“I’m going to live!”: how It’s a Sin was a tale of hope, love and tragedy – Reviewing Russell T Davies’ Channel 4 series, It’s a Sin

Illustration by Marion Stewart

I was dancing in the shower to the Pet Shop Boys on a random Tuesday when I realised it had been over a week since I’d watched It’s A Sin. This in itself wasn’t news; I watch a lot of stuff and I’ve known for a while that I like 80s music. What struck me was that, even after a full week of mind-distracting events and social engagements, I still couldn’t get the series out of my head. The 5-episode wonder, created by Russell T. Davies, tells the story of five flatmates in London — Roscoe, Ash, Ritchie, Colin and Jill — during the outbreak of HIV/AIDs in the 80s. 

The first thing to note is the whereabouts: this is one of the first large-scale productions to discuss the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the UK, as opposed to the well-documented American perspective. With this came the joys of everything inherently British; horrible interior design, questionable haircuts, outrageous language and criminal-looking pints. It was this, plus the brilliant characterisation, that made the series sparkle.

The next thing to point out is the soundtrack, which, as I’ve already stated, is not neutral ground for me. Weirdly enough, I didn’t know the Pet Shop Boys’ song before watching, so it was a bonus feature when I got to the final end credits to realise there was a bop to accompany the series. The music guided us through all the emotions — whether it was drinking all night long, sharing an intimate moment with a housemate, or mourning the death of a loved one, the soundtrack complemented it all. Honourable mentions come in the form of gay anthems featured: we’re talking Wham!’s Freedom, Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth, and, a bit on the nose, is Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever

Story-wise, it’s as you would imagine, but better. Yes, it’s deeply sad and yes, it’s equally as exasperating when you’re reminded that this all actually happened (government-sanctioned, in fact), and yes, we lost a whole generation of queer men and women to a disease that politicans at the time chose to laugh at or dismiss. But (and this is a huge but) It’s A Sin is joyful. We follow Ritchie, a small-town boy from the Isle of Wight (played by Olly Alexander, frontman for Years and Years), on his journey from being under his mother’s care (played by the inimitable Keeley Hawes) to being a loud, gay, budding-actor hotshot in the big smoke. It is moving and emotional throughout, but it’s principally heartwarming, fun and memorable. As the viewer, we get to see a young gay man live all the thrills of London life, and all the people it has to offer in a jubilant, light way. The friends he makes, the memories he imprints in various parts of London and the fool he makes of himself is what makes this story relatable, despite the distinct differences between the characters then and the viewers of today. Perhaps the ‘realness’ of it comes from the creator; Davies himself based a lot of the series on his experiences as a gay man in the same time period. With exaggeration in some parts, he has explained that on the whole, that was how it was, the good and the bad.

Let’s talk about the bad: here comes the tragedy part of the story. 2021 marked the 40 year anniversary of the first HIV/AIDS-related death in the UK. By the end of 1984, there had been over 100 cases diagnosed in the UK with 46 deaths. In 1986, the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign came out – with loaded language and upsetting imagery, this was one of the first exposures the average British TV-viewer has of the disease. This all happened under Section 28, a government directive from Margaret Thatcher, decreeing that any mention of homosexuality was forbidden, positively or negatively, particularly in schools (stopped in 2003). Amongst many of the problems this caused, a key one was shame and stigmatisation of queer people, especially those who were sexually active. The last episode of the series discusses this beautifully, as the conversation between Jill, Ritchie’s closest friend, and Valerie, Ritchie’s mother, encapsulates why many diagnoses, and subsequent deaths, of queer people never reached their families’ ears. In 2010, nearly thirty years after the first big recognition of the disease, discrimination against HIV/AIDs patients became illegal.

This show made me cry as much as it made me smile and it had me reeling for days after. The characters are well-written and accurate, both of the UK gay scene as well as of overbearing mothers. As much as I’ve loved previous US productions based around the HIV/AIDs epidemic, this was the first time I saw myself and my friends portrayed in a program so sensitively and accurately (as soon as I finished it I messaged my brother and best friend to send them a huge virtual hug). Unlike other stereotypical and whimsical depictions of queer people on screen, Davies gave the young adult romance as much seriousness as he did the sadness the disease brought, for which I and other viewers respect him highly. From the way London is framed, to how queer friendships can become your chosen family, this show depicts everything you’d want to know about the early 80s and more. I can’t think of a more perceptive, entertaining and more-ish series to kick off your 2021 entertainment.

HIV/AIDS now is a very different disease to the one we see onscreen – far fewer people die with it, it’s absolutely normal to live with it, and those on effective treatment cannot pass it on. With that in mind, here are some links for more information: the HBO Max Instagram account is donating to the Prevention Access Campaign with posts like Nathaniel Curtis’, who played Ash. The show has promoted a wave of HIV tests nicknamed the ‘It’s A Sin’ effect and has even received a stamp of approval from none other than Elton John. Other accounts worth following are The AIDS Memorial and Black & Gay, Back in the Day and, just to relive it all, The Pink Palace , the show’s official account.

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