As writer Russell T. Davies’ (Queer As Folk) new 1980s London set drama series It’s A Sin opens we’re briskly introduced to five young characters, with a skilful immediacy that’s instantly involving. Small town boy, 18 year-old Ritchie (Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander), is leaving the sleepy conservative seclusion of the Isle of Wight for the mainland; we meet building site worker Roscoe (Omari Douglas) as he escapes, with defiantly flamboyant flair, a hostile home environment where his father plans to take him to Nigeria for a form of conversation therapy; shy Welsh lad Colin (Callum Scott Howells) has just arrived in the big smoke to work as a tailor’s apprentice for a lecherous toad of a man on Savile Row. Newly enrolled to study law at university (a choice heavily influenced by his domineering dad), Ritchie is quickly befriended by a gregarious drama student with a finely attuned gaydar, Jill (Lydia West), who instantly clocks him as what she’ll later describe as “beautifully gay” and sets him up on a date with handsome fellow student Ash (Nathaniel Curtis).
Before long the fab five become friends and find themselves living together in a large apartment they christen The Pink Palace; a scruffy, studenty, queer utopia of chosen family that’s as appealing and memorable in its own way as Armistead Maupin’s Barbary Lane. Thanks to a quirky drag performance by Ritchie at one their frequent parties, the flatmates soon have their own idiosyncratic way of greeting one another (it’s already spawned a charity t-shirt, and some viral one word tweets since the show aired in the UK), which invites us into their close-knit world and injects some frequent humour. Over the course of the next five episodes the AIDS epidemic will have a devastating impact, in various different ways, on all of their lives, as well as those of their families and their large circle of friends.
Although it unquestionably captures the spirit of the era, It’s A Sin isn’t so much about HIV/AIDS in the 80s and early 90s itself, but more a personal story of how the health crisis, and the stigma surrounding it, affects the lives of these individuals who, thanks to the layered characters and nuanced acting performances, we care deeply for. In fact after watching the first couple of episodes in one evening, I woke up the next morning thinking about the residents of The Pink Palace almost as if they were people I knew. Given how fully realised each character is it’s unsurprising to learn that many of them have their roots in the writer’s own experience, having lived through the crisis himself. Jill for instance—who movingly embodies the many women who bravely and tirelessly rolled up their sleeves and donned rubber gloves in those terrifying early years of AIDS and cared for and fought for their dying gay friends, protested in the streets, answers helpline phones, and sat by hospital beds—is based on Davies’ friend Jill Nalder, who herself appears in the series bringing real warmth to the role of the mother of the character she inspired.
The entire cast shines without exception to the point that it feels a little unfair to single any of them out, but Lydia West deserves a mention for her understated, deeply moving tour de force as Jill and is the beating heart of the series, while Olly Alexander manages to make a flawed character (he’s even a Tory voter despite Thatcher’s Section 28) someone we can’t help but adore and fall head over heels for, as you likely also will for Omari Douglas, Nathaniel Curtis, and Callum Scott Howells, who’s sublime as Colin. Kelley Hawes delivers rich character work and is utterly compelling as Richie’s mum Valerie, a complex, fascinating figure brilliantly realised. There are fine supporting turns from Andria Doherty (Colin’s mam), Tracy Ann Oberman (Ritchie’s agent), Neil Patrick Harris (Colin’s co-worker), and British entertainment royalty Stephen Fry as a Thatcher acolyte Tory minister. In fact the casting, direction and writing are so impeccable that even the most minor characters, or those with just one scene, deliver impactful, indelible performances, such as veteran British character actors Ruth Sheen (Mike Leigh’s Another Year) and Gary Lewis (Billy Elliot).
Along with an absorbing narrative, without it ever feeling rushed or forced, Davies and director Peter Hoar pack so much detail about the emerging crisis into the series, thoroughly immersing us in that time. The fashion and period details aren’t fetishised or distracting, with gorgeously subtle production design by Luana Hanson and reassuring warm tones courtesy of cinematographer David Katznelson. The references to celebrities of the day (including some who were yet to come out being playfully named dropped), blasts of TV theme tunes, a cameo from the Daleks (Davies has written extensively for Doctor Who) and details like Colin’s first landlady asking him to note any phonecalls he makes, and whether they’re at peak time or not, all help place us firmly in the 80s. The genius selection of well-placed pop music helps of course too, with LGBTQ+ artists well-represented, including Divine, Sylvester, Bronski Beat, Freddie Mercury as part of Queen, George Michael as part of Wham!, and as you might expect given the title, the Pet Shop Boys. They are music choices that often comment on, amplify or enrich the storytelling, and there’s a blast of a great track over every, all too brief, end credits. Speaking of which, the end of every episode gave me that sense of finishing the last page of novel, one that you’re so invested in that you don’t ever want it to end.
Although we might be a fractured community at times, the trauma of the AIDS crisis is part of our shared collective experience, and as this series arrives on our screens in the midst of another global health crisis, many of those who lived through the 80s are still processing the terrors of it. In telling such a personal, intimate tale so authentically the series honours the men we still mourn. Although It’s A Sin is appropriately emotional, devastating even at times, it is also incredibly healing. Walking around the day after seeing the final episode I felt like a weight had been lifted I didn’t know I’d been carrying around. As a child of the 80s growing up in the UK I absorbed the stigmatisation of gay men and an HIV positive diagnosis, equating sex with a potential death sentence, the prejudice in the media, the playground jokes about AIDS, the speculation about how it spread, all of which the series captures perfectly, that heady mix of misinformation, judgement, and shame, some of which feels eerily contemporary given conspiracy theories about Covid-19.
One of the highlights of the first episode, as Ritchie bursts out of the closet on to London’s queer scene, is a stunning, brilliantly edited montage that celebrates the joy of gay sex. We all know what’s coming as whispers about a “gay cancer” in America begin to reach the UK, but there’s no ominous music or sense of dread in this sequence which is wildly fun, gorgeously shot, and pure unabashed sexual pleasure. Later in the series, Ritchie’s unashamed speech about all the sex he’s had and the fun he had doing it, although starkly different in tone, echoes Stuart’s confronting monologue about the many men he’s had in Davies’ Queer as Folk, but they essentially amount to the same thing; why should we as gay men turn judgement, disapproval, and use of religion to demonise gay sex as a sin inwards as internalised homophobia, instead we must recognise it and shed that shame.
It’s A Sin: It’s A Masterpiece. Exquisitely written, beautifully acted. Heartbreaking, but healing, a tribute to those we lost and those who stood by them, and a defiant, joyous rejection of shame. It’s beautifully gay.
By James Kleinmann
It’s A Sin launches on HBO Max on Thursday February 18th 2021.