IT’S A SIN (Channel 4, 2021)
A chronicle of four friends during a decade in which everything changed, including the rise of AIDS.
Russell T. Davies returns with five-part drama It’s a Sin, following the lives of three young gay men in 1980s London: actor Ritchie (Olly Alexander), who’s moved from the Isle of Wight; barman Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who escaped his tough religious family; and straight-laced Welsh office worker Colin (Callum Scott Howells).
They all move into their ‘Pink Palace’, forming a new family with Ritchie’s university friend Jill (Lydia West), intending to enjoy every piece of freedom and debauchery the city’s bright lights has to offer. But the story opens in 1981, just as the first reports of the mysterious AIDS virus made its way across the Atlantic.
The first episode spends time establishing the group and their world. Davies always excels in creating a group of friends who feel real, as few screenwriters understand humanity so well. These guys are real and flawed, inappropriate and funny. It’s easy to see your younger self in their naivety and longing to try everything. The adding of layers to their personalities only makes the later episodes even more heartbreaking.
Colin is thrilled by his jobs in a tailor shop, despite his handsy middle-aged manager, and he soon makes friends with older colleague Henry (Neil Patrick Harris) and his long-term partner Pablo (Tatsu Carvalho). Their mysterious illness, which forces Pablo to return to his home country and forces Henry into hospital isolation, is the first hint that something isn’t right within their community.
It’s a Sin moves through the decade, focusing on these men’s careers, their relationships, and their social lives. Although described by many as an ‘AIDS drama’, it’s more a love letter to 1980s British culture. It’s not always morbid and sombre, as some have criticised it for, as there’s plenty of humour and shocks to be found in its depiction of gay men. While the subject matter demands seriousness, the youth and joy of these characters isn’t dampened by solemnity.
It’s obvious It’s a Sin was written by someone who actually lived through this tumultuous period. It contains tiny details that are rarely touched upon in other shows about gay people in the ’80s: like Richie, upon returning home, coming under scrutiny as gay Londoners were considered potential carriers of AIDS; or a doctor’s questionnaire enquiring whether they’ve had sex with men, but also animals!
It’s a Sin shares a lot of DNA with Davies’ own groundbreaking drama Queer as Folk (1999-2000). Both are a joyful representation of gay friendships, in different stages of exploration. It also has hints of his more recent miniseries A Very English Scandal (2018), as Stephen Fry plays a closeted Tory with more than a few characteristics of Hugh Grant’s Jeremy Thorpe from that drama.
It can be a difficult watch; not just for the graphic depiction of how quickly AIDS ravages a young healthy body, but for the shame put on the gay community at the time. The tabloid press and Margaret Thatcher’s government nurtured the hate and only intensified the crisis. Gay men died alone in their beds believing they deserved the pain they were suffering, people were told their friends had died of cancer to cover up their sexuality, and contents of houses were burned to destroy evidence of a same-sex relationship.
Callum Scott Howell, whose only screen appearances have been on reality TV singing shows, is a revelation as Colin. He’s the square of the group (dressing rather like Alan Partridge) who feels out of place for not being as sexually promiscuous. He carries a lot of the emotional weight and is perfect at portraying the bright-eyed wonder of moving to a big city.
Lydia West (Years & Years) is also heart-breaking as Jill, the quiet voice of reason amongst the loud and arrogant characters around her. Davies based the character of Jill on his own friend, Jill Nalder, who was one of many women who cared for AIDS sufferers during the ’80s and ’90s. Nalder herself appears briefly in the show, which is a nice touch.
Olly Alexander, more famously known as the frontman of pop band Years and Years, carries much of the show. He’s cocky and egotistic, yet charismatic and kind; a student with big dreams about being a famous actor. Davies uses Ritchie’s upcoming career to recreate various TV shows and plays from the era (including an ’80s episode of Doctor Who, which Davies has an obvious connection to). Alexander plays Ritchie with great charm, even if one doesn’t agree with his AIDS conspiracy theories or condone his promiscuous attitude.
Despite the charisma of Omari Douglas, Roscoe is easily the least realised character. His complex relationship with his Nigerian family is underdeveloped and he’s the most clichéd of the ensemble, so the miniseries ends without a sense you knew him as a fully realised human being.
Although the main cast are newcomers, the supporting cast contain a plethora of famous faces. Keely Hawkes (Ashes to Ashes) delivers a career-high as Ritchie’s mother, crafting a complex performance with barely any screen time. The aforementioned Stephen Fry (Wilde) is perfectly ghastly as a Thatcherite, too, using young men for his personal pleasure. And Ruth Sheen (High Hopes) may only get one scene, but she uses it to eviscerate British society’s general homophobic and racist attitudes.
Despite being written before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, It’s A Sin has uncomfortable parallels between the needless deaths at the hands of AIDS in the ’80s and coronavirus today. Another generation has been let down by an inadequate and incompetent government response. Davies even deals with pre-internet conspiracy theories, being spread through leaflets, bigoted media mouthpieces, and gossiping over a pint.
Watching the drama in the age of COVID only adds to the experience. Those who didn’t live through the AIDS pandemic can emphasise with the fear and uncertainty of an emerging new disease. Some favour denial because why would a disease only target gay men, others campaign against it, but Jill arms herself with as much knowledge as possible.
Despite Davies struggling to get It’s a Sin picked up for production (the BBC and ITV both turned it down and Channel 4 reduced the episode count to five), it has become the channel’s most-watched drama series ever. It’s also been credited with an increase in people taking HIV tests.
Tragically, the popularity of It’s a Sin is connected to a lack of education during this period of history. This drama’s likely to teach people more about LBGTQ+ history than they’ll ever learn in school. Over 32 million people have died since the start of the AIDS epidemic, yet many are still unaware of the gravity of the disease, or how so many failed those affected by it. Russell T. Davies makes you fall in love with this group of wide-eyed dreamers, only to force you to watch as their youthful hopes are stripped away by a cruelly mismanaged disease and a society that never truly cared about their wellbeing in the first place.
UK | 2021 | 5 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer: Russell T. Davies.
director: Peter Hoar.
starring: Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Lydia West, Nathaniel Curtis, David Carlyle, Keeley Hawes, Shaun Dooley, Tracy Ann Oberman, Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry & Moya Brady.