Why Russell T Davies’ new drama about the AIDS crisis is one of the most moving and entertaining shows you’ll watch this year.
It is difficult to imagine that we will ever forget the events of the past year. But pandemics have a habit of being forgotten.
The AIDS epidemic, which spread throughout the world in the 1980s, affected millions but for those who lived through it, like the writer Russell T Davies, there is a sense the era might yet be lost to time.
Davies, though, is a master of memorable telly. He regenerated Doctor Who in blockbusting style and introduced television audiences to the joy of gay sex in unforgettable fashion with Queer As Folk in 1999. Most recently, he made the end of the world totally gripping in the near future drama Years And Years.
All this time, he wanted to write about the AIDS crisis (“I was 18 in 1981, so I’ve been wanting to tell this story for that long, really,” he told Esquire magazine.) Now, he’s finally found a way with It’s A Sin, his gloriously exuberant five-part drama about life lived during the epidemic in 1980s London, which comes to Channel 4 this week.
Pandemics aren’t exactly ripe for fun times. But life, as you will be all too aware, goes on in them. And just as the scarily prescient Years And Years foretold social upheaval through the everyday ups and downs of an incredibly chatty Manchester family, It’s A Sin charts the course of the AIDS crisis through the lives of four ordinary gay men and their best girlfriend, who are all also exceedingly good at nattering.
It’s A Sin follows Ritchie – played by Olly Alexander from the synth-pop maestros Years & Years (no relation to the drama) – and his vibrant, messy, utterly memorable mates as they celebrate their young adulthood in a crumbling £80 a month London flat nicknamed ‘The Pink Palace’.
We meet them at the outset of the decade. Ritchie, 18, is the leader of the bunch, fizzing with energy, and fresh off the boat from a closeted life on the Isle of Wight.
He moves in with Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who is doing a runner from his God fearing family, and handsome, bookish Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). Lovely Jill (Years And Years star Lydia West) is the glue that holds the gang together. Finally, wonderfully Welsh ingénue, Colin (Callum ScottHowells), bags a proper job on Savile Row and the last bed in the Pink Palace.
Initially at least, they have a brilliant time of it; quickly getting the hang of sex, gargling booze for breakfast and talking in code like only tight knit friendship groups can. The Pink Palace crew arrive into rooms and shout ‘La!’ – their little in-joke that never gets old.
The young cast do an excellent job of making you yearn to be part of their gang, while starry support comes from Keeley Hawes (excellent as Ritchie’s mother), Stephen Fry and Neil Patrick Harris, who has a terrific time as an English tailor who takes Colin under his wing and shows him that it is possible to live and love as a gay man, even in a homophobic society.
For It’s a Sin is not all brightness and La’s, as lovely as they are. Davies is a dab hand at switching from light to dark and the series makes no bones about how 1980s Britain was no picnic if you were gay, or Black or brown, or a woman.
He is similarly unflinching on how the AIDS epidemic crashed the party, as it does, first as rumour, then as symptoms, before becoming full blown fact.
Fear, ignorance and shame allow the disease to spread. Medics, politicians and parents turn away from the reality of the crisis. Disinformation, based on prejudice, abounds. Davies articulates a painful truth about internalised homophobia too; how the stigma of AIDS forced the boys themselves to deny it was happening.
Others did not turn away. Just as those who lived and survived the crisis are in danger of being forgotten, so are the great allies of that moment. Women, in particular, have been largely absent from the historical narrative of the AIDS crisis.
In It’s A Sin, the boys’ great ally is Jill (in an exceptional performance by Lydia West). Based on a real-life friend of Davies (who also plays Jill’s mother in the show), she is the first to reckon with the potential danger. She joins a local activist group and warns her friends to be safe, when they desperately want to avoid talking about it. Finally, she nurses the sick and dying when the crisis becomes too overwhelming for anyone to ignore.
Towards its end, It’s A Sin simmers with righteous anger. It is still brilliantly arch and witty (this is Russell T Davies show, after all) but the writer does not turn away from asking the hard questions about who, through indifference, ignorance or intolerance let all these young gay men die. They are questions, that we know from living through an era of daily death counts due to the coronavirus, are not simply a matter for history.
It’s A Sin is a short series, just a quick five episodes and before you know it you’re at a decade’s end, bereft of such lively company as Ritchie, Jill, Roscoe, Ash and Colin. Lovely Colin! All those Las! You want it to go on and on, even if the one thing you remember about the AIDS crisis is that it cannot.
It’s devastating, honestly, and truly landmark television. It’s A Sin is impossible to forget.
It’s A Sin begins on Channel 4 on Friday 22 January at 9pm and then will be available on All4.
Images: Channel 4