If gay Twitter can in any way be trusted, I am by no means alone in having already binged all five episodes of Russell T Davies’ 80’s set drama It’s A Sin (All4). The action follows the lives and loves of three young gay men as the spectre of AIDS begins to loom ever larger in their lives. We kick off in 1981 as confused reports of a mysterious cancer, or is it pneumonia?, affecting gay men begin to emerge from the United States and, as the next ten years unfold, well…you know how it goes.
I must confess to having been a little concerned when I heard that Olly Alexander, the lead singer of the band Years and Years, was to play Ritchie, who leaves his dull and casually homophobic home on the Isle of Wight to study in London. Drawing only from what I have seen in television interviews, I worried that he may not have the range or subtlety to carry such a sensitive and historically-important storyline. Well, I was wrong. Ritchie is arguably the most complex of the three leads, rejoicing in his hedonistic gayness while simultaneously eating himself up with homosexual shame, at one point even expressing his support for the Conservative government’s hated Section 28. Alexander hits the bullseye with a beautifully nuanced, tragi-comic performance which will surely give much food for thought to the judges at BAFTA.
The first episode led up to our three main characters coming together to share a flat with Ritchie’s university friend Jill (Lydia West) and I actually whooped when Omari Douglas’ Roscoe walked out of his deeply religious, homophobic family home, a scene of such camp fabulousness that contrived to be both over the top and entirely credible.
Last to the flat share is Colin (Callum Scott Howells), the quiet one from a small town in Wales, whose wide-eyed innocence and sense of wonder at the London gay scene makes you want to pick him up and protect him from the cruel ravages of the coming decade.
Historical accuracy isn’t always important. I have no time, for example, for critics of the Regency-set Bridgerton (Netflix) who foam at the mouth over the inclusion of a black duke or of women smoking ready-rolled cigarettes. I mean, who cares? But accuracy matters when drama deals with recent history, not least as a mark of respect to those affected. Small quirks of the age – phone calls being cheaper after 6pm, smoking on buses, Sealink ferries – may seem trivial but getting them wrong can undermine the whole drama. It’s a Sin gets the 80s absolutely right, and that includes the lovingly-curated soundtrack.
More substantially, I was reminded of the institutional cruelty of the authorities, especially in the early days, where a lack of understanding led to AIDS patients being locked away in hospital rooms to die alone. Similarly, stories of parents, who had hitherto rejected their gay sons, taking them “home” to die while cutting out their friends and “gay family” were all too accurate and – yes – the denial of some on the scene who continued to party until it was too late.
A mini-series can’t include everything but I was a little disappointed that the role of lesbians in the crisis was not highlighted. When the NHS and social services were struggling to provide adequate care, the lesbian community, sometimes known as the “blood sisters”, stepped up to the plate to offer love and practical support.
It’s a Sin is one of the most important dramas of recent times. Davies’ writing deserves stand-out performances and the supporting cast as well as the principals deliver in spades. I laughed, I cried and I remembered: an absolute must-watch.