‘It’s a Sin’ documents good fun with grim drama

It's Pride Month currently, which means that apart from quarrelling with my college over their refusal to fly the Pride flag, I’m revisiting some of my favourite LGBT+ works of art, literature, theatre, and television.

One such gem I encountered some months ago is It’s A Sin, a five-part British tv drama serial written and created by Russell T. Davies. Set in London, and covering the years from 1981 to 1991, It’s a Sin was inspired by Davies’ own and his friends’ experiences with gay life during the UK Aids crisis.

It’s a Sin is a brilliant, multifaceted jewel of a series, eloquently depicting the lives of a group of gay men and their friends through the HIV/Aids crisis. Sir Elton John called it "a triumph of creativity and humanity", adding "watching it, so many sad and devastating memories came flooding back."

We have Ritchie (Olly Alexander), a naive young man who has just left his home on the Isle of Wight to head to the big city for university. There’s Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a sweet young Welshman who has recently started as a Saville Row apprentice. Then there’s Roscoe (Omari Doublas), who has just walked out on his deeply religious and homophobic family after they threaten to send him to Nigeria. All three boys live in a ramshackle flat in London along with their friends Jill (Lydia West) and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). What the flat lacks in wallpaper, amenities, and cleanliness, it makes up for in high spirits and love.

At the beginning of the show, rumours of a new and mysterious disease are beginning to disseminate across the Atlantic. These rumours, however, are heeded not by our young protagonists, who continue to blithely enjoy all that life has to offer. Indeed, Ritchie scorns the idea of a disease that targets gay men: “They say it affects homosexuals, Haitians, and haemophiliacs ... who’s it going to get next, people from Hartlepool?” Davies expertly cycles through all the myths and misinformation circulated about the origin and severity of HIV/Aids. Such notes of uncertainty have special resonance with us now as we battle the fear and irrationality of the Covid pandemic.

Colin’s kind older colleague Henry (Neil Patrick Harris) and his partner Pablo (Tatsu Carvalho) are the first casualties of the series, falling ill with a mysterious condition that might be cancer, tuberculosis, pneumonia, or even psittacosis, a lung disease contracted from parrots. Pablo’s mother brings him home to Portugal, leaving Henry to die alone, practically a prisoner, in an empty hospital ward. Davies expertly shows how the gay community was treated with ignorance, fear, and often outright cruelty. Characters encounter homophobia in the workplace, couched in politeness. HIV/Aids victims are ostracised, treated as lepers, and hidden away from polite society.

It’s A Sin is surprising and startling at times; Davies delights in confounding the viewer’s expectations. Gathered around the family table at Ritchie’s house, Ritchie announces to his family that he’s switching from law to a drama course. We are, of course, expecting him to announce that he’s gay. Ritchie’s mother, Valerie, expertly played by Keeley Hawes, exemplifies the loving but deeply homophobic and bigoted family life many young queer people emerge from. Valerie deeply loves her son, but does not truly know him. Flora Carr from Radio Times described Hawes’ performance as “stunning” and “heartbreaking”, particularly in the final episode, where she "turned in an acting tour de force as a mother whose grief and denial turns her vicious".

While the series is named after the Pet Shop Boys song, it is also coloured by many classic ’80s anthems from Blondie, Bronski Beats, Erasure and Culture Club, to Kelly Marie and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Annabel Nugent, writing for The Independent, wrote of the soundtrack: “it manages to produce a feeling more substantial than that generic, cookie cutter kind of nostalgia”.

In one powerful scene, Ash launches into a speech decimating Section 28, Margaret Thatcher’s directive prohibiting the so-called “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. It’s particularly galling to know that conversations and lessons about LBGT+ history or sex education still rarely take place in schools across the United Kingdom, let alone New Zealand.

Despite being a member of the LGBT community myself, I know sadly little about those who have gone before me. Are we consciously ignoring this history? Are we avoiding it because we know it’s too painful to properly countenance? I learned nothing about the Stonewall riots or the HIV/Aids crisis in high school, although the actions of Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk, and countless others changed the course of history.

It’s a Sin is at times funny, miserable and cathartic; a perfect balance of lightheartedness and heartbreak. As one character lies dying in a hospital bed, he urges his friends to remember the good times they had: “I had so much fun. That’s what people will forget; that it was so much fun.” The show easily could have succumbed to melodrama, and dwelt solely upon the tragedy of the HIV/Aids crisis.

But It’s A Sin is more than an anthem for doomed youth; it’s a celebration of their lives, their loves, and the joy they experienced alongside the despair.

  • Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

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