It’s a Sin is available now on Channel 4 and All 4.
When Russell T Davies’ groundbreaking Queer as Folk first aired on the 23rd of February 1999, it changed the landscape of TV and queer storytelling forever. Queer as Folk sparked newfound confidence in the LGBTQ+ community as it recovered from the lasting impact and horror of AIDS through an upbeat, optimistic and energetic story that shattered 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 of Queer as Folk had been heartbreaking, harrowing and violent for the LGBTQ+ community, and Queer as Folk enabled us all to take a breath and believe that change was not only possible but happening before our eyes. In many ways, It’s a Sin is a companion piece to Queer as Folk as it explores the optimism of the generation born before the horror of AIDS and the loss of those who fought for inclusion in the 1970s and early 80s. It’s a Sin is the story of a community suddenly plunged into a darkness that would last two decades and the bravery, hope and loss surrounding their journey.
Richie (Olly Alexander) is a middle-class boy from the Isle of Wight who, like so many young gay men of the time, has just moved to London to embrace his sexuality and escape his closeted home life. For Richie, his university education is an escape door that opens up a world of possibilities as he explodes from the closet and breathes in the newfound world of sex, liberation, adventure, and dance the city offers. Richie’s view of the world is full of love, free-wheeling, fun, and, at times, selfishness as he creates two separate lives, one out and proud and the other bathed in secrecy. Jill (Lydia West) is a stabilising force in Richie’s life; she is loving, accepting and grounded, with her friendships built on a bedrock of family, diversity, place and purpose.
Meanwhile, Roscoe (Omari Douglas) is outwardly fierce yet internally tender, his Nigerian family roots leading him to flee his Peckham family home in fear of religious conversion therapy or worse. Roscoe’s worldview is shaped by his intersectionality, anger, and defiance. In contrast, Colin (Callum Scott Howells), like Richie, has recently arrived in London after leaving his home in the Welsh valleys to pursue his career as a tailor. Colin is thoughtful, shy and modest, his quietly held beliefs rooted, like Jill, in community, belonging and the importance of family. Finally, aspiring teacher Ash rounds off our friendship group. Ash is political, academic and a staunch supporter of equality and human rights, and while he may party with the same ferocity as Richie, he is a father figure of sorts.
In building this friendship group, Davies embraces the diversity at the heart of the LGBTQ+ community, allowing for differing opinions while celebrating the role the ‘found family‘ plays in the LGBTQ+ journey. Here, Davies reflects on the secrecy of gay life in 80s Britain and the need for escape born from homophobia and community oppression. LGBTQ+ communities are often viewed as one harmonious group, but the label LGBTQ+ houses a diversity of opinions and beliefs, many of which cause community conflict and tension. 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 isn’t afraid to reflect on this denial by exploring the LGBTQ+ experience through a prism of varying political and social beliefs.
However, at the same time, It’s a Sin also dissects the social and political environment of Thatcher’s Britain and the orchestrated oppression of LGBTQ+ people that would make the arrival of AIDS and the community response to the virus so challenging. This was a country where the government fed off of a ‘gay plague’ message, 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, adding to a sense of shame built since childhood that would lead many men to suffer in silence. It’s a Sin not only confronts the systemic failures of the Thatcher government but also the inaction and misinformation that increased deaths and suffering.
But It’s a Sin also celebrates the courage of a community under siege and the fortitude of those who fought and campaigned, whether gay, bisexual or straight. Here, the fight for healthcare, understanding and equality was full of individual and group bravery, and it’s here where It’s a Sin is at its most powerful and emotional. It’s a Sin reminds us all of our capacity to fight for justice, dignity and human rights in a world where governments refuse to listen. It 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.
Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin is a masterpiece. The emotional, joyous and heartbreaking story of loss, survival and strength our LGBTQ+ community endured must never be forgotten or lost, nor should we forget all those we lost, the teachers, artists, nurses, doctors, tailors, bus drivers and dancers whom AIDS tore from us, and their lives and accomplishments in building the equalities we now, so often, take for granted.