It’s a Sin: A Life-Affirming Miniseries About Death
Russell T. Davies’s latest series set in the 1980s to the backdrop of the growing AIDS epidemic captures a world of fun, excitement and terror in a tale of coming of age and coming out.
The five-episode miniseries is set in London from 1981 to 1991. A group of 18-year-olds begin their new lives. As they live and love a virus begins to loom over them. It premiered on Channel Four in January and comes to HBO Max on 18th February.
After a decade in children’s television and soap operas, Russell T. Davies made his reputation with Queer as Folk (1999–2000), a show that moved gay characters on television from the shadows and placed them front and centre. As groundbreaking as it was, Davies recalled members of the gay press being outraged that the drama didn’t touch on AIDS.
It’s a Sin covers that health crisis in a way no other British television series has. Olly Alexander leads an exemplary cast which also features Keeley Hawes, Stephen Fry, Neil Patrick Harris, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Nathaniel Curtis and Lydia West. It’s notable that the production cast gay actors for gay roles.
Although a period piece it’s not a series that needs to rely on haircuts, fashions, songs, and personalities of the time, although a few do creep in naturally. In its relationships, views and lifestyles it feels authentic. Davies, of course, was of an age to be around the scene across the decade that he’s writing about. What could seem cliched in the hands of lesser writers is masterful in Davies’s hands — religious fathers, parents in denial, closeted Tory politicians — it all fits and it all feels real.
The writing’s so good it needs only small moments to show pervading attitudes of thousands at the time. This is best exemplified in the scene where Ritchie’s dad gives him a packet of condoms so he doesn’t ‘get a girl into trouble’. Ritchie sniggers at the thought before tossing the packet off the ferry they’re on.
The show doesn’t flinch from the pain of those who have AIDS, and their loved ones go through as they sit in dank hospital rooms, sometimes having entire wards to themselves; the doors locked to the outside world. That the disease not only changed physical appearances but also personalities is shown in one horrifying scene where a character loses all inhibitions in front of his devastated mother.
There was so many different types of grief and hurt the illness and its stigma inflicted on gay couples. The agony didn’t end after you’d sat by your lover’s bed as his life slowly ebbed away. We see gay men then denied the right to attend their partner’s funeral and be erased from his life in death by parents ashamed not only of how their son lived but by how he died. One scene shows a family burning everything that smelled of their dead relative; clothes, possessions, bedding, even baby pictures.
“I’m very aware that younger generations are growing up not knowing anything about this period. And actually, let’s be honest, people who were there at the time don’t know anything about it either. And there are those who have happily forgotten such a bad time, and I don’t blame them for that. So it was a matter of me finding my place in there. It’s an awful subject, it’s a delicate subject, but it’s an honour to write about it.” Russell T. Davies
It’s important to say that It’s a Sin is very funny, and despite depicting so much suffering is uplifting. Ritchie, Roscoe, Jill and Colin are joyful, passionate, loyal and determined; so full of life and so dedicated to their pursuit of pleasure and being happy. They’re friends who form a family. They’re people who accept you for what you are and for what you want to be, not what they want you to be or hoped you’d become.
The series does a great job of highlighting the confusion and lack of awareness over the illness. Even the most enlightened and caring character is so terrified of drinking out of a cup someone HIV positive has drunk out of they’d rather smash it to pieces. People who go searching in what they would assume are the right places for information are looked on with something approaching contempt.
When the mainstream did eventually want to talk about HIV and AIDS during the 1980s misinformation was abound. In 1986 Dr John Seale, a Harley Street specialist in sex disease published a paper theorising AIDS was man-made, created by mistake in an American laboratory. While perhaps even crazier in 1988 Astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle suggested AIDS came from space and spread via rainwater.
Providing the correct information was an uphill struggle. In the late 80s, the Terence Higgins Trust published adverts in UK national newspapers not only suggesting using condoms with a water-based lubricant to reduce risk but also to clarify that AIDS was not spread by sharing cutlery or shaking hands.
It’s a Sin touches briefly on the successful Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign as the gay characters crowd around the television speculating what the rest of society would make of the disease that was wiping out a generation. In the meantime, the straight world got on with eating their dinner and switched over to a game show on the other side.
It’s a show that pulls you in, then pulls you apart. You’ll feel all the better for going through the loves and losses of characters you’ll still be thinking about long after the show ends.