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’s start by taking a trip back to 23rd February 1999. It was a Tuesday, on an otherwise dull week, during my final six months at University. However, there was a buzz of excitement in my shared terrace house as the clock hit 10 pm and TV changed forever. Of course, I am talking about the premiere of Russell T Davies’ groundbreaking Queer as Folk; a show that stormed into British living rooms with courage, intensity and sexuality. It’s opening 30 minutes gleefully 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; shaking off the shackles of homophobia in a country that felt ‘reborn’ following New Labour’s election victory in 1997.
However, the decade leading up to the halcyon days displayed in Queer as Folk was heartbreaking for the gay community. With Russell T Davies’ new drama It’s a Sin, providing us with a 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 while dovetailing this with the devastation and pain of AIDS. The resulting anguish and trauma emboldening those who sought to oppress LGBTQ+ people. While at the same time, igniting a new fire of activism and defiance. One that would herald a change in both equality and inclusion as the late 90s came into view.
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 character reflects the diversity of views housed within gay community structures.
Richie (Olly Alexander) comes from a middle-class family background on the Isle of Wight. His sexuality kept 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, leading to an explosion of opportunity. In essence, Richie is the friend we have all had at some time or another who explodes from the closet. 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 ensures his views remain 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. His view of the world both loving, free-wheeling, fun and at times, selfish as he creates 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 the family home in Peckham. For Roscoe, his view of the world comes from his internal anger, defiance and need to survive. Traits that ensure he does not suffer fools gladly and takes no prisoners. In contrast, Colin (Callum Scott Howells) is the exact opposite. His arrival in London from the Welsh valleys centred on 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 the core friendship group, his good looks hiding a studious belief in equality and representation. While at the same time, he parties through University with a similar exuberance to that of Richie; a man who may be his only real love. In building this diverse friendship group, Davies allows for differing opinions, arguments and thoughts. 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 leading up to this point just as important as the new life they seek to build.
Here, 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.
It is often the case that LGBTQ+ communities are viewed as a harmonious group. In truth, the label LGBTQ+ houses a diversity of opinions and beliefs; many causing community conflict and division. In the late 70s and early 1980s, just as HIV and AIDS began to emerge, many gay men rejected the idea that the virus would ever reach them. And It’s a Sin is unafraid to tackle the denial that existed as AIDS reared its head. But, it also ensures that this denial is seen through the prism of a world where governments rebuffed its danger, rejected information and actively discriminated against those at most risk.
This created a perfect storm in LGBTQ+ communities, where hard-won freedoms were deemed to be at risk in controlling AIDS. The secrecy of identifying as gay only further complicating the community response to the early days of the virus. Meanwhile, Governments fed off a narrative built on a ‘gay plague’ message. Only further isolating individuals while building a public image of AIDS that would endure for decades to come. Gay men were viewed as dangerous, predatory and sexually permissive. Adding to a sense of shame that would ultimately 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 the courage of a community 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 by AIDS, state oppression and public opinion. The fight for healthcare, understanding and equality full of bravery, defiance and love. And maybe its here, where It’s a Sin is at its most powerful and emotional. As it beautifully reflects our capacity to fight for justice, dignity and human rights; in a world where we often forget the power of a single voice or action in creating a movement. And in a world where equality and inclusion are often threatened by ignorance and hate. It’s a Sin asks us to hold the memory of those who came before us in 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 masterpiece of TV; a drama destined to be remembered for its sheer impact, beauty and complexity. And I, for one, hope that it encourages more people to explore the history of AIDS; a pandemic in all but name that found itself 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. A generation who equally fought for many of the freedoms we now enjoy, despite the heartbreak of the loss they endured.
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