Note: This review contains spoilers for the full series of It’s a Sin.
It is abnormal to begin a review with a line from another review, but these are mildly abnormal times, the line accidentally exposes the entire media backdrop to HIV, and It’s A Sin is an abnormality of the highest order: a first-rate TV drama about the British AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s.
“This all takes on a special resonance, of course, in the time of COVID,” began Lucy Mangan in the Guardian last month, after sketching out the premise of the show: a group of young people who move into a flat in London together in 1981 and who, throughout the next decade, are skinned alive by AIDS. “We can empathise that bit more with the fear, uncertainty and responses rational and irrational to the emergence of a new disease.”
Who is “we”? Who does Mangan assume her readers to be? Would that be white heterosexuals? Readers who need COVID to help them fully empathise with the AIDS crisis for the first time?
And which age group? I ask because the majority of those who buy the Guardian are over 50; in other words, people who lived through it. They may not all have tested positive, they may not have held their beloved as he died in front of them aged 24. But they were there. They watched the infamous falling tombstone television adverts. They saw the headlines.
Is it really the case that this demographic — apparently so universal a reader that the casual use of “we” is deemed fitting — needs another pandemic, one that affects and infects them, to properly sympathise with those killed by the previous one?
Yes. Often, they do. So many turned away at the time (and still don’t care) that a shaking, bleeding, televisual event needs to collide with a wildly less stigmatised disease in order to reach the required “special resonance”.
This is the heartless circus in which AIDS took place. The news media was the ringmaster: a world of us (or “we”) and them (the filthy AIDS people). There is less change today than you might think. Look again at the coverage of PrEP. Or indeed the coverage of It’s A Sin.
In 1987, after years of running “gay plague” headlines, the Sun published a story entitled “PERVERTS ARE TO BLAME FOR THE KILLER PLAGUE”. By then the spread through heterosexuals was clear. And in January 2021? The Sun’s headline blared: “It’s A Sin viewers shocked by drama’s explicit sex”. In the same week, the paper described the much more explicit heterosexual rutting in Bridgerton as simply “the hottest sex scenes ever”.
Channel 4’s five-part drama (BBC and ITV turned it down) lands splat in the middle of this continued schism. It’s good to watch the reactions; you can see who has ever really thought about it before.
People love to talk about how divided America and Britain are today. But there was another divide from 1981 onwards: those choked by AIDS, and those who skipped on by. It has taken Russell T Davies, the man who introduced rimming to heterosexuals in 1999 (with Queer as Folk) and Daleks to millennials in the noughties (with Dr Who), to make a great swathe of viewers cry for the first time for those taken by the previous pandemic.
There may never be a more bitter justification for a television drama. The lesson is this: if you’re a member of a minority, and the fatal disease you contract is spread through sexual contact, you only have to wait 40 years, have 35 million die in skeletal agony, have another pandemic affect everyone and a once-in-a-generation dramatist to devote five hours of primetime TV to your plight in order for lucky people — and that’s all they are — to fully, you know, care.
The way Davies has achieved this is through the culmination not only of decades of experience of HIV and AIDS but also a lifetime’s worth of writing. He has always been good; he has not always been this great. There were times in previous creations when he told us what to think. In Cucumber (2015), characters gave searing monologues about IMPORTANT THINGS to try to convince the audience. It didn’t work. In It’s A Sin he’s tells us nothing. Instead – so much worse – he shows us.
In particular, he illustrates in gradual escalation how shame, denial, and silence colluded with the pandemic to kill a generation. He shows us through Ritchie (Olly Alexander), the central character from net-curtained Isle of Wight, who rips through London’s gay nightlife like a fantastic whore-nado, endlessly trying to fuck away the shame, even though it never really works.
He shows us through sweet Colin (Callum Scott Howells), whose shyness can never be separated from his gayness, whom we only ever see having sex with another closeted boy; who swaps Wales for the repressed hush of Savile Row; whose mentor (Neil Patrick Harris) vanishes into the abyss: the first to die. Later, we see Colin fitting on the floor as the reaper flashes his blade. (I won’t apologise for spoilers; history is the spoiler. Most died).
Even the other characters deem Colin a mousy virgin and therefore safe. Davies isn’t telling us the virus cares not if you sleep with one person or a thousand; he plays it out in front of us.
He shows us through Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who sashays the hell away from his devoutly religious Nigerian family, who forever tries to escape, to sublimate, through fabulous outfits, through a rich, self-hating Tory MP (not a rare breed) for a touch of the high life — only to discover what a lowlife said MP is.
In Roscoe and Richie, denial fades gradually. We see why. They, like millions of gay men, had only just begun to inhale the first breaths of emancipation when AIDS hit. The threat was annihilating. Too much. Keep going. Which is to say, give the famished a meal and they’ll devour it even as the plate is snatched away. Just one more bite; one more night.
Richie, played with exuberant charm and pathos by Alexander, is flawed and raw and trying to heal. He continues shagging when he knows the danger to others. “I wonder how many I killed,” he says in a quiet paroxysm of shame, as he lies dying in hospital.
Despite its pants-down, bottoms-up, middle-finger-to-straightness, Queer as Folk was really a burst of euphoric escapism in the late 90s after effective HIV treatment arrived. It’s a Sin is more courageous. Davies confronts the danger that lay in wait. He captures what it meant to grow up gay in small-town grimsville, to flee to the city desperate for oxygen and intimacy, only for its physical expression to destroy you. And how these two worlds connect: propelled from the suffocation of one into the devastation of the other. I do not think many straight people understand the extent to which gay kids have been under emotional lockdown for centuries. Maybe after watching this they will.
The general assertion that prevails instead is that things are so much better now. It’s only true up to a point. The main difference is that to grow up gay in the 80s and 90s, as I did, was to realise that you would therefore, in all likelihood, die of AIDS. It’s little wonder so many of us at 12, 13, or 14, felt that we may as well take ourselves out before the virus did it for us.
Young people today also don’t have to wait weeks for their result as the characters in It’s A Sin do. After bunking off school to go for an HIV test, it was a full fortnight of staring into hell during double French before knowing I would live. To venture out onto the gay scene as a teenager today means seeing those who survived the pandemic, not seeing people in wheelchairs with lesions on their face whom everyone knew would not.
The casting of It’s A Sin embodies another major difference. In that era, Rock Hudson, the assumed-heterosexual movie star from Hollywood’s golden era was secretly dying of AIDS. Now, Nathaniel J Hall, out about his sexuality and HIV status, plays Donald, Richie’s short-lived (in both senses) love interest.
Davies has consciously put out gay men in gay roles; unimaginable in the 80s when even Ian McKellen was only privately out, and not even a standard in the 90s when Queer as Folk arrived replete with three heterosexual actors in the three lead roles. Argue all you like about the politics of this, but the performances? You feel the difference.
Back at the peak of the AIDS crisis, schools couldn’t even discuss it properly, thanks to Section 28, Thatcher’s legislation that gagged any mention of homosexuality. Davies shows us this too, through Ash, a schoolteacher tasked with removing mention of gays from the school library. Another spoiler: there are none.
But there is an unexpected reason why this drama has triggered such a mass catharsis. It’s because Davies has spared us. Yes, he’s kept much in: faeces sent to the lovely Welsh mum as her boy lay dying; police wearing rubber gloves to violently disperse activists; enforced isolation in hospital; the deaths. But the power of It’s A Sin is in part thanks to how much horror he left unsaid.
Talk to survivors of the period and much more surfaces. I remember interviewing a man called Ian Gurnhill who was diagnosed in 1984 (the year of episode two), when he was in his thirties. There was no treatment then – just the certainty that you only had a few months – so he jumped off a building.
Somehow, Ian survived. But three decades later when I visited him, his legs were still bent out of shape. He had no fat on the soles of his feet or on his buttocks due to the toxic early medication stripping it away. To sit or stand meant pain. He lost so many loved ones that he stopped going to funerals. He had pneumonia, a destroyed digestive system, pancreas and liver damage, renal failure, daily diarrhoea, type 2 diabetes, and thin veins around the stomach that ruptured causing him to vomit blood. The virus became his entire life. There were many like Ian, and many still suffer. He died before the article came out.
The problem of depicting AIDS for dramatists and documentarians — astutely avoided by Davies — is that it is all too much. Imagine today if it were only your friends and lovers who were dying from COVID, that only your extended network had to wear masks and stay indoors for an entire year. And while you were doing that the rest of the population blamed you for your own deaths, daubed “COVID SCUM” on the front of your house, threw bricks through your window as you succumbed to multiple infections, tossed firebombs through your letterbox as your family rejected you, fired you from your job, evicted you from your home, barred you from your boyfriend’s funeral, and when you yourself perished, the hospital refused to accept the zipped-up bag containing your body.
Again: Davies has spared us. The camera never hovers too long.
Thankfully, we see the best of humanity, too. In particular, in Jill (Lydia West), the boys’ flatmate who sought out information where there was none and devotes a decade to caring for her weakening loved ones. She represents so many women — godsends — often overlooked by history, who tended to the dying; nurses, mothers, friends, volunteers, organisers.
It is only a shame that the toll AIDS took on women directly isn't captured; the millions who died, often with even less visibility than the men who perished. Also, that the vast community response doesn’t make more of an appearance in the series. AIDS inspired the most creative, fearsome slew of organisations dedicated to giving out condoms, advice, and support. The buddy service, for example, sent people into the homes to befriend the sick. Free meal delivery services sprang up. But who knows what had to be left out when Channel 4 cut eight episodes down to five?
It is through Jill that Davies’ fury eventually bellows out. Episode five’s climactic scene between her and Richie’s conservative mother, Valerie (Keeley Hawes), is one of the most extraordinary exchanges in television drama; a vicious, seething battle between two grieving women. Hawes’ mesmeric performance is so crackling and deranged that it is only to Davies’ and West’s credit that Jill’s lashing response whips so hard. She doesn’t stop at blaming Valerie for Richie’s death. She blames Valerie for all those lost.
That is the unique catharsis of It’s A Sin: finally, the shaming, blaming finger points back.
Throughout the series, Davies breathes not through the nose but from the diaphragm; a controlled rumble that expands into a roar. Armistead Maupin, another great chronicler of gay life in the last 50 years, wrote on Facebook that It’s A Sin is a “bona fide masterpiece”. He’s right. It demands so much more of us than to mourn the dead, or to reach the mere first rung of the ladder and empathise. It makes us stand back and think about the sanctity of human life; and about the type of society needed to protect not just “us”, but everyone.
Until then, it asks: beyond individuals, beyond behaviour that you might wish to blame, who or what really has the power to enable disease to flourish? Whose is the real sin?