird limbo period. Then the script for It’s A Sin came along. It was a story he felt passionate about, made by a man whose defiantly queer work he had watched since he was a closeted 14-year-old, hand on the remote in a schoolfriend’s bedroom.
As it turned out, the offer to play Ritchie was, he says, “serendipitous” in more ways than one. This is a drama which foregrounds the celebratory pop of the era, everything from Laura Branigan’s Gloria to Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy – and, of course, the Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 epic that gives the show its title. After completing filming, Alexander scrapped almost the entire record and started again. “A combination of doing the show and that period of dancefloor and disco [inspired me]… I realised how much that was a source of strength and courage.”
In the show, Ritchie is joined by a handful of lads whose stories weave intricately, importantly, around his own. Roscoe, played by the effervescent rising star Omari Douglas, is a queer boy from the city who escapes his family’s Christian faith to live his true life in the Pink Palace. Wildly talented Welsh newcomer Callum Scott Howells plays Collin: a slightly gawky, perpetually suited Savile Row apprentice who feels like the group’s innocent baby brother. Then there’s Ash, a regular bed buddy of Ritchie’s whom actor Nathaniel Curtis, making his professional debut, describes as “calm, kind, but also very emotionally guarded”. He’s the wise, clear-headed one of this found family.
Though Ritchie is framed as the central character, it’s Jill, a caring soul and matriarch to these effectively motherless boys, who acts as the glue at the show’s reflective core. Played by Lydia West (Years and Years, Dracula), she’s both hardy and hugely sensitive, the ravaged life of her friends – and her own – effectively mirrored in the glassy, hazel glimmer of her eyes.
“There’s tragedy,” West says of Davies’s script. “But as a character you’re not playing the tragedy – you’re just living it. And when you have Russell’s beautiful writing, you can just say the word and half your job is done.”
Remembering their work together on Years and Years, Davies calls her “amaaazing”, that second syllable stretched like bubblegum, multiple times, when we talk. She reminds him of Sophia Loren.
Since the epidemic shaped the output of queer artists in the late 20th century, the stage and screen has tackled the AIDS crisis in a myriad of manners. It’s A Sin, in that sense, may seem like nothing new. After all, aside from the obvious (Jonathan Demme’s 1993 Oscar-bait weepy Philadelphia) we’ve had Angels in America, playwright Tony Kushner’s 1991, Pulitzer Prize-winning theatrical epic of New York’s AIDS addled years, which transferred from Broadway to HBO screen and was later staged by London’s National Theatre in a 2017 production starring Andrew Garfield and Russell Tovey.
Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart experienced a similar afterlife, ascending from off-Broadway hit to 2014 Ryan Murphy TV movie. Then there are the lesser seen arthouse films that capture the political fury fuelled by the disease and its spread: masterful 2017 French film 120 BPM, which explored the work of ACT UP in Paris, and agonising documentaries like 1993’s Silverlake Life: The View from Here, in which you watch a man succumb to AIDS complications through the camera lens of his dying husband.
They each tell stories of how an unpredicted and incurable virus swept through populations of gay men, sex workers and drug addicts – an onslaught Davies refers to as “a massacre” – claiming the lives of many of those it infected and shaping the ones of those who watched on.
But there are significantly fewer stories told about how it hit Britain (1987 TV series Intimate Contact is a rare example), which makes It’s A Sin something of a rarity. Nonetheless, the show was a hard sell when its creator was pitching it to broadcasters, and Davies knows why. “There was a feeling that it had been done.”
That’s hardly true, but Britain’s long standing love affair with the soap opera convinced TV commissioners that it had anyway.
“They are working class- and issue-based in a way that doesn’t exist in American television,” says Davies of Coronation Street, Emmerdale et al. “EastEnders played a game with Colin in the ’80s, and whether he had HIV or not,” he notes of Albert Square’s first gay male character. In the end, Colin was spared the stereotypical storyline. Instead, it was the character of Mark Fowler, a straight, married man, who became the avatar for AIDS in the show, eventually dying in 2004.
As the writer points out: “The story of HIV was being told very powerfully, but not through a gay prism.” Eventually Channel 4, in partnership with HBO, commissioned the show, the broadcasters clearly recognising that really, truly, we’ve never had anything quite like this. It’s A Sin is a British show that faces the crisis head-on, and allows it to shape the fate of its characters.
That may explain why the drama’s core cast – many of them queer – all learned something in the process of researching and making the show. They all were in Britain’s education system at a time when Section 28 was in place. The 1988 Thatcher government-instigated ruling banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools and was only repealed in England and Wales in 2003 (Scotland repealed it in 2000).
“Under [her] Britain, you were living in a time where people didn’t want to talk about sex or gay people,” remembers Douglas. “Put the two together, with this disease, and the [results] are just unbelievable.”
This rewriting of reality came at a time when its documentation was more necessary than ever. This was a violent, coercive attack against the sexual health and dignity of queer youth who, as a result of Tory rule, risked their lives through sexual experimentation, many inevitably dying as a result. Eighteen years on from its final abolition, Section 28’s effects linger. Britain’s learning curriculum still caters to the heteronormative majority, while othering and bigotry spreads in playgrounds and centre-right newspapers to this day.
“I didn’t learn about this in school, and that’s seen in the people I grew up around,” Scott Howells stresses in his unfettered Welsh accent. “Where I’m from, The Valleys, we never, ever spoke about it, and that’s had an effect on people.” He hopes the show reaches those who felt like they couldn’t be themselves as a result of who they loved, “so they know what this community has gone through, and feel grateful to be alive”.
There was a time when Russell T. Davies contemplated making a series that gnawed rigorously at that history, at the reactionary moments that forced the disease to spread through Britain. He had the scenes: Princess Diana holding the hand of an AIDS patient (“I’m very sad I didn’t get to dramatise that”); Health Secretary Norman Fowler begging support-sceptic Thatcher to air the infamous 1987 Don’t Die of Ignorance advert that Davies’ own characters watch in the show; Terrence Higgins’s tide-shifting death in 1982.
In the end, the didactic nature of mapping timeframes and fact-checking – something he found tricky while writing his Emmy-nominated script for 2018’s A Very English Scandal, based on the 1970s Jeremy Thorpe political scandal – reminded him of why he loved his usual way of doing things.
“My only job as a dramatist is to make you love these people,” he insists. “That’s my overriding drive when it comes to HIV and AIDS. I could talk to you forever about the medicine and the politics, but in the end it’s about the people. I want you to love them, so you miss them.”
That love courses through It’s A Sin. It’s a story that feels wholly reliant on each character propping up their friends, and being there for each other, as if the whole illusion would cease to exist if one of them wasn’t present in the beginning.
“It’s been one of the most formative and profound experiences of my life, for so many reasons,” reflects Olly Alexander. “Through this story – and through meeting Russell and the others, people who went through this decade – [I was] able to engage so intimately with something I’d felt very afraid of in the past. It’s changed the way I feel about myself.”
The young acting family gathered at the heart of it all speak highly of Davies: of his mentorship, his writing, that ability to channel the emotions of people he lost into something celebratory, sexy and sad all at the same time. As Alexander puts it: “We had a hero we all believed in.”
It’s worth noting that, for all the colour and care-free euphoria that helps make the show such a treat, the tale of It’s A Sin is historical in setting alone. While deaths from AIDS-related complications continue to drop, they still happen: in 2017 (the last year for which figures are available) 428 people died in the UK due to late diagnosis.
But the virus is no longer a death sentence. Early intervention means antiretroviral drugs allow HIV-positive people to live normal lives, and can suppress their viral load to the point of the infection being undetectable and unable to be passed on. Preventative medication like PrEP, now freely available on the NHS, reduces the risk of catching the virus by 99 per cent.
At the same time, though, Alexander stresses these aren’t free passes for ignoring our own sexual health. “PrEP is amazing,” he notes, “but it can’t let us be lax about looking after ourselves and each other.”
As we’re talking, I wonder if Davies envies the queer generation who may, one day soon, have the freedom to live a blissful life denied his generation.
“Oh God, no!” he exclaims, letting out a deep-throated laugh. “We’ve thrown a lot of shit at them! They’ve got to handle an 80-seat majority Conservative government. It’s worse than it ever was!
“Obviously I’m not a fan of Margaret Thatcher,” he adds pointedly, something a deliciously conniving scene in the show’s fourth episode confirms, “but in the light of our current Prime Minister, she looks like a fine upstanding citizen who spoke with honesty and dignity!”
Clearly, the comedy Russell T. Davies streaks through the bleakness of his drama, and vice versa, bleeds into his real life language, too. Then, thoughtful to the last, one of our great contemporary dramatists of real lives, fully lived, backtracks.
“I do know what you mean, though. It’s a hard one with illness, because it’s not our job to look backwards. It’s in our nature, that human survival instinct, to keep moving on. Of course now, we have PrEP and antiretrovirals. But wherever there is boys and sex, there will always be trouble too!”
It’s A Sin is on Channel 4 from 22nd January