“Boys die, in London, and they say it’s cancer, or pneumonia, and they don’t say what it really is. But it’s a lie, and I don’t want that. Do you know why? I had so much fun.”
(SPOILER WARNING – FOR THE WHOLE SERIES. ALSO PROBABLY NSFW)
In 1988, I was at university, and in denial. My eyes were drawn to attractive boys, furtively, pretending not to look. Glancing over my shoulder as they passed, sneaking looks at their behinds, clad in those late-80s stonewashed jeans that were ever so slightly too tight. Thinking about them as I lay in my creaky single bed in halls, trying not to make too much noise while I had a quick wank imagining them naked. But I wasn’t gay, I told myself. How could I be? Even with my ultra-liberal, Doctor Who-founded tolerance of every creed, colour and sexual orientation, some part of me, deep down, was ashamed.
Where did it come from, that shame that made me capable of denying the truth to myself even when it was blatantly, staggeringly obvious? I had loving, tolerant parents. All my friends were as progressive as I was. I like to think I’m an intelligent person, but even when a fellow student, who I now know was as into me as I was unconsciously into him, came to my room to give me a massage, suggesting it would be easier if I stripped down to my pants, I somehow managed to ignore what should have been staring me in the face.
Maybe I just didn’t have the courage. Or maybe it was the steady drip-feed, all through my teens, of homophobia so pervasive even I started thinking that way. Homophobia caused by ignorance, endemic in the small town where I grew up, fuelled by laws such as the infamous Section 28, that saw teachers forbidden to even mention homosexuality to sensitive, confused boys like me at school. And above all of that, the looming, terrifying shadow of a new disease stalking gay men across the world. AIDS.
I mention all of this autobiographical detail apropos of having just watched all five episodes of Russell T Davies new drama, It’s a Sin. I was perhaps fortunate to have been a few years younger than the well-drawn, complex characters who formed the backbone of this heartfelt, angry piece. I finally came out when I was in my early 20s (Doctor Who had a part to play in that too), and moved to London, just as these characters did, to expand my horizons and start to accept myself.
But it was 1994 by then, and AIDS was by now a recognised feature on the gay landscape. We knew about it – knew what it did, how it spread, and what precautions to take against it. I just – by only a few years – missed living through the tumult, the fear and the tragedy that these characters did. And yes, maybe the fun that led up to it too, something Davies takes pains here to point out.
Because until recently, every drama about the terrifying rise of AIDS in the mid to late 80s has been nothing but a tragedy. A tragedy that had become so cliched that Davies himself consciously chose to avoid it when writing his seminal (fnarr) gay drama Queer as Folk. Before that, every gay character in a drama would usually meet a tragic end – even before HIV. The rise of AIDS gave that repetitive, cliched tragedy a new lease of life. Or death. And Davies was determined, like nobody had before, to show that gay life, while dramatic, wasn’t all about tragedy, death and unhappy endings. It was fun, it was filthy, it was sexy, and it was often very, very funny.
More than anything, it was Queer as Folk that allowed me to finally not just accept, but embrace my homosexuality. Gay life was still pretty much underground in the 90s – there was a thriving scene in London, where I lived, but it was still like another world to most straight people. Then Queer as Folk hit the screens of Channel Four in 1999, and suddenly gay life was catapulted into the mainstream.
Now, straight people were curiously asking me, “so is it really like that?” after years of me worrying they were about to punch me. Queer as Folk changed everything for gay men in Britain. Suddenly it wasn’t just acceptable to be gay, it was downright trendy. That wasn’t always good (I got very tired of flamboyant, theatrical girls asking if I would be their “gay best friend”), but all at once, I could talk about my life without worrying. Because everyone had seen it on TV. All the dancing, the innuendo, the smut, the shagging, and the rimming, all right there for everyone to see. It would be another shameful four years before Section 28 was finally repealed (though Scotland, to their credit, managed it a mere year later, in 2000), but all those shy teenagers at school suddenly had all the information they needed not to be ashamed, and to come to terms with themselves in a way I never could.
Davies deliberately avoided making HIV a plot point in the show, because, as he rightly said in this beautifully written piece for the Guardian, “I refused to let our lives be defined by a disease”. Queer as Folk didn’t shy away from the risks of gay life (one character dies of a drug overdose in an early episode), but we had already been bombarded by information about HIV, and this was a show that, for the first time, celebrated, rather than mourned, what it was like to be a young, gay man on a thriving, joyous scene.
It’s a Sin is still a celebration. All that fun, all the sex, all the joy, all the loving friendships are right there on screen. But it balances its celebration with tragedy – and more than that, with a seething, righteous – and justified – anger. As one character remarks at one point, “if straight boys were dying like this, there’d be uproar”. It’s still true. In the space of twelve months, no less than four vaccines have been developed against coronavirus, a disease that affects everybody. HIV has been with us for more than forty years, and while it can now be very successfully treated, a vaccine seems as far away as it did in 1988.
These five episodes follow the lives, in some cases brutally curtailed, of four young gay men (and their families and friends) over those tumultuous years when the virus first emerged and started to wend its way through the gay male population. Ritchie (Olly Alexander from pop band Years and Years) is an aspiring actor from the Isle of Wight, irrepressible, funny, and keen to explore his sexuality. Roscoe (Omari Douglas) is a camp young Nigerian who does an epic, in-drag runner from a religious family determined to send him back to Nigeria to be “cured”. Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) is a confident, smart (and beautiful) young Indian who Ritchie falls for at uni. Colin (Callum Scott Howell) is a shy, sweet young Welshman thrilled to be working at a Savile Row tailor (and less than thrilled with the astoundingly creepy advances of his much older boss).
And tying them all together is Ritchie and Ash’s college buddy Jill (Lydia West in a towering performance), a character loosely based on a real life friend of Davies, Jill Nalder (fittingly, Nalder plays Jill’s mum here). Like her real life counterpart, Jill is the anchor that holds the group together when things start to go bad, and the one who ends up as a sympathetic advocate and supporter for all the gay men affected by the disease.
Davies is incredibly skilled at drawing lifelike, and likeable, three dimensional characters. Even when they’re flawed, as every character is here to some degree. But none are so flawed as to be irredeemable, or totally unsympathetic. Roscoe’s homophobic father eventually returns from Nigeria, chastened at the sight of concentration camps for AIDS victims, and asks his son to forgive him. On the flipside, lovable, irrepressible Ritchie confesses that, even in the knowledge of having HIV, he continued to have casual sex anyway, potentially killing everyone he’d been with. Well, denial is a powerful thing. I could tell you that.
The first couple of episodes foreground these characters, making you love them, as they thrill to their hedonistic lives in “that London”. They rent a large flat, christened “the Pink Palace” They party. And there’s sex. Lots and lots of sex, in pretty much every combination you can imagine. And it’s shown to be just as much fun as you’d expect (and in some cases, just as awkward). As vividly directed by Peter Hoar, these are genuinely horny scenes, given depth by your familiarity with the characters. But they’re not just titillation – they’re absolutely germane and essential to the story of how the virus spread.
For while our heroes are partying hearty at the likes of Heaven (nice to see one of my old haunts unchanged onscreen), disturbing rumours are starting to circulate. Rumours of a mysterious disease in America, that seems to target only gay men.
So far, so familiar. It’s a staple of every thriller involving a virus, from the realistic likes of Contagion to the more far fetched zombie epidemic in Dawn of the Dead. But Davies’ skill here is in keeping these to the background while building our love for these characters and our vicarious excitement at their lives.
Even as early as episode one, though, we get hints of the horror to come. Colin’s supportive gay colleague Henry (Neil Patrick Harris, with a perfect cut glass British accent) suddenly disappears from work. Nobody knows where he’s gone. Colin eventually tracks him down to an eerily empty hospital ward, where he’s being kept under lock and key by terrified, masked surgical staff who leave his dinner on trays by the door, fearful to even get near him.
It’s a pattern that starts repeating. Young gay men are disappearing, and nobody can say why or where they’ve gone. Ritchie’s agent Carol (Tracy-Ann Oberman) cryptically tells him that many young actors have “gone home”, and begs him not to do the same. The creeping sense of unease is familiar, but given far greater impact by the knowledge that it wasn’t a fiction – all this really happened.
Davies takes pains to show his young characters, initially, as sceptical of the dark truth as anyone else – especially the boisterous Ritchie, who scoffs at the idea of a disease that can specifically target gay men. Tellingly, it’s Jill who starts to recognise the threat before any of the others. Particularly when their friend Greg (known as Gloria) actually gets the disease. He’s whisked away back to his family home in Glasgow by his apparently unsympathetic parents – who are later seen weeping in the aftermath of his death, as they burn everything he’s ever touched on a pyre in their back garden.
Because that’s what it was like in those early days. Nobody knew much about the disease, except that it was universally fatal. But any research was hampered by the very homophobia that induced the same shame in these characters as it did in me. They’d already faced persecution from their very families, the ones who should have loved them most. Now they found themselves doubly cursed with a disease that marked out their shame publicly. No wonder Gloria begged Jill not to tell anyone what was happening to him. No wonder gay men (including Colin) started quietly being “let go” from their jobs. No wonder the victims’ funerals (when they could even have one) refused to even acknowledge their long term partners.
And no wonder so many ended up dying totally alone, without even friends to hold their hands when they went. This horrific scene is depicted several times over in the series, but never more powerfully than with Ritchie’s tragic end in his childhood bedroom, his shell-shocked and denying mother not even with him.
That powerful sense of shame permeated the whole piece and never more so than in the angry outburst from Jill when she found out that Ritchie had died without even being allowed to see his friends. On the receiving end was Ritchie’s mother Valerie, and if the series had anything approaching a villain, it was, unexpectedly, her. Refusing to acknowledge the truth about her son’s sexuality or his illness, she shuts him away in the family home and regresses to treating him as a baby, spoon feeding him while playing him children’s songs, and refusing to let his friends even talk to him on the phone.
Yet even she isn’t entirely unsympathetic. Jill’s rage at her is entirely justified, but it’s a testament to Keeley Hawes’ brittle, fragile portrayal of Valerie that we understand what she does even while condemning it. No wonder people are already starting to talk about Hawes being nominated for a Best Supporting Actress BAFTA.
In fact, the cast as a whole is universally superb, giving it their all, but not making it just an exercise in sombre tragedy. Olly Alexander in particular owns the screen as Ritchie, with as much humour as pathos. He’s also, as several of the characters remark, a very, very sexy man, as much due to his personality as his appearance; yet Alexander also invests him with a fragility and masked shyness along with his outward ebullience. I like Olly Alexander a lot, both as a singer and as an actor, in part because of his undeniable raw honesty; I think he inhabits this part so successfully because he brings a lot of himself to it.
The first of the group to fall victim to the disease, Colin, is also a terrific, lovable performance from Callum Scott Howells. Ostensibly the quietest and most sensible of the gang, he gets the most gruesome demise of all as his brain starts to fail under the influence of the JC virus, reduced to little more than a stammering shadow of his former self while his weeping mother looks on. It’s an unforgettable performance, made all the more powerful by his earlier introversion.
Ash, as played by Nathaniel Curtis, is both beautiful and smart – and his struggles with homophobic school staff, enthusiastically endorsing Section 28, struck a real chord. And Omari Douglas is a drag-clad force of nature as Roscoe. If I have any criticism at all (and it’s only a small one) perhaps they’re all a bit too gorgeous. But that might just be the allure of youth. I recently found an old photo of myself in my mid-20s, and had to concede, from the viewpoint of my advancing age, that I wasn’t a bad looking bloke. If only I’d realised that at the time.
The supporting cast are every bit as impeccable. Aside from the showy guest turn from Neil Patrick Harris, we also get Stephen Fry chewing the scenery as a closeted Tory MP who becomes a sugar daddy of sorts to Roscoe. One of the more darkly humorous scenes shows him with a similar group of aged Tory lotharios at dinner, all accompanied by similarly attractive men thirty years their junior. None of whom, conspicuously, is allowed to share in the wine they’re quaffing. This all culminates in a laugh out loud moment when Roscoe finally loses patience, and actually pisses in Margaret Thatcher’s coffee at a government function. It’s not only funny, it’s quite a statement from Russell T Davies, who was probably even more contemptuous of her at the time than I was.
Davies’ earthy, irreverent humour is evident throughout, which is pretty essential when you’re dealing with subject matter as bleak as this. But when it’s really important, the drama doesn’t pull any punches. It would have been easier for the audience to have offered at least the crumb of comfort for Valerie to relent, and allow Jill to see Ritchie on his deathbed. Instead, the reveal of Ritchie’s death comes just as you think that’s about to happen. For this viewer, that felt absolutely brutal. And so it should have.
As did Ritchie’s heartfelt unburdening to the old school friend he’d been in love with, obviously serving as a proxy for a family he felt he couldn’t confide in. By turns funny, inappropriate, tragic and tearjerking, it was a beautiful little scene. And I recognised every feeling Ritchie was describing.
Fittingly though, there was as much defiance as tragedy. I felt like cheering at the protest outside the drug company, when Ritchie unexpectedly turned up to defend Jill from some very brutal police suppression tactics; and once again, the drama turned on a sixpence as he revealed his AIDS diagnosis from the back of a police van. If you were in any doubt after his excellent Years and Years, this should cement Russell T Davies in your mind as one of the best dramatists working today.
Thankfully, while there’s still no vaccine, HIV is now eminently treatable through various drug combinations, and even preventable through Pre Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). I have quite a few friends, both gay and straight, who are HIV positive, and will likely live as full a life as anyone else. I’ve even slept with a couple of guys who are HIV positive (with undetectable viral loads due to treatment, and condoms). It’s a far cry from the days when we knew so little that we were afraid to even touch anyone with the virus.
But it hasn’t gone away, and It’s a Sin was an effective reminder of that. We may be able to treat it in more affluent countries, but people are still dying by the thousand in countries like Kenya and Nigeria. It also struck an eerie, presumably coincidental chord to see the panic spread in the early days by a virus nobody understood. Its victims dying tragically alone and unmourned, without even the dignity of a funeral. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? What gay men went through in the 80s, everyone is going through now. The difference being that this time, there’s no shame attached. It’s one bright spot to cling to.
And what of the gay man writing this? I don’t know if that shame is still lurking, somewhere, deep in the back of my head. It’s so deeply ingrained, I don’t know if I’ll ever be rid of it. But like the characters Davies shows us here, I’ve lived, I’ve had fun, I’ve accepted myself. I’ve learned, loved, and lost – and I don’t know if I’ll ever heal from that. But I can say from my most recent test (two weeks ago, fact fans) that I’m HIV negative, and I know the risks I’m taking there at least. And that’s all down to the sacrifices of the brave men and women so beautifully depicted here. Thanks, Mr Davies, for bringing them so vividly to life.