It’s a Sin is a love letter to 1980s gay culture – and hate mail to the era’s homophobic hegemony

Russell T. Davies’s “beautifully gay” series creates an evocative, personal time capsule of an 1980s London beset by the Aids crisis – it’s the first great British series on the subject.

22 January 2021

By Alex Davidson

Olly Alexander as Ritchie Tozer in It’s a Sin (2021)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ It’s a Sin (five episodes) is on Channel 4 and All4 starting 22 January 2021.

Ritchie is a classic Russell T. Davies hero. Like Nathan in Queer as Folk (1999), Freddie in Cucumber (2015) and Daniel in Years and Years (2019), he is gay, horny and cocky. He is one of a number of gay guys and a girl who move from across the UK and find each other in the big city. They decide to share a flat, named the ‘Pink Palace’, in 1980s London – the series takes place between 1981 and 1991 – but the utopia of Ritchie, Jill, Roscoe, Colin and Ash is threatened when rumours begin to circulate about a deadly virus that seems to be targeting gay men.

Davies’s previous gay dramas have often been provocative, even to LGBTQ+ audiences. In the first episode of Queer as Folk, Stuart (Aidan Gillen) has a graphic sex scene with a 15-year-old schoolboy (Charlie Hunnam). In Bob & Rose (2001), a gay man (Alan Davies) falls in love with a woman (Lesley Sharp), leading some viewers to accuse Davies of representing sexuality as a choice.

It’s a Sin has moments where gay men are seen in a negative, or at least dangerously stubborn, light – a scene where an activist is brutally thrown out of a gay bar for handing out leaflets warning patrons about the spread of HIV. A campaigner, bitter at a disappointing turn-out for a demonstration, growls, “There are 600,000 gay people in this city. Where the fuck are they?” But the real target for Davies’s fury is the homophobic society that allowed the virus to flourish.

Aids campaigners take to the streets in It's a Sin

Despite the swagger of its protagonists, It’s a Sin expertly depicts how shame, nurtured by the homophobia prevalent in the British press and, of course, Thatcher’s government, intensified the crisis. He may be, as one character labels him, “beautifully gay”, but Ritchie struggles to come out to his family. Gay men die alone in hospital beds, believing they deserve to be sick and dying.

The title, taken from one of the Pet Shop Boys’ biggest hits, is perfect for the series; it is clear what Davies believes the real sin is. It’s one of many shrewd uses of song, many of them ironic, that permeate the narrative – best of all, the momentous use of Bronski Beat’s masterpiece Smalltown Boy, an anthem that encapsulates the experiences of so many young gay men at the time.

It’s a Sin remembers the zeitgeist in ways scarcely touched upon in previous Aids dramas. When Ritchie (played by Olly Alexander) returns to his family home on the Isle of Wight, we witness the suspicion of people from London as potential carriers of disease; gay Londoners in turn were fearful of men from America, where Aids was already devastating gay communities.

A doctor’s questionnaire enquires not just whether the patient has sex with men, but whether he has sex with animals. Nonsense remedies, spread through misinformation and desperation, range from the disgusting to the dangerous. Truth, so hard to uncover, is trumped by rumour. As Davies noted in a recent interview, “fake news, false facts and conspiracy theories weren’t invented in 2020. They ran riot with Aids in the 1980s.”

At times, It’s a Sin recalls Davies’s earlier work. A ghastly closeted Tory played by Stephen Fry in later episodes shares characteristics with Hugh Grant’s Jeremy Thorpe in Davies’s three-part drama of 2018 A Very English Scandal, showing internalised homophobia infecting the higher realms of politics in two different eras of modern British history.

White condescension and cultural cluelessness, as seen at the start of the relationship between interracial couple Henry and Lance in Cucumber, threaten to stall the connection Ritchie has with Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). There’s even a cheeky reference to Doctor Who, which Davies revived and oversaw from 2005 to 2009. In spite of the tragic subject-matter, a lot of It’s a Sin is very funny, packed with Davies’s customary wit and sharp turn of phrase.

Neil Patrick Harris as Henry Coltrane (centre) and Callum Scott Howells as Colin Morris-Jones (right) in It's a Sin

Callum Scott Howells, a singer who found some fame on reality TV singing competitions, is a revelation as Colin, a Welsh guy who is adopted by the group despite being rather square compared to the rest of the bright young things. He perfectly conveys the wonder of moving to the big city, where the freedom to be yourself beckons, and shares some touching scenes with Andria Doherty, who plays his mother.

American star Neil Patrick Harris makes a rare appearance on British screens in a juicy role as the kindly, prim tailor who works alongside Colin and takes him under his wing, while Keeley Hawes delivers some of her best work as Ritchie’s mother, the series’ most complex and surprising character. In the final episode, there is a quite brilliant cameo by Mike Leigh regular Ruth Sheen, her one-minute appearance a recriminatory earthquake.

Not all of the main characters are as fully realised, despite having more screen time. Jill, charmingly played by Lydia West, who starred as the daughter yearning to become a cybernetic trans-human in Years and Years, is too defined by her relationship to the men in the story.

Despite the charisma of newcomer Omari Douglas, the character of Roscoe never fully emerges. He has the potential to be much more interesting than Ritchie, particularly in regard to his complex relationship with his Nigerian family. But too many of his scenes are ostentatious reactions to homophobia, more suited to meme fodder than credible representations of human behaviour.

A silly scene between Douglas and Fry as they await a VIP seems to subvert a passage from Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty (2004), in which a gay man becomes enraptured by the lifestyle of the family of Thatcherite minister; but here, played for laughs, it falls flat.

Olly Alexander as Ritchie Tozer in It's a Sin

At the start of It’s a Sin Thatcherism hovers in the background – in the first episode, a Portuguese man is referred to as a “bloody Argie” – but as the disease spreads, the homophobic policies of the Thatcher government become more explicit and shape the story. Men with Aids are terrified of losing their jobs; one character, who finds work as a teacher, is promptly assigned to removing any books with homosexual undertones from the school library, when Section 28 is implemented.

Broadcast in the middle of another pandemic, the drama feels frighteningly prescient. Ritchie’s beaming monologue to camera, as he rejects the early warnings about HIV – “How do I know? How do know it’s not true? Because I’m not stupid!” – could have come out of the mouth of an anti-masker. And hints of homophobia recently resurfaced through a media focus on areas known for gay nightlife, with Soho in London and Seoul’s Itaewon district hinted at as breeding grounds for the spread of Covid-19.

Other countries have produced powerful TV dramas about Aids over the years – the poetic Swedish series Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves (2012) and Ryan Murphy’s marvellous Pose (2018-) are highlights – but It’s a Sin is the first great British series on the subject (the toothless BBC adaptation of The Line of Beauty in 2006 is best forgotten).

It isn’t as provocative as Queer as Folk nor as visionary as Years and Years, but it is Davies’s most moving and personal drama to date. It’s a rare series that is as full of love for its flawed, perfectly imperfect characters as it is sick with anger at the society that failed them, and stands as a passionate, beautifully gay tribute to all the smalltown boys, everywhere.

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