Vibrant. Heart-wrenching. Poignant. Witty. Necessary.
These are just a few words that come to mind when I reflect on Channel 4’s drama It’s A Sin. Created and written by Russel T Davies, this ground-breaking miniseries boldly tackles the subject of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United Kingdom. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is an aspect of human history that many people still avoid talking about, but Davies confronts the issue head-on and doesn’t hold back. However, what Davies does so brilliantly is combine the gravitas of this moment in history with loveable and energetic characters, making you laugh, smile and shed many a tear. This is a series that you will remember long after you have finished it.
The star-studded cast features a plethora of celebrated gay actors, such as Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry and most notably Olly Alexander (best known for being the lead singer of Years and Years). The ensemble cast boasts many openly LGBTQ+ actors, an intentional casting choice according to Davies who explained ‘for my one programme, for these five hours, I wanted to create a safe space where gay actors could voluntarily come in and be themselves’. Alexander is overwhelmingly successful in his portrayal of Ritchie Tozer, a young gay man who leaves his home on the Isle of White to follow his dreams of becoming an actor in London. However, the standout performances in the cast arise from relatively new faces on the British acting scene. Omari Douglas, as the effervescent and flamboyant Roscoe Babatunde, is both funny and feisty, and Callum Scott Howells encapsulates the warmth, innocence and gentleness of his character, Colin "Gladys Pugh" Morris-Jones. Finally, Lydia West tackles one of the bravest characters in the narrative, Jill Baxter. West’s character is loosely based on Davies' own friend Jill Nalder, who lost three of her closest friends to AIDS in the 1980s. The real Jill Nalder even appears in the show as Baxter's mother.
The series spans a ten-year timeframe, beginning in September 1981. We are introduced to the main characters Ritchie, Roscoe, Colin, Ash, Gregory/Gloria and Jill as their paths cross in London and they move into a flat together. Throughout the series the flat, affectionately nicknamed ‘The Pink Palace’, becomes a striking symbol of acceptance, expression and unity. Irrespective of their home lives, in ‘The Pink Palace’ we see each character being their unapologetic self and living as vicariously as they please.
One highly memorable moment is the montage of gay sex in the opening episode of It’s A Sin. The decision by director Peter Hoar to tackle the sex scenes with no limits or restrictions is just one of many ways in which It’s A Sin deconstructs the stigma of the gay experience. Despite being slated by some reviewers for being too graphic, this only heightens the sense of realism and truth at the centre of the series (and let’s face it, it was no raunchier than Bridgerton).
As the episodes progress, the threat of a mystery disease looms over the characters, and in turn the viewing audience. Ritchie’s blatant dismissal of the severity of the disease and his refusal to get tested had me – and I’m sure many other people watching – screaming at the television out of pure love towards his cheeky and charming character. Whilst watching this series, I inevitably knew that there would be death. As it heart-breakingly transpired, there were multiple deaths. Let’s just say I don’t think I was prepared for how affected I would be by each one. Each death was accompanied by stillness, a pause for reflection, and a thoughtfulness about the HIV/AIDS crisis I had never had before.
It is no surprise that It’s A Sin has ignited a long-overdue conversation regarding HIV/AIDS amongst young people and the media. It has both educated and entertained members of LGBTQ+ community and their allies about a dark aspect of their history – one which they may not have known anything about previously. It’s A Sin is working powerfully to destigmatise HIV/AIDS and detach the shame that has been commonly associated with the disease for so long. As of December 2020, an estimated 7,500 people are living undiagnosed with HIV in the United Kingdom. There are so many words to describe It’s A Sin but above all else, this series was, and is, necessary.
Written by George Marlin.