TV

Seven reasons why It's A Sin is the most important drama of 2021

'Come for the vital storytelling, stay for Olly Alexander in a spacesuit,' says The Big Issue TV Editor Adrian Lobb as Russell T Davies's new drama It's A Sin, which tells the story of the Aids epidemic in 1980s London, lands on Channel 4.

The young cast of It's A Sin

Omari Douglas, Nathaniel Curtis, Olly Alexander, Callum Scott Howells and Lydia West star in Russell T Davies's drama It's A Sin

It’s A Sin is the bold and beautiful new drama from Russell T Davies, and it launches on Channel 4 on Friday January 22.

Speaking to The Big Issue, Davies admitted that a series about the HIV epidemic of the 1980s may not be everyone’s idea of an uplifting and exciting Friday night in during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

But It’s A Sin is absolutely vital viewing. Here’s why…

1. The It’s A Sin characters form their own modern family

Jill, Colin and Roscoe, played by Lydia West, Callum Scott Howells and Omari Douglas, share a laugh at home in It's a Sin
L-R Jill, Colin, Roscoe
Left to right: Jill, Colin and Roscoe, played by Lydia West, Callum Scott Howells and Omari Douglas, share a laugh at home. Image credit: Channel 4.

So much of the most rewarding and engaging film and TV drama is built on witnessing people finding their place in the world. When It’s A Sin begins, Ritchie (Years & Years pop ace Olly Alexander) is closeted in a claustrophobic home on the Isle of Wight with his distant and overbearing parents (played, quite brilliantly and against type, by Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley).

Shy, retiring Welsh youngster Colin (newcomer Callum Scott Howell) is applying for jobs in London with the dream of becoming a Saville Row tailor. Roscoe is a bold and brassy teenager hiding his sexuality and extravagant personality while working on a building site with his religious father. We meet Ash, a drama student who catches Ritchie’s eye at university, played by Nathaniel Curtis, a little later.

These smalltown boys find their people and their true selves on arrival in London, finding home in each other and at what becomes known as The Pink Palace – which they share with Jill (the outstanding Lydia West). Jill’s wit, wisdom and warmth belies her tender years as she becomes friend and confidante to all, leading the fight for information about HIV and fair treatment for the men succumbing to this terrifying new virus.

“She is the heart of the story. It is based on my friend Jill. I couldn’t even change her name,” says Davies. The roots of their bond grow out of the freedom they find with each other. Watching this bond deepen, even as they live through the worst of times, gives It’s A Sin its power. While Davies talks in our interview of his close and loving relationship with his family, he also talks of the importance of chosen or invented family over the years.

“I wasn’t myself at home, and I went through that very normal path of going to university, slowly coming out, getting drunk, snogging a boy, into your 20s, finding Manchester and finding Canal Street,” he says. “So that invented family does exist and provides great succour in my life and friends that I still have to this day.”

2. The politics of It’s A Sin are so relevant today

In our interview, Russell T Davies talks about how the HIV epidemic in the 1980s highlighted how the Government was prepared to ignore and sideline the pain and suffering of minority groups in the UK.

He drew parallels between the treatment of gay men during the 1980s with what is happening to people who have suffered disproportionately during the Covid-19 pandemic – including high numbers of young gay men (already over-represented among the homeless population) struggling in insecure jobs and facing a precarious future without family support.

“Vast chunks of the population are being forgotten. As happened during the HIV virus. My god, if we can be niched, if we can be forgotten, then we will be,” he said.

“That is the astonishing lesson that keeps coming out of Westminster: if we can find a way to forget you, we will do it again and again and again.”

Richie, played by Olly Alexander, tussles with police at a protest
Richie
Richie, played by Olly Alexander, tussles with police at a protest. Image credit: Channel 4

So while It’s A Sin is a brilliant, important, drama about a specific under-explored moment in British history, it also shines a light on whose interests the government works for. And suggests it is not the young, the poor or marginalised minorities.

Here, then, it speaks directly to the Grenfell Tower fire, the high death rate among black and minority ethnic communities in the current pandemic, and a decade of rising homelessness from 2010 to 2020.

3. Everyone has a lust for life

Russell T Davies is a master of creating characters that exude joy and lust for life. He does it again here, and the outstanding young cast bring them to vivid life, meaning we care about them from the first moment we meet them.

Vast chunks of the population are being forgotten. As happened during the HIV virus

Watching those characters live through the subsequent years of fear, tragedy and loss means we travel to the outer reaches of the emotional galaxy. But expect to laugh almost as much as you cry, find inspiration among the heartbreak, and joy between bouts of fury while watching It’s A Sin.

4. The highs and lows of innocence lost 

In recent years, we have heard so much about “journeys” when it comes to television – especially in relation to the metaphorical distances travelled by contestants on The X Factor. The word may have begun to lose all meaning. BUT… the journeys the characters in It’s A Sin embark on over the decade the drama spans are truly profound.

From the pure joy and ecstatic release of these young gay men living as their true selves for the first time to the deepest agony and despair imaginable. From ignorance and denial about HIV and Aids through knowledge and an acceptance of the new reality to a campaigning zeal. From carefree casual flings to deep, lifelong love. From friendships based on innocence, freedom and hedonism to a sense of solidarity and an unbreakable devotion that only living through the deepest tragedy can form. From a naïve, youthful selfishness to a belief in the vital importance of community. It’s all here.

5. The TV dramas in the TV drama

Come for the vital storytelling, but stay for Olly Alexander in a sci-fi space suit. Because Russell T Davies throws all of his creativity at It’s A Sin.

Not only has he created one of the most important dramas of recent years, but he also had to concoct a fictional West End show, a dreary 1980s ITV soap opera and a thrilling 1980s Doctor Who episode.

I absolutely refused to do that cheap stunt storytelling

“I had fun with it,” he says. “Some of these characters go on to become actors. Not famous actors, but jobbing actors. So I get to write a West End musical – we couldn’t get the rights to Les Misérables, they were too expensive, which was fine because then I got to write my own! I wrote a musical called The French Revolution and our composer Murray Gold wrote the music and we even got a choreographer. We did the whole thing – we built the set and loved it.

“I invented an ITV soap called The Chimney Sweep and there is a Doctor Who episode in it. So I am constantly pouring invention and fun into it in order to say ‘stay with us’ but still remaining true to the story, always coming back to that virus and its consequences.”

6. The music at the heart of the 80s’ gay scene

Not only is It’s A Sin named after a Pet Shop Boys classic, but from OMD to Kelly Marie, Erasure to Divine, Joy Division to Kim Wilde, the music choices in the show are as evocative as they are smart.

The music of the era is at the heart of It’s A Sin, evoking the energy and vitality of London’s gay scene at the start of the series, but also adding to the storytelling as things become more bleak.

Olly Alexander in it's a sin
Its a sin
Russell T Davies' 2021 drama It's A Sin

The club scenes throb with excitement. Davies introduces us to this exciting world of London’s gay scene, but then we watch as its promise for the future is taken away from so many people immersed in it. In creating this vibrant world, Davies shows us what was lost and what is at stake for the lead characters and their peers.

He says: “Everyone coming to this will know how their lives end, I want to show how those lives are lived before that.”

7. It’s A Sin is Russell T Davies at his best

Russell T Davies has been building up to writing this drama for decades. And it shows. He comes to it with a clear head – a singular vision of the story he wants to tell. His fury has not subsided, but he is able to write to his strengths and not bow to pressure to change his story.

In our interview, he says of creating It’s a Sin: “Writing is a very unhappy process. If you talk to anyone sitting there typing happily, you are talking to an idiot! It really is hard work. It literally involved digging up not only my worst memories but the worst version of myself as well.”

By sticking to his vision for the drama, Davies avoids cliches and avoids making the story too general.

“My responsibility is to the story,” he says. “And there will be reactions. There will be people watching this saying: ‘What about the women with Aids? What about straight people with Aids?’ Yeah, you are not there. You are not there.

“And that is the only way to write, frankly. If you try to write for everyone, you will write for no one. All great fiction is about something specific.

“At one point, this drama was with the BBC and I know for a fact that it might well have been commissioned there if I had started in an Aids ward, with the bleep of the monitors and men dying and then a caption that said ‘Five Years Earlier’, and gone back to tell the story.

“I was told to do that and told at various points that could get it commissioned and I absolutely refused. I didn’t care if it wasn’t commissioned, I absolutely refused to do that cheap stunt storytelling.”

It’s A Sin begins on Channel 4 on January 22 and all episodes will then be available via All4. It’s a Sin is available on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital from 22nd February

Read more from Russell T Davies in this week’s Big Issue, available through our online shop now or on The Big Issue app

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact the Mind Out charity, providing mental health support for LGBTQ+ people, or the Samaritans.

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