Marking Russell T Davies’ third production for Channel 4, It’s a Sin tackles the Aids crisis of the 1980s. Previously the writer has worked with the channel on the game-changing Queer as Folk hitting our screens in 1999, altering forever the perception of queer men in this country, and then again with Cucumber/Banana (2015) which instead focused on middle-aged gay men and the unique struggles they face. While not one to shy away from tough subjects – with his last project being BBC’s Years and Years (2019) dealing with the likes of dangerous migrant crossings and a concentration camps – It’s a Sin proves to be Davies’ hardest hitting show to date.
It’s difficult to review It’s a Sin without going wildly into superbole, so I’ll get that out of the way first. These five hours are some of the best five hours of television I’ve ever watched and Russell T Davies remains, in my opinion, the best television writer of our time. Now that that’s clear, I can start talking about specifics.
It’s a Sin follows a group of friends living together in their “Pink Palace” (a flat in central London) during the 80s, whose lives are dramatically impacted as a mysterious virus takes hold of their world. It starts small – whispers of a cancer that seems contagious; the odd article in a newspaper; an older friend becoming strangely ill – but then it spreads and fast.
This is one of the many things that is done so well – the mention of Aids and HIV are so background at first but then suddenly it’s the main event. It’s disorientating and overwhelming, conveying a sense of what it was to live that, to perhaps only catch the glimpses in retrospect. But of course, we as the audience know where it’s leading. Therefore, when, at the end of episode one, three of the Pink Palace residents, Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and Colin (Callum Scott Howells), are asked something along the lines of “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”, to hear their enthusiastic hopes of a future is immediately heart-breaking. We don’t know whether these specific characters will live or die but they’re representing all those people who were young and excited about life only for it to be cut short so cruelly.
The character’s come from various backgrounds – Ritchie’s a closeted middle-class kid from the Isle of Wight headed to London for university while Roscoe leaves his family in fabulous fashion in order to stop them from sending him to Nigeria. I loved all the characters but it’s Colin, the shy Welsh sales apprentice, who really stole my heart. Full of innocent wonder, he’s the quiet, reserved one of the group but always happy to be there. To then, in the space of one episode, see him go senile and die from Aids was devastating. There’s no diluting any of the scenes of illness – the reality is laid bare and it’s uncomfortable and disturbing to watch. And it’s incredible writing, acting, directing – everything.
Something must also be said of Olly Alexander’s Ritchie Tozer who works as something of a central anchor to the piece. He’s clever, talented, funny but also troubled beneath the bubbly hysteria. While Colin’s Aids journey is rapid, Ritchie’s is stretched out and we see him struggle with his diagnosis, medication and being truthful with his parents. Alexander is a star and it’s evident in his performance here – it feels like we can see Ritchie’s thoughts perfectly. Most of all he brings such life to the role and it’s in that fight for life that we are reminded again and again that these men should’ve just been starting theirs, not confined to a hospital bed.
For me, the brilliance is in the presentations of life as much in the horrors of the deaths – which is a speciality of Davies, juxtaposing life and death to ultimate effect. It’s a Sin paints a vivid scene bursting with life and humour. Despite the subject matter, there’s humour throughout, even when cut side-by-side with images of death – but it feels natural, how life tends go. We even get a cheeky glimpse at some Daleks recalling Davies’ Doctor Who days. Lydia West plays the role of Jill, the co-owner of the Pink Palace, and her fight for the people she shares her life with is a ray of light.
And there’s more to the story than just Aids, it’s clear there’s a whole world here. Nathaniel Curtis’s Ash reminds us of the ridiculous Section 28 that was implemented at the time while Roscoe has a very amusing story line with Stephen Fry’s Tory MP and an (un)fortunate incident with Maggie Thatcher’s coffee.
Davies’ is focused on telling the stories of individuals but there is definitely a point being made here. Sure, the government are certainly held accountable for the handling of the crisis, but the real point is much wider – and it’s angry. A repeating theme is this idea of shame – how it’s shame that’s causing these people to die alone and no-where is the blame for that more directed than on (some of) the families and parents of the Aids victims. In one scene we see a family burn all the possessions and photographs of a son who died of Aids – a tragic image of a family filled more with shame than love. But Davies explore this idea most extensively in the portrayal of Ritchie’s mum, Valerie, played by Keeley Hawes.
Throughout the series, Valarie seems kind and giving, always happy to help Ritchie out with money and the like. There is, of course, small red-flags – for example, when Ritchie tells her “I love you” she looks startled and hangs up the phone. But once she finds out he has Aids, she changes. In an excellent extended scene that sees long takes of Valarie storming up and down the ward, furious with everyone, it’s clear she cannot cope with the knowledge her son has Aids and is gay.
Davies isn’t completely unsympathetic towards her, she is a mother who’s losing her son, but it’s clear there is some kind of personal attack in the way she’s portrayed. In one scene, another mother of a patient berates her for not knowing Ritchie was gay, asking “what were you looking at?” and later, in a particularly affecting scene, Jill blames the entire epidemic on Valarie, stating that because her house was so loveless, it caused shame and shame is what killed them. The anger is beautiful and feels just. As for Hawes’ performance, it’s flawless – the moment her son dies there’s almost a sob but then we see as she chokes it down, not allowing herself to cry even at the death of her child. It’s something deeply psychologically messed up that represents a whole society as well as just one woman.
It’s a Sin tells the real stories of people who suffered but what is highlighted again and again is the fact that, yes, the virus was awful but it was made so much worse because of the everything else – parents, doctors, ignorant people, shame. It’s another of Davies’ masterpieces and essential viewing.
Drama | UK. 2021 | 15 | Out Now (Channel 4) / 22nd February 2021 (DVD& Blu-Ray) | Writer: Russell T Davies | Olly Alexander, Nathaniel Curtis, Omari Douglas, Stephen Fry, Keeley Hawes, Neal Patrick Harris