“Don’t go looking for a villain. It’ll just be some bloke.”
Russell T Davies’ new drama shines a light on the trauma of the AIDS crisis with tenderness, intimacy and a decadent helping of Camp.
When I binge-watched It’s a Sin on Monday morning, I made a lot of notes. I wrote “[insert character name] is an absolute legend”, and then two-character names with a heart around, like a teenage fangirl. I also made a few darker notes. To keep up with the storyline accurately, I listed the characters who appeared on-screen throughout and put a little red positive symbol next to their name if they received an AIDS diagnosis. One particular note was written quickly mid-viewing, but looking back, it really jumped out at me.
‘So many people.’
Russell T Davies’ new 5 part drama, shines a light on the scale, and the intensity, of the HIV/AIDS crisis, which is an ongoing problem to this day. It doesn’t shy away from the morbid and terrifying realities of the time, and portrays a range of experiences from gay shame and denial, to how the government handled the situation so badly. Davies highlights the unknowns of the disease at the time, and how its transmission was difficult to trace, and impossible to blame – a key moment being when one character advises “Don’t go looking for a villain. It’ll just be some bloke.”
Davies based the story on the experience of his friend Jill Nalder, who lived within a community of queer people in the 1980’s in London. The show follows the lives of the ‘Pink Palace’ (the characters’ pet name for their apartment) as they navigate university, work, relationships, friendships and then the onslaught of the AIDS crisis.
Davies’ manages to capture the uncertainty and fear surrounding the crisis, which I don’t personally think I’ve ever seen quite as intensely on screen. His writing works excellently to illustrate the fullness of his characters’ lives, reminding us of the scale of the real tragedy.
What was the AIDS crisis?
The 1980’s were, in many ways, a difficult time to be gay. In 1981, private sex between men was decriminalised in England, but the decade remained to be rife with attacks, discrimination in the workplace and Thatcher’s reign over educating children about ‘traditional’ (i.e. heterosexual) values. By the end of 1981 alone, 337 people worldwide had tested positive.
The UK’s first case was in 1981, when a 49 year old man collapsed in a London nightclub. Two years later, 17 more cases were recorded, and people began to panic. Medicine labelled it as a cancer, or severe forms of pneumonia, and tabloids named it ‘the gay disease’.
It’s a Sin reminds us of the gravity of the crisis; queer people had been taking hits all throughout history, and every day discrimination happened and lives were lost. But the community couldn’t have been prepared for the sheer amount of loss AIDS would cause, even without the homophobia that exasperated the disease and the death toll. Particularly dark moments of the series show characters in the initial cases in the UK, left alone and scared in a ward they were ‘legally’ confined to (this was later found to be a lie by the police). We’re reminded of our current reality of covid, the primary difference being that people weren’t prepared to put the work or money in to learn more about AIDS, because of the sexuality of the main victims.
Behind the scenes, groups began to research AIDS off their own backs, attempting to gain the help and funds of lawyers and medical professionals. This is where Davies’ characters meet us.
We have Ritchie, a livewire from a conservative home, who’s own gay shame leads to his denial that the AIDS crisis is even real. One of Ritchie’s (Olly Alexander) most interesting and funny scenes, shows him move from club to club with his friends in tow, rhyming off ridiculous conspiracy theories about AIDS, reminding us as viewers just how little was known about the disease. His best friend Jill (played by Lydia West and based on the real Jill Nalder) is an absolute showstopper. Although she herself isn’t at risk of AIDS in the same way as gay men are, Jill watches her best friends struggle and fight, knowing she could lose them all. Without sharing spoilers, Jill’s character portrays the true influential work that Jill Nalder did in the 80s, including marches, fundraising and visiting seriously-ill victims in hospital who had no other visitors.
Roscoe (Omari Douglas), the third member of the Pink Palace, leaves home when there is a threat of being taken to Nigeria by his deeply religious Father, in an attempt to ‘fix’ him. Roscoe arrives in London, all glitter and mini skirts, and joins the loving and vibrant scene. Colin (Callum Scott Howells) joins the group from Wales, shy and new to the openness of the other LGBTQ+ characters, but grows in confidence and intimacy with his friends. Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), the final resident, is a deeply kind and thoughtful Indian boy who deals with homophobia in his role as a teacher. All of the characters have their own battles to fight, never mind with the sudden terror of an illness that could claim all of them.
The production of the show itself is impressive. Shots fluctuate between tender, naturalistic slices of life and more vibrant, stylised moments, such as Ritchie addressing the viewer in episode 2. Costume is used effectively and excitingly; it’s nice to see 80s characters without caricatured outfits, but we still get to enjoy moments of drag and clubbing masterpieces from Roscoe. Similarly, the soundtrack is both moving and sparing. Classic songs appear now and then for us to jiggle away to, but it doesn’t feel like a cheesy 80s DJ cramming in as many hits as possible.
Despite the harrowing, gut-wrenching facts within Its a Sin, Davies’s writing and the actor’s stunning performances conveys an exceptional reality of queer joy. Gay characters being played by gay actors is a simple but essential choice, and cultivates a deeply personal and moving viewing experience. The group is diverse, intricate and bubbling over with personality. Idiosyncrasies and inside jokes stitch together the friendships perfectly, and remind us that no two queer people hold the same set of traits. They are united by dreams, humour and deep care for one another. We are reminded of the beauty of queer love and queer joy; of clubbing and camaraderie, of chosen families and self-acceptance.
It’s a Sin portrays the 1980s’ LGBTQ+ community as it should be remembered; complex, frightened, but deeply full of life.