Written By: Russell T. Davis
Director: Peter Hoar
Starring: Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Lydia Baxter, Nathaniel Curtis, Keeley Hawes
Duration: 225 min
BBFC Certification: 15
You know you are watching the work of a powerful writer when they are able to break your heart with just one word. And such a simple word at that. Just two letters. One syllable. Yet this is emblematic of the powerful contradiction that runs through It’s a Sin, Russell T. Davis’ five part television drama about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s; it is a show that explores a brutally painful subject, yet tackles that exploration with a deftness of touch that sees the show transcend and morph into something more than just an exploration of tragic events. As illogical as it sounds, it emerges as both a celebratory, transcendent experience as well as a heavy hitting drama. It is this combination of light and darkness that has enabled it to become the most watched show in All4’s history (6 million plus and counting) and why, more than a month after it’s initial broadcast, social media is still buzzing with the reverberations of those who have either just experienced it or those who simply cannot forget.
Writing highly acclaimed drama is of course nothing new for creator and sole writer, Russell T. Davis. Springing into prominence in the early nineties with Queer As Folk, which broke boundaries with its frank and honest depiction of male homosexual relationships, he progressed to be the driving force behind the reinvigoration of the BBCs Dr. Who, turning it from beloved cult curio into a global phenomenon. Since leaving the show, Davis has concentrated on writing mini series, of which the last two, 2018’s brilliant A Very English Scandal (which continued Hugh Grant’s glorious quest to shake off his foppish nineties persona by choosing to play dark and damaged characters) and 2019’s slightly more uneven Years and Years, garnered some of the best critical reviews of his career. He continues in this vein with It’s A Sin, which manages to eclipse all that has gone before, which, considering the previous quality, is no small feat.
The set-up of the show is simple. Beginning in the early eighties, we follow the lives of three main characters, each of whom leave their family homes in different circumstances and wind up living together in London. Richie (Olly Alexander) has left home on the Isle of Wright to study at University, Roscoe (Omari Douglas) has escaped the confines of his families’ suffocatingly traditional beliefs, while Colin (Callum Scott Howells) has left a small town in Wales in order to try and make a living for himself. Along with Jill (Lydia Baxter) and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) they all end up living together in a flat they dub the ‘Pink Palace’. Richie, Roscoe, Colin, Jill and Ash enjoy the freedom they have found together, until the spectre of a mysterious disease begins to cast it’s shadow over their lives…
The opening episodes strongly recall Queer as Folk, Davis’ previous work exploring young male homosexuality. We spend time with the characters as they gradually come to terms with who they are and share in their joys and sorrows along they way. Hallmarks of Queer as Folk can be found in the show’s refreshingly real love scenes. Filled with as much post teenage awkwardness and embarrassment as they are with moments of tenderness and physical exuberance, they help ground the show in a reality that is all too rarely seen on the big or small screen (Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country being two notable cinematic exceptions). There is enough depth to the characters and relationships in these opening episodes that you feel the show could quite happily continue in this vein and still be a success; but of course It’s A Sin is not just about the story of Ritchie, Roscoe, Colin, Ash and Jill. Its story is much bigger than that.
AIDS is a subject that has not been examined all that often through the medium of television and film and when it has, such as in 1993’s Philadelphia or even 2019’s Bohemian Rhapsody, it has been depicted almost skittishly. Keen to show the consequences of the disease, many previous stories and shows have been too conservative to show how those consequences originated.
In order to tell the story of how AIDS entered and spread through the homosexual community of the 1980s, Davis initially utilises an almost Hollywoodesque narrative in the show’s early episodes. As the characters go about their lives, the early onset of the disease hovers in the wings, spreading its malign presence like a darkening shadow. Like the oncoming volcanic eruption, flood or fire of a disaster movie, the disease is omnipresent, weaved through the opening hours with quiet hints and nods, building up in manner that recalls, for example, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion; as characters start to get ill, then die, of a mysterious disease, whispers of a ‘gay plague’ are clandestinely uttered in pubs and bars. Characters scoff and don’t believe a word, the tragedy made all the more potent because we, the audience, know it’s not a question of if but when…
This isn’t to suggest for one moment that Davis treats his subject matter factiously or exploits it for some kind of cheap, garish thrill. In fact, the very opposite is true. It’s a Sin manages to depict AIDS in a way that, while not shying away from the horror and brutality, treats it in such a frank and honest manner that it strips away the disease’s insidious, clandestine nature, revealing the truth that lay behind the sensationalist headlines and celebrity deaths that dominated AIDS coverage when the disease was at its height.
As mentioned, It’s a Sin is as much a story concerned with the wider aspect of the gay community of the 1980s and how AIDS insidiously entered people’s lives and changed them forever, as it is with telling the story of the residents of the Pink Palace. This is a history that has rarely (if ever, to my knowledge) been told on national British television with as much depth and courage as seen here. Considering the vast impact the disease had and continues to have to this day, it is shocking and regrettable that it has taken this long to bring this story, if not to light, then certainly to a wider public audience.
It is a story told with both objective scope and powerfully subjective details. Twice Davis juxtaposes scenes of jubilation with those of abject horror and desolation. We cut from a house party to the body of a character being clinically removed from a hospital bed and zipped up in a cheap body bag. When we are enjoying watching characters celebrate success, Davis suddenly switches mood and tone, showing a family burning all the possessions of a dead son, ostensibly because they fear the infectious capability of the disease but also because they are ashamed of who their son was. The episode ends with the camera tracking into a childhood teddy bear being eaten up in a bonfire, before we see a picture of a schoolboy, smiling at the camera with his whole life ahead of him, slowly curling and blackening in the flames. These sharp, sudden shifts shouldn’t really work without feeling forced yet their impact hits you in the face like a bucket full of ice water.
It’s a Sin continues to pull no punches when it comes to people’s reactions to AIDS. The show doesn’t hold back in depicting the State’s cruel and cold reaction to the disease, with one infected character being illegally locked away in an isolated hospital room, banned from seeing friends or family. Victim’s relatives are rarely shown to have understanding or empathy with their loved ones. Their reactions are painful to witness, stemming from a sense of shame and stigma (one that still carries such a profound weight that, to this day, some parents still cannot admit that their child died of AIDS). Taken together, the show’s empathic yet frank depiction is nothing less than revelatory.
If It’s a Sin’s triumph can be partly attributed to a realistic depiction of a disease that still carries an aura of shame and mystery, its other masterstroke are the characters. Unlike, say, Threads (an eighties TV film that was also as frank and honest as possible in its realisation of disaster and tragedy, in this case Nuclear War) where the focus was on the exploration of its subject and not necessarily on the characters, It’s a Sin manages to balance its subject matter with characters that sparkle and breath. Davis tells his story through the lives and experiences of people who never feel less than absolutely real. As the show progresses, your relationship with them develops to such an extent that they come to feel like your friends, a feat only achieved in some of the best coming-of age dramas and comedies (from Stand By Me to The Breakfast Club to Superbad, to name a few). These aren’t two dimensional ciphers pushed around to serve a writer’s polemic; Davis has created, living, breathing people who will ensnare your heart, typically through tiny details that nevertheless paint a gloriously rounded picture…one character, frozen in a car’s headlights, posing like a ballerina… another, who has just been fired, forlornly picking up an uneaten apple from a staff room…another parading in front of all their friends at a party and saying just one word – La! It is out of moments like these that the show’s characters burst into visceral, fizzing life and it is their veracity and exuberance that make the show such an exhilarating and devastatingly powerful watch.
Of course, the credit for this cannot be solely laid on the writing. The performances that bring that writing to life are brilliant across the board, from Omari Douglas’ punkishly charismatic turn that threatens to steal every scene he is in, to Lydia Baxter’s empathic depiction of Jill, giving a character with the least explored background a life as rounded as any of her male contemporaries. Olly Alexander proves that there is far more to him than fronting Years and Years (the band, not the TV show!) anchoring It’s a Sin with a wonderfully engaging performance that shows he is as adept at being a leading man of the screen as he is being the front man of a band. All of the young actors more than hold their own against more established presences such as Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry, both of whom make memorable cameos.
Yet special mention has to go to Callum Scott Howells agonisingly heartbreaking portrayal as the bookish Colin. Channeling the sweet naivety of Giles Thomas’ fellow bookish Welshman from Dennis Potter’s Lipstick on Your Collar, Howells delivers a performance of such subtly and simplicity that you aren’t aware quite how much it has affected you till after the show has finished. In stark contrast, but delivering no less of an impact, is Keeley Hawes. Spending much of the show as a benign, almost ephemeral figure, she erupts in the final episode like Krakatoa, spewing rage, hate, guilt and grief at all who stand in her way. It is a fiercely powerful and uncomfortable performance that is handled with a skill that ensures that even when acting at her most reprehensible, she is never less than understandable. After doing great work for years, from Ashes to Ashes to a steely brilliant turn in Line of Duty, this is surely the performance that cements Hawes as one of this country’s greatest actors.
By the time the end credits roll up on screen, It’s a Sin has become both a celebration and a tribute to the time it depicts and the people who lived, and died, through it. Without falling into the potential mawkishness of the former or the heavy handedness of the latter, it freezes on a final moment that acts both as a celebratory remembrance of lives lived as well as a potent reminder of all the potential that was lost.
But all these words can’t really sum up the show’s effortlessly balanced depiction of joy and tragedy. For that, you’ll have to watch the work of Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Nathaniel Curtis, Lydia Baxter and Keeley Hawes. You’ll have to see how director Peter Hoar skilfully steers such brilliant writing and performances into such stunning results. Ultimately, you’ll have to surrender yourself into the hands of a writer with a formidable talent, who is able to sum up the show’s devastatingly effective juxtapositions with just one simple word.
It’s a Sin is available digitally to stream on All4 and is released on Blu Ray and DVD on 22nd February, courtesy of Dazzler Media.