Over the past three decades the Swansea-born multi-BAFTA-winning and Emmy-nominated writer Russell T. Davies has emerged as one of the most distinctive voices in television. With bold, groundbreaking series like Queer As Folk, Cucumber, A Very English Scandal, and Years and Years he has entertained and provoked audiences, creating some of the most memorable queer screen characters. In 2005 he relaunched cult British sci-fi series Doctor Who to huge international success with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant consecutively playing the title role. He oversaw four seasons of the show and created the hugely popular spinoff series, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood.
Davies’ latest series, It’s A Sin, premieres in the US on HBO Max this Thursday February 18th following record viewing figures for last month’s UK launch, which sparked important conversations about sexual health and LGBTQ+ history online and across UK media. Spanning 1981 to 1991, the London set drama centres on a group of young friends whose lives are all irrevocably impacted by the HIV/AIDS crisis. Read our ★★★★★ review of the series.
Ahead of the US release, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies about contributing a new perspective alongside existing HIV/AIDS narratives, wanting to celebrate the joy of gay sex, his desire to create characters that the audience would miss, the importance of his lead female character Jill, played by Lydia West, and his admiration for the oft-derided trailblazers Larry Grayson and John Inman who projected gay personas on primetime British television in the 1970s. This interview contains plot spoilers and we recommend reading it after you’ve watched all five episodes of It’s A Sin.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What’s your reaction to the incredible reception that It’s A Sin has had in the UK with a record breaking audience as well as the important conversations that it’s started?
Russell T. Davies: “Absolute astonishment, and I mean that. At Christmas I was really worried, going to bed in this house thinking, how do I sell a drama about AIDS in this day and age? I knew that we’d made a good piece of work and I was very proud of it, but the sell for it felt really tough and it’s my job to bring people see this. We hoped that it would do well and that it would get a nice reaction, but this has been the kind of reaction you’d expect to a show like Doctor Who, it’s been mad. My niece said to me the other day, ‘It’s Doctor Who-sized!’ But Doctor Who is meant to be huge in this country, so you’d expect that, but for this to happen with a drama about AIDS is absolutely astonishing. In the industry we’re all amazed. Channel 4 is amazed, my peers and colleagues are amazed, it’s been kind of humbling. It’s exciting and it’s edifying because it’s a very sad story at heart, people really died in great numbers. So it’s almost hard to celebrate because you think, wow, we’re based on such an awful truth, but nonetheless I’m properly delighted for that cast to be celebrated. They’re on every television show and they’re going mad for them on Instagram. To see them be that popular is a great reward because I think they’re beautiful people and I’m really pleased for them.”
What are your thoughts now on sharing it with American viewers on HBO Max and how conscious were you were of adding a different voice that complements the stories that have already been told about the AIDS crisis in different mediums?
“Yes, that’s very true and I’m probably aware of them all. I suspect if there’s a novel, or a play, or a piece of television about HIV/AIDS, then I’ve probably read it or seen it. In fact I will have. Test me! Because I’m drawn to that kind of material. Actually, that was a great freedom because it allowed me to study it and to work out what hadn’t been said before and where I could add my insights into stuff that was missing. The obvious example is in episode two of It’s A Sin, which has a great HIV-denial sequence which simply rages against the fact that such a thing as a gay plague could exist. I haven’t ever seen that done properly before. For me in 1982/1983 that was my life, that was absolutely my attitude and that of a lot of people who I knew; that it was simply impossible for there to be an illness that only affected gay men. So I was really glad to include that and that’s why that’s almost one of the most exhilarating sequences in the whole thing, because it’s me leaping with glee on something that had never been said before.”
“Even things like the funeral in which a gay man’s partner has been excluded and the gay protesters at the back of the church stand up and complain—I’ve seen that scene before, I’m not the first person to write that scene and won’t be the last person to write that scene—but what I did want to put into that scene were other gay people objecting to the people who were objecting. There are voices in that scene like Richie who says, ‘Did you have to? On the day of the funeral when the mother is there?’ Which is just another angle, and maybe he’s being cowardly in that moment, maybe he’s being closeted, but maybe he’s got a point that you can object all you like but don’t interrupt someone’s funeral. So I wanted to put other voices in there without undermining the people who stand up and make the protest because they’ve got a good point to make. Ultimately with Ritchie, you’ve got a man who knows or suspects he’s HIV positive and continues sleeping with people. That’s very often a demonised figure, both in fiction as well as in anecdotes in our life stories, and I think it’s more complicated than that. I think the poor boys were in shock and denial, and were ignorant and were scared and were vicious, just because they were so young and lost and doomed, and I want a forgiveness for that kind of character. So knowledge of those other pieces of work was important. I’m not saying that I’ve single-handedly claimed that territory for my own, but there are gaps, there will always be gaps, I’ve left gaps, and other writers will come in and fill those in. So it’s an honour to be part of all those pieces of work.”
It sits alongside works like The Inheritance and Angels in America as one of my favourite pieces dealing with AIDS. It’s so personal and it does feel like it’s adding something new, like what I like to call ‘the joy of gay sex’ montage in episode one. As viewers we all know what’s coming, but the characters don’t yet know and so there’s no ominous music or sense of foreboding, you just allow it to be such a joyous sequence with fun frantic music, Hooked on Classics. How important is that sequence within the series?
“It’s absolutely vital. I chose that Hooked on Classics track and sat here for days probably with it thumping away in my head! It’s not just a montage that, there’s actually a plot, Richie learns every form of sex in that. He starts out with masturbation, then he’s passive, then he’s active, and then it’s fun, and then he makes friends out of it, and then there’s a threesome; he’s genuinely going through all the stages of learning almost every physical practice there is with joy. To put the sex in was very important because actually in a drama in which you’re talking about a sexually transmitted disease your camera has to be on that level, your mind has to be on that level, you have to engage with that. To have made that doom-laden I would have been ashamed of myself, I wouldn’t be able to walk out the door and hold my head up high, because the point is that these people back then had these glorious lives, they had so much fun. I don’t mean that sex is always fun, good Lord it can be terrible! And actually it starts with a terrible sex scene for Ritchie as well. It’s a disaster, but it’s a comic disaster, and it was important to engage with that as well. I showed it to Paul Burston, who’s a well-known activist in gay rights, and he gave me a lot of research material, he came up with the family burning the son’s possessions. He watched the show and he said, ‘It’s sex positive. You’re not condemning the sex, you’re not guilty about the sex, you’re not putting judgment upon it. It’s a joyous act. It’s not their fault. It’s not the fault of sex itself that there’s a virus involved.’ So I’m pleased with that. And again, when you’re talking about the gaps in HIV/AIDS fiction, that’s another gap that I was determined to fill.”
It’s wonderfully healing and it obviously fits in with the title of the series and the whole theme and the end speech that Jill has.
“Thank you. I’m glad that you got all of that out of it. I’m really pleased.”
I watched the first three episodes in one night and woke up the next day thinking about all these characters living in The Pink Palace as if they were people that I knew. That isn’t a usual experience for me, I don’t think I’ve ever had it after watching anything on television or film before, certainly not to that degree. I mentioned it to my mother who loved It’s A Sin too and she said that the same thing had happened to her.
“Wow. Well, that’s interesting. I’ve been good at my job then, because that’s literally what I set out to create. When I started planning this I asked myself, why do I want to create my own HIV drama? Why do I want to create people who I then kill? It is to miss them. My main reaction now in 2021, at the age of 57, looking back on the friends I lost, is to miss them. I remember those Sunday morning hangovers, or drinking a glass of wine at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning with a cigarette in someone’s smoky flat and having a laugh. Or us all going to the theatre together or the films we watched together, like the day we all went off to see Terminator 2. I remember those friendships; their weddings; and the one-night stands. All those one-night stands. These are great memories, and that’s how I want to remember them. I didn’t want to write a drama about deathbeds and even when Richie is in a deathbed I don’t linger on it. You don’t see Colin die and you don’t actually see Richie die. I wanted to reclaim that ground and remember those lives with joy.”
“It’s A Sin is very funny in places. I’m like that anyway whatever I write. I could literally be writing the world sliding into the abyss and I’d put a gag in there because I believe in doing that. Actually I am like that myself. Don’t go to a funeral with me because I’ll be desperately looking for a joke and I’ll find one and I’ll say it 10 times. I’m that awful person! I think it’s important, so thank you for saying that because that’s the process I went through, I want you to miss them. That’s why when people are asking me now if we want to do a series two, I’m like, ‘No, that flies in the face of what I set out to create. You should miss them, you should wonder what they’re up to now like we do with our loved ones.’ I also think part of the success of the series is that you don’t have to have lost someone to AIDS to connect with it. We’ve all lost someone and I think everyone’s lost someone young. I can’t imagine there’s a single person who hasn’t lost someone somewhere too young, whether it’s at school, or as you’re growing up. Everyone has a loss and I think we feel that chime with this show. I think that’s why it’s getting this resonance, that’s why your mum’s liking it, it’s why you’re liking it. So I’m delighted. You can’t often say this, but that’s what I set out to do.”
I have to ask you about “La!”, which the friends living in The Pink Palace all start saying to each other when entering or exiting a room.
The “La!” charity t-shirt made by Philip Normal has already raised so much money, which is brilliant. Where where did “La!” come from and did you expect it to take off in the way it has?
“No! Absolutely, not! Actually, I almost edited that out even once the whole programme was completed. I started thinking, should we take that out? Does it work? Is it annoying?! I think it’s marvellously annoying at times. Believe it or not, it’s what me and my little gay friends did when we were 15 or 16 years old. Not many people have little gay friends at 15 or 16, but I was lucky enough to go to a youth theatre here in Swansea, where I am now, which was not gay as such, but those are gay spaces that gay kids head towards and we were a camp little bunch! I’m still friends with all these people now, and that was one of the things we did. I can’t remember how it started, but we’d just walk into a room and go, ‘La!’ We did it it for years. It’s nice. I do it best! La! No one does it as well as me, so I had to teach that to the cast! I put that into the script not as an in-joke, but because gangs of friends do that kind of thing, gangs of friends have their own little language. I really didn’t expect it to take off. That t-shirt for the UK HIV charity the Terrence Higgins Trust actually raised over £100,000 in the first 10 days. That’s gobsmacking. That’s amazing. That’s where this programme is beyond compare actually. That takes my breath away.”
Women often get left out of stories about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and I wondered why it was important to you that Jill be such a significant figure in the series along with all that she represents?
“It’s 2021 and I was very much aware that I’m writing a series about men. It was originally called Boys, we called it that for a long time. You and I both know that HIV and AIDS can affect any part of the population. Nonetheless, the prism of my approach was was young gay men. So I was honour bound to create strong parts for women around that because otherwise it would have been a cast entirely made up of men, and it’s all true. It’s not something where I had to be particularly inventive because a lot of this show is based upon the experiences of my friend Jill, who’s really called Jill, I couldn’t change her name. She went to London, she lived in a flat she called The Pink Palace, and real life Jill plays fictional Jill’s mother. It’s my honour to have done that. I couldn’t have backed away from that and the fact that it’s come alive is down to Lydia West in that performance. Lydia’s just radiant, she’s just absolutely astonishing on screen. It’s just another one of the joys that’s come alive. In the end, It’s A Sin is a battle between two women. The conscience, the moral heart of the show, becomes two women at absolute polar opposite ends of experience standing on that seafront. They’re on a seafront so there’s not even anything around them, there’s just a flat horizon, there’s literally an empty world with just their worldviews facing each other. It’s a clash of the titans that. So it does come down to the women in the end.”
There are some really powerful moments in the series where you haven’t written any dialogue; Richie ballet dancing in the car headlights for instance. Also, you cut away from certain scenes where we know what’s about to happen, as when Colin is about to be given his diagnosis, we don’t hear that. How did you approach those scenes?
“Something like cutting away from Colin is kind of easy, because I don’t believe in repeating information and we know that he’s got AIDS, so what I actually do is cut to his reaction after he’s been told. Also, that’s one of the tricky things of dealing with a virus that has an awful effect, I’m very careful not to torture people. Sometimes programmes about illness and sickness can verge on torture porn. Even though he suffers and terrible things happen to him, I’m also pulling back. I’m also saying that’s enough of that. I did that very much with the physical ailments and the physical problems that can crop up with AIDS, I pulled back from them. When I was worried at Christmas about how well this show would go down, I was worried that I’d pulled back too much. It turns out we got it right, but who knew?”
“I’m a good dialogue writer, but as a rule if I can do something with silence then you’re probably heading somewhere good. That moment of the ballet in the car headlights is simply a good idea. It’s his last performance. His last applause. He gets to show a daft boy beauty. The boy in the car understands what ballet is in that moment, Ritchie does something beautiful. You can’t put that into words. In fact, listen to the words, they’re rubbish. So you take the words out and it’s performed so beautifully, shot so beautifully, it kind of becomes ineffable. That’s such a rare moment. If you were studying writing you’d learn nothing from that moment, because moments like that only come along once every 10 years.”
Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“Larry Grayson and John Inman. Those old 1970s sitcom performers and variety show performers. They were the first soldiers in our battle. They’d appear on BBC One and they were huge stars. They were camp, but no one ever called them gay because no one ever used the word gay then. Larry Grayson had a friend who he used to talk about called Everard, and that’s just a pun on the words ‘ever hard’. The fact that he used to get away with that on primetime BBC One in 1975 makes my jaw drop with astonishment. Of course they’ve been vilified ever since. Now we’re all out and proud, those people are looked back on as shameful, like they were camp as an escape from something, like it was just a line, a falsehood and I don’t think so at all. Like I said, I think they were soldiers. I think those jesters appear in society and prepare the way for the gay and queer culture behind them. So I love those people.”
“When John Inman died there was a monstrous obituary in The Guardian saying how he’d let down the cause of gayness, that he’d never spoken about his homosexuality and shame on him. I got a letter published responding to it, saying that that was an appalling way to remember someone who was out and loud and gay on our screens happily in an age when that could have got him beaten up in the street. So we should never be ashamed to those people. Bless them.”
By James Kleinmann
All five episodes of It’s A Sin premiere on HBO Max Thursday February 18th.