Russell T. Davies is one of our finest television writers, and while he has been responsible for multiple projects with mainstream appeal – Doctor Who, Casanova, even Coronation Street, for example – his best, most powerful works have been those that have dealt with, shall we say, challenging concepts. The Second Coming looked at Christianity through a working-class modern filter, while soap opera The Grand became notorious for its dark, difficult storylines. Most notably, of course, are his works that deal with LGBT issues. Queer as Folk was his magnum opus, not merely pushing boundaries on TV but knocking them down. Bob & Rose inverted the standard coming out storyline. His trilogy of gay programming for Channel 4 – the drama Cucumber, the anthology series Banana and the documentary Tofu – pushed the envelope further, and A Very English Scandal for the BBC gave a sympathetic telling of the Thorpe Affair. Even those series that weren't specifically LGBT-themed involve notable positive portrayals of queer characters and exploration of LGBT issues, from the notoriously queer lead characters in Torchwood to significant storylines in his Children's Ward scripts.
It's a Sin, though, might very well be the best thing Davies has yet created, rivalling even Queer as Folk as the definitive gay story for his generation. Tracking the lives of a group of young people over ten years from 1981 across five episodes, the series explores the devastating beginnings of the AIDS crisis that remain frustratingly un-talked about even amongst the gay community. The result is a powerful, hilarious and heartbreaking programme that leaves an indelible impression on the viewer.
Davies had the intention to write the series since at least 2015, basing the storyline on his own experiences and those of his friends. He told the Radio Times near that time that it is “the most research-based piece (he) will ever do,” and stated in a recent webinar that “there's probably not a line in there I haven't said or heard said at some point,” but refused to be drawn on whether any one character was specifically based on his own experiences. He struggled to find a company that would pick it up; initially he offered it to Channel 4, who declined to commission it in spite of considerably interest by some parties. From there he took it both the BBC and ITV, but again, was unable to find backing due to the “tough subject matter.” Eventually, the drama commissioner at C4, Lee Mason, once again proposed to his company that they take it on, but waited until the majority of the top staff at the channel had changed. Finally, they picked it up, but even then the length of the series was a compromise on Davies's planned eight-part serial. The programme had the working title of The Boys (or simply Boys) but this was changed due to the high profile Amazon superhero series of the same name.
Although the series follows the lives of a group of friends, the focal point is Ritchie Tozer, who leaves his home on the Isle of Wight for London at the age of eighteen, entering a far wider, more diverse and more hedonistic world than the one he grew up in. Ritchie is played by Olly Alexander, whose previous screen work includes Skins, Penny Dreadful and Riot Club, but who is better known for his music under the name Years & Years (whether Davies named his previous series after that, I don't know). An outspoken activist for LGBT rights and mental health awareness, Alexander is an ideal spokesperson for the series. He is excellent as Ritchie, a character who, in lesser hands, could easily have come across as a grating cliché. Ritchie is flamboyant, catty, promiscuous, and a little arrogant, but rises above the apparent stereotype due to the combination of excellent writing and a fine performance. Ritchie's story is central to the serial, seeing him go from a sheltered young man to the life and soul of his community, dropping his degree in law to switch to drama and take up his passion for acting. Part of his character is based on the late actor Dursley McLinden, who died in 1995, aged only thirty, from AIDS. Davies knew McLinden, who starred in the 1988 Doctor Who serial Remembrance of the Daleks. As a small tribute to this, Ritchie appears in a fictitious Doctor Who episode, fighting a phalanx of Daleks. With both the production team and fandom of Doctor Who in the 1980s being dominated by gay men, and Davies's well known love of the programme, it was inevitable that it would appear somewhere in It's a Sin, just as it had done in Queer as Folk years earlier.
Ritchie's best friend, Jill Baxter, is based loosely on Davies's friend Jill Nalder, an actress and HIV/AIDS activist who lived with Davies and three other students in a flatshare in the eighties, inspiring the “Pink Palace” of the series. Jill Baxter (the surname being one of Davies's go-to names, along with Tyler) is played by the truly excellent Lydia West, recently seen on Years and Years and the Moffat-Gatiss adaptation of Dracula. Clearly destined for big things, West plays Jill with subtlety, humour and powerful emotion. Her own sexuality being largely uncommented on, she's the first person in the main group who becomes truly worried about the spread of AIDS and commits herself to learning about it and helping spread awareness. Nalder herself appears in the series as Jill's mother.
Joining them is young, unworldly Welshman Colin Morris-Jones, based by Davies on a past boyfriend. Nicknamed “Gladys” by his friends, Colin goes through his own journey of self-discovery in parallel to Ritchie's, but their stories for the most part couldn't be more different. Colin takes a respectable job in a gentlemen's outfitters on Savile Row, learning about the trade and himself in the process. Played with heartfelt skill by young stage actor Callum Scott Howells, Colin's quiet, sweet story ends heartbreakingly. Colin could easily be lost in the noise amongst the more flamboyant members of the main cast, but Howells makes him stand out as the most likeable character, hinting at hidden depths throughout.
Also making their television debuts are Omari Douglas and Nathaniel Curtis, as Roscoe Babatunde and Ash Mukherjee, respectively. Roscoe is an arch and excitable young man whose flamboyance makes Ritchie look beige, born to a Nigerian family in London. His family are strict Christians, who try to banish the “demons” from Roscoe with prayer and disown him when he refuses to denounce his sexuality. Roscoe's fabulous flounce out of his home is a powerful early scene, but the ongoing, tenuous contact with his family eventually leads to a reconciliation. His father (Delroy Brown) returns to Nigeria, coming home with horror stories of the AIDS pandemic there, massively changing his worldview and providing another slant on the central elements of the story. Ash is a quiet, thoughtful and terribly handsome student who Ritchie immediately falls for, leading to a casual, on-off sort of affair over the years, which develops into something more serious when it's sadly too late.
Supporting the main five is a star-studded cast of some of today's most sought-after actors. The ubiquitous Stephen Fry plays Arthur Garrison, a closeted Thatcherite MP who engages in an affair with Roscoe with dramatic consequences. Neill Patrick Harris (Gone Girl, How I Met Your Mother, A Series of Unfortunate Events) is classy as hell as Henry, a tailor who takes Colin under his wing, while Nicholas Blane (Game of Thrones, The Great Fire, The Good Traitor) plays his detestable boss Mr. Hart, who tries to seduce Colin on several occasions, before kicking him out of the shop when his patience wears thin.
Of major focus are Ritchie's family, who are somehow blissfully unaware that the young man is gay. Their household is a terribly English, repressed place, with little real love on show. The usually glamorous Keeley Hawes (Ashes to Ashes, Bodyguard, Line of Duty) plays Ritchie's frumpy mother Valerie, while Shaun Dooley (The Woman in Black, Gentleman Jack, The Witcher) plays his brusque, opinionated father Clive. To be begin with, Valerie seems very much the downtrodden housewife, under the thumb of the sometimes aggressive Clive. However, when events take a tragic turn and Ritchie's sexuality finally becomes known to them, it's Clive who is supportive and loving of him while Valerie turns hard, vindictive and unforgiving. Ritchie's agent Carol Carter (Tracey-Ann Oberman - EastEnders, Grantchester) shows more unconditional love than his own mother, although there's an undercurrent of cruelty in her home and community that make it clear her hardness is a defence mechanism. The performances are excellent all round, but Hawes in particular excels as her difficult-to-like character.
There are, of course, many more characters, many played by out LGBT actors. David Carlyle (Lip Service) plays the saucy Gregory Finch, aka Gloria, whose story, like many, ends in tragedy and isolation. Nathaniel Hall (Cucumber), who plays Donald Bassett, a boyfriend of Ritchie, is HIV-positive himself and is an HIV/AIDS awareness activist. While I don't agree with Davies's stance that only gay actors should play gay characters, in a project like this it's essential that LGBT actors have a space to openly portray their experiences, and the casting reflects this.
Over the course of its ten year story, It's a Sin reflects the changing attitudes and awareness of the AIDS pandemic and the treatment of its sufferers, and gay people in general, in the UK. From the beginnings of the pandemic, misinformation and denialism run rampant. While the series was completed before the worldwide outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there's a clear parallel between the two, with Ritchie spouting all manner of nonsensical conspiracy theories about HIV purely to discredit those who are trying to raise awareness, and refusing to change his lifestyle in spite of the dangers to himself and others. The fear felt by those in the gay community is palpable, not only the gay men who were disproportionately affected by the disease due to its means of transmission, but also those who associate with them. Jill, when looking after the isolating Gloria, becomes obsessed with disinfecting herself and anything he's touched, terrified that he might be infectious, before she's finally able to gather some accurate information on the virus.
The fear and disbelief go hand-in-hand, with some characters unable to believe that there's a disease that hits “only” gay men, while others are too frightened to even take a test, preferring to live in ignorance. The disinformation is increased by the fact that doctors refuse to even look into the problem or hold information, not wanting to sully their practices with gay patients. Sufferers are abandoned by their families. The treatment of the early sufferers of the disease is horrific, with many of them kept as prisoners in isolation wards and treated as little more than hazardous material. In one episode, a character is taken ill, diagnosed with the disease and locked in a ward alone without even being told what he is suffering from. It's utterly barbaric, and almost unbelievable. Yet all of this is based on true events.
That's why this series is so important. While the LGBT community is aware of the AIDS pandemic, the sheer extent of it, the lives lost and the abuse that people went through because of it, remains unknown to many younger people today. The pandemic isn't taught in schools, in spite of being one of the most significant health crises of the twentieth century. There's a culture of silence around it even now, showing that, as much as things have improved, there's still an enormous stigma attached. What's perhaps worse is that so many of the victims of this disease are forgotten because their stories are untold. The series goes some way towards addressing this, giving viewers a tiny glimpse of the pain of living through the pandemic as it indiscriminately kills off characters we've grown to love. It's utterly heartbreaking, and I can only imagine what it's like watching for those who lived through it and lost people.
In spite of this, the series remains uplifting. “We had so much fun,” says Ritchie at the end, as he looks back on his experiences. With dynamic direction by Peter Hoar and a killer score full of eighties classics, it's hugely entertaining and hilariously funny when it wants to be. It's also proudly, unapologetically sexual, something that no doubt made it a harder sell to the TV companies, and while it's certainly no more graphic than many straight, sexually-charged dramas, it pushes the boundaries of what can be done on mainstream television. Yet for all the hedonistic, dirty, sexy, raucous fun, it can change to utter devastation in a moment, juxtaposing the characters' party lifestyle with the tragedy that ran alongside it. It's probably impossible to make it through the whole thing without crying (for me, I was OK until Ritchie and Jill started singing “Only You,” and that was it, I was in a state for the rest of the series).
The BBC and ITV execs are presumably kicking themselves now as It's a Sin has become a huge critical and ratings hit. Raising awareness of the toll the disease carries even now, it had led to a huge upsurge in requests for HIV tests, with the Terrence Higgins Trust reporting their highest ever request for tests in a single day (8200 against a previous record of 2800), with over £100,000 raised for the charity via merchandise sales linked to the series. It's a Sin could have easily become polemical and humourless in dealing with its themes, but instead it is an incredibly enjoyable and moving series, and one of the most important programmes in recent years.
Review: Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on July 20th, 2021. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.