Andy Polaris reviews the five-part TV series It’s a Sin newly premiered on Channel 4 amid great expectations
The much-feted writer Russell T Davies broke barriers with the pioneering British TV series Queer As Folk in 1999 and more recently with Cucumber, both lively depictions of gay life in contemporary Britain. Now comes It’s A Sin which focuses on a diverse group of gay friends mostly escaping from the familiar claustrophobia of suburban life (mostly closeted) and attracted to that well trodden lure of big-city life and all its promise. We are off to see the wizard, but this time we’re thrown back to 1981, the year of the first recorded British death from AIDS at Brompton Hospital in London.
Ritchie (Olly Alexander) is a gauche, attractive, closeted twink leaving home to study law in London, and his send-off from the Isle of Wight is a multi-pack of condoms from his bigoted dad (Shaun Dooley) as they both stress “It’s different on the mainland”. Roscoe (Omari Douglas) is a flamboyant young Nigerian whose strict religious parents are so fraught over his sexual orientation that he bolts defiantly before an intervention. Colin (Callum Scott Howells) leaves the Welsh valleys to lodge with a family and start his apprenticeship with a Savile Row tailor. There, he is rescued from the clutches of his lecherous boss by a gay colleague.
Colin is as square and unworldly as they come and his introduction to a gay couple is his first tangible experience of a loving gay relationship. Henry (Neil Patrick Harris) steals his scenes with witty wisdom and tales of domestic bliss. Ritchie’s introduction is through new fellow uni students Jill (Lydia West) and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). Soon the group become fast friends with Ash becoming his first lover and seemingly first experience. We follow the group with Ritchie as lynchpin while his horizons broaden along with the thriving bar scene and an endless choice of lovers. Casual sex becomes addictive and flashes past in a blaze of encounters against a soundtrack of the hideous but popular Hooked on Classics.
Trouble in paradise emerges through the mysterious illness that begins to infiltrate the community. Characters start to disappear from their usual haunts to end up isolated in hospital looking haunted. The fear and harsh treatment even from the medical profession is brutal with spartan wards and food unceremoniously dumped outside illustrating the often lonely deaths of AIDS victims in the early days.
The shame, stigma and moral panic that surrounded the epidemic permeates throughout and no one was immune, especially as there was so little known about the disease and even when facts finally came through, so did disbelief and disinformation. Sound familiar? Just look at the tabloid headlines at the time – “The Gay Plague” and “EastBenders” – in response to the BBC soap introducing a gay couple. (Later one of the most popular characters would challenge stereotypes when he became HIV positive.) Denial even within the gay community insisted that this was something that was only of concern for Americans and in some quarters prompted a stance of Don’t rain on my parade.
A scene where Ritchie’s pals party at Heaven, the biggest, brand new gay club, was a baptism by sexual freedom for gay men in a pre-internet landscape including myself and friends. (My group Animal Nightlife played early concerts there along with Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and Musical Youth). The scene was blossoming through a whole network of bars and clubs. Safe sex had not yet been advocated, neither had the government’s “Don’t Die of Ignorance” leaflet campaign. It seemed to be abstain or die. AIDS awareness was bad for business. As the Eighties proceed in the TV drama each gay character has to deal with the possibility of an early and lonely death if the dreaded health-test proved positive. It was down to lesbian and straight women like Jill to become the care-givers and conduit to bewildered and often angry parents. In fact Jill spends so much time concerned about her close friends that she appears to remain single throughout, despite her beauty and loving nature.
It’s in these meetings between Jill’s character and parents after a fatal diagnosis that the cultural clashes between provincial and metropolitan lives become strikingly apparent. We have to remember the media treatment of gay people at the time was entrenched hostility endorsed by a government that introduced Section 28, basically state-sponsored hate. It was important to remember gay men had no protection in law, including those who had partners and encouraged secrecy and stigma. There are some heartbreaking scenes between Ritchie’s mother Valerie (Keeley Hawes) and Jill towards the end, both with opposing views, a battle where blame destroys any attempt at closure. The closing scenes become hard to watch as you imagine the tragedy of so many young lives and dreams crushed, leaving family bitterness and regret and in some cases complete abandonment. Harsher still was the cold official attitude in the midst of despair to obtain even a decent burial. For many viewers old enough to remember the height of the epidemic, it’s hard to underestimate how the personal grief ingrained at that time might be retriggered by It’s A Sin.
The acting throughout is exemplary: Olly Alexander proves himself well capable in a starring role and confirms shrewd casting for this successful British popstar. Newcomers Omari Douglas and Lydia West both sink their teeth convincingly into their roles.
The soundtrack becomes an added character which propels us through the decade from the cheesy pop of Kelly Marie (Feel Like Making Love) to Stock Aitken Waterman’s Divine treatment (You Think You’re A Man) and surprises from Carmel karaoke (More More More) and a Gwen Guthrie underground classic (Peanut Butter).
This all-British drama is almost pitch-perfect and on reflection It’s A Sin must be Russell T Davies’s best work. I could not warm to Queer As Folk or relate to Cucumber but did feel totally invested in these new characters. They are more like the lovable cast of the excellent BBC series This Life although alas It’s A Sin is a one-off. True, this ultimately seems like a gloomy saga but supporting the sadness there is an abundance of humour too. The series sweeps you along (pacey direction by Peter Hoar) with the exuberance of its attractive cast and nostalgia for an era that many of us lived through, to now help us celebrate those we loved and lost.