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It’s a Sin – A Passionate, heartbreaking and joyous masterpiece

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It’s a Sin is available now on Channel 4 and All 4.

I think it’s really helpful to understand some of the ways in which homophobia has persisted and the ways in which the AIDS crisis really, really impacted such a huge community. And in many ways, the legacy still remains today, and I think it helps shed some light on a really complicated issue that doesn’t get spoken about very much”. – Olly Alexander

Let me start by taking a trip back to 23rd February 1999, on an otherwise dull week, during my final six months at University. On the Tuesday night of that week, there was a buzz of excitement in my shared terrace house as the clock hit 10 pm, for this was the night TV changed forever. Of course, I am talking about the first episode of Russell T Davies’ groundbreaking Queer as Folk, a show that stormed into British living rooms with courage, intensity and sexuality. Its radical, queer and proud launch, upsetting traditionalists while igniting newfound confidence in gay communities. Communities that were only just beginning to recover from the horror of AIDS in the 1980s and early 90s. Queer as Folk was upbeat, optimistic and energetic, shattering the shackles of homophobia in a country that felt ‘reborn’ following New Labour’s election victory in 1997.


The decade leading up to the halcyon days displayed in Queer as Folk had been heartbreaking, harrowing and violent for the gay community. And it’s here where Russell T Davies’ new drama It’s a Sin offers us a prequel and companion piece to the emerging confidence displayed in Queer as Folk. Here It’s a Sin explores the optimism and growing inclusion of the late 70s and early 80s against the abject horror and devastation of the arrival of AIDS. The result of which would give voice to those who wished to reverse the progress of the 70s in further oppressing LGBTQ+ people. While at the same time igniting a new fire of activism and defiance among LGBTQ+ communities. One that would herald a change in equality law and inclusion as the late 90s came into view.

©️Red Productions / Channel 4

Of course, Russell T Davies is not the first writer to explore the AIDS pandemic or its devastating effect on community, equality and family relationships. So what makes It’s a Sin one of the finest HIV/AIDS dramas ever made? The answer to that question is two-fold, but let’s start with the complexity of his characters. Here, Davies creates characters that glow with the vibrant energy of self-discovery. While at the same time ensuring each individual reflects the diversity of views the gay community housed during the 1980s. For example, Richie (Olly Alexander) is from a middle-class family in the Isle of Wight. His sexuality, firmly off-limits in a house of unaired secrets and emotions.

For Richie, his university education is a mere escape from confinement, his arrival in London an explosion of opportunities. In essence, Richie is the friend we have all had who explodes from the closet at some time or another. Their early days as an out gay man full of sex, adventure, booze and dance, as they finally breathe in their new life. However, Richie’s background also means his views are rooted in middle-class privilege. From his support for Maggie Thatcher to his ability to change his university course and embrace his dream of acting.


Richie’s view of the world is loving, free-wheeling, fun, and at times, selfish as he builds two separate lives. One in London and one at home. Then we have Jill (Lydia West), a stabilising force in the life of Richie. Jill is loving, accepting and grounded. Her friendships, built on a sense of family, diversity, place and purpose.

Meanwhile, Roscoe (Omari Douglas) is outwardly fierce yet internally tender, his Nigerian family background leading him to flee Peckham’s family home. For Roscoe, his worldview comes from his internal anger, defiance and need to survive. Traits that ensure he does not suffer fools and takes no prisoners. In contrast, Colin (Callum Scott Howells) is the opposite; his arrival in London from the Welsh valleys built upon his desire to become a tailor. Colin is thoughtful, shy and modest; his quietly held beliefs, born from a need for community, belonging and acceptance.


Finally, aspiring teacher Ash rounds off our core friendship group. His good looks hide an intellectual belief in equality and representation as he parties through University with a similar vitality to that of Richie, a man who may be his only real love. Here Davies allows for differing opinions, arguments, and thoughts in building this diverse friendship group. While at the same time maintaining a sense of the freedom and joy that comes from the friendships we forge in our late teens and twenties. But, the real genius of each character comes from the unique backstory they bring with them, their lives before we join them just as important as the new life they seek to build.

Davies reflects the secrecy of gay life in 80s Britain and the need for escape, demonstrating how this secrecy and fear was born from a range of social structures; some community, some family and some cultural. And this brings us to the second reason It’s a Sin is nothing short of a modern masterpiece.

©️Red Productions / Channel 4

LGBTQ+ communities are often viewed as one harmonious group. However, in truth, the label LGBTQ+ houses a diversity of opinions and beliefs, many of which cause community conflict and division. For example, in the late 70s and early 1980s, just as HIV and AIDS emerged, many gay men rejected the idea that the virus would ever reach them. It’s a Sin is unafraid to tackle this denial. But, it also ensures that this denial is viewed through the prism of broader discrimination and homophobia. After all, this was a world where governments rebuffed the danger of AIDS while rejecting medical information and actively discriminating against those at most risk.

This discrimination and oppression created a perfect storm in LGBTQ+ communities, where hard-won freedoms were viewed as at risk in the fight to control AIDS. Here the secrecy of gay life would only further complicate the community response to the virus. Meanwhile, Governments fed off a narrative built on a ‘gay plague’ message, only further isolating individuals while creating a public image of AIDS that would last for decades. The public was encouraged to view gay men as dangerous, predatory and sexually permissive. The result would only add to the sense of shame that would lead many men to suffer and die in silence while never fully understanding the virus ravaging their bodies. It’s a Sin not only confronts the systemic failures of a Thatcher government (who cared little for LGBTQ+ people) but demonstrates how inaction and misinformation only increased deaths and suffering.


But, It’s a Sin also demonstrates a community’s courage under siege and the fortitude of those who fought and campaigned, whether gay, bisexual or straight, in a community where belonging, freedom and love were challenged not only by AIDS but state oppression and public opinion. Here the fight for healthcare, understanding and equality was full of bravery, defiance and love, and it’s here where It’s a Sin is at its most powerful and emotional. It’s a Sin reflects our capacity to fight for justice, dignity and human rights in a world where the power of a single voice or action in creating a movement is often dismissed. Here It’s a Sin asks us to hold onto the memory of those who came before us and keep their actions close to our hearts as we continue the fight for community, justice and equality.

With outstanding performances, writing and direction, Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin is nothing short of a modern TV masterpiece. It is a drama rich in impact, beauty and complexity, encouraging people to explore the history of AIDS. After all, AIDS was a pandemic in all but name, one rooted in misinformation, discrimination and fear. Its deadly march, all but ignored by governments as it stole the hopes, creativity, love and talent of a whole generation.

©️Red Productions / Channel 4

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