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TV review

‘It’s a Sin’ gets brilliantly real about gay sex, shame, and AIDS

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The Daily Beast

Date:
February 15, 2021

Russell T. Davies’ excellent HBO Max drama, “It’s a Sin,” shows the joys of coming out in 1980s London, and then the terror of AIDS, featuring awful bigotry and harsh home truths.

A young person knows that he will die, but he is also determined to live loud for as long as possible. In the glare of some car headlights late one night he strikes a pose. The driver of the car looks on mesmerized and a little delighted. He is the strike-a-poser’s one-time school crush, a straight guy who has just been told about his friend’s sexual desire now many years later.

Because the exceptional Russell T. Davies, creator of Queer as Folk, has written this scene you hold your breath all the way through it. It is beautiful and tense all at once. How will the straight guy react? What does the gay man want? As with so many of Davies’ scenes it plays against both type and expectation. And then it ends, on a suburban street; the only witnesses to this strange epic are the street-lamps, sidewalk, and silent darkness.

You may have seen the rave reviews coming out of the U.K. for It’s a Sin, a superb five-part drama (in the U.S., premiering on HBO Max from February 18) set between 1981 and 1991, which follows a group of gay men migrating to London in the first decade of AIDS, while living with the piece’s lead hero Jill (Lydia West). There is a lot of life, wit, sex, and joy in the tales of Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and Colin (Callum Scott Howells).

There is also a graphic and unsparing exploration of the horrific homophobia of that time, and the demonization and then—if that were not vile enough—the erasure of gay lives as they were lost; men left to die in silent rooms, their partners and friends blanked from the last chapters of their lives, their funerals, and kicked out of their homes by shocked, vindictive families.

This was a time when men who had sex with men were not just dying of a disease that no one then understood. They were dying horrible, lonely deaths in isolation, not properly fed and cared for, many families either hustling them home to die quietly or ignoring them altogether.

Davies does not just write the traditional AIDS drama’s mixture of fury and elegy. He does not write the happy, liberationist coming out story. He marries them both stunningly, while also interrogating the mechanics of shame, and how the shame built into gay men’s lives may affect, fatally, their own behavior. The uncomfortable themes contained in influential books like Alan Downs’ The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World and Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy are woven into the characters and their destinies in It’s a Sin.

It may not seem a long time ago, especially from the vantage point of 2021 with legislative equality for LGB people in Britain won—if not for trans people who are presently the subject of a concerted campaign of prejudice, whipped up by many sections of the British media. It’s a Sin may remind many who were around back then, growing up in another hostile climate, of the present situation being experienced by trans people; the language of the newspapers invoking deviancy, predatory behavior, pathologized otherness—all of it ultimately seeking to diminish, marginalize, and make unequal before the eyes of the law.

Coincidence dictated that just before this reporter watched It’s a Sin he rewatched the video for Bronski Beat’s classic gay-themed pop song “Smalltown Boy” (1984). It is the kernel of It’s a Sin—a gay cry of joy, pain, and resistance in miniature—and set to music at a time when its very release was controversial. In its first episode, It’s a Sin fills out the frame of “Smalltown Boy” in showing us sexual attraction, homophobia, parental rejection, and the self-liberating flight to the big city.

“Smalltown Boy” ends with the sight of train tracks criss-crossing this way and that. Which way should, will, a small-town boy go? In the five episodes of It’s a Sin we follow the tracks taken by its young protagonists, set to propulsive action (it’s a fizzing pleasure to watch, directed by Peter Hoar), and unpacks all their pain, joys, mess, tragedy, and mischief.

It’s a Sin is as cautionary as it is an exhalation. It doesn’t just look at the gay men on the dance floor and between the sheets, it asks where they came from—and then puts those places on unforgiving trial. Queer as Folk radically showed gay people as they are, and also within their families and communities. It’s a Sin takes Philip Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do…” and extrapolates from it a damning verdict when it comes to the life-extinguishing impact on queer kids of growing up without acceptance.

There are deliberately no major spoilers in this article. The crackling joy of any Russell T. Davies drama are in its soapy revelations, the twists, the big scenes that happen out of nowhere, the throwaway lines that cement intimacies, and the epic unfolding in the everyday. Its crystallizing exchanges happen in hospital beds, across the dinner table, overlooking the sea, and—in one of the best-directed scenes on TV in recent times—in a hospital corridor and series of rooms as a mother (Keeley Hawes) furiously confronts a new reality and her own ignorance.

Davies’ skill is to be unabashedly political, to inform viewers—especially younger ones—of history they may not know about, and also to tell deliciously rich stories. As Queer as Folk viewers will recall (and those who know his other work, including Doctor Who, Children’s Ward, Years and Years, A Very English Scandal, and—look it up!—Reflections), he knows how real people speak. With “La” in It’s a Sin, he may even have bestowed to us a new way to say goodbye.

His husband, Andrew Smith, died in 2018 from a brain tumor; Davies knows hospitals, illness, and mortality both as a gay man who lost friends in the 1980s and ’90s, and also as a husband who lost his partner in wrenchingly difficult circumstances. He is also romantic, profane, incredibly funny, and always digging into specifics. Words, looks, actions are filleted, even down to calling the classic (and recommended) TV series I, Claudius “I Clavdivs,” which is exactly how the TV graphic read to those who watched it back in the 1970s and ’80s.

At a highly dramatic moment when one character shares his HIV diagnosis in the back of a police van, he politely includes a total stranger who’s just been arrested at the same time and who no one knows. “Leanne” just being there is classic Davies. As one character dies, the symptoms of his awful illness releases him from all inhibitions, and he starts confessing his desire and then masturbating looking hard at one of the characters sitting right in front of him. It is funny for a micro-second, then utterly heartbreaking.

Davies gorgeously captures first times: sex, with all the nervousness, sweetness, and misfires, love, and the first visit to a gay bar, where a young man can transform quickly from doe-eyed ingénue to popular proto-stud, quickly knowing everyone in the place. At the end of episode one the lead characters tell us what they want from the world—Ritchie to be famous, Roscoe to be “stinking rich,” and dear Colin to be happy working at the tailors he gets his first job in.

The potted history of HIV and AIDS from Ritchie’s point of view is full of lies and misinformation and ignorance (this is 1983), and Ritchie delivers this patchwork of nonsense stalking through gay bars, eventually landing on the laser-filled dance floor of the iconic Heaven nightclub.

In such ways, Davies likes to pull the rug out from the viewer. He did it in Years and Years by killing off Russell Tovey’s character. He does it more than once in It’s a Sin, and he does not make Ritchie an easy central character to like; he may be cute, but he is also gratingly self-absorbed.

Destiny may have different plans for all of the characters, but interwoven in their dramas are issues like Section 28, a law introduced in the late-1980s by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher outlawing the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities. (Russia now has a similar law.)

This meant, as we see in It’s a Sin, purges of books in school libraries, homosexuality disappeared from school curriculums, a general chilling, and silence. It stayed on the statute books until 2003. The show also mentions the issue of the age of consent. For years, it was 16 for straight people, and 21 for gay people—before being lowered to 18 in 1994, before finally equality (16 for all) was won in 2001.

It’s a Sin shows that the bigotry around AIDS didn’t happen in a vacuum. It reminded me of the moment, aged 13, another kid informed me that AIDS stood for “Arse-Injected Death Sentence.” It reminded me of the relentlessly bigoted tabloids: the “pulpit poofs,” and the infamous “EastBenders” headline when the ground-breaking character of Colin in the BBC soap EastEnders, played by (now-Lord) Michael Cashman, kissed his on-screen boyfriend, a primetime first.

The ignorance was universal. Back then, there were few out-famous people, few out-characters on TV and film. For many LGBTQ people the only chance for escape and knowledge was the big city. In It’s a Sin, Ritchie wants a bigger world and fame, Roscoe is trying to evade religious fundamentalism and “cure” therapy and wants money and power, and Colin—who became my hero—just wants some self-made security.

Davies is a master of brevity, crafting Colin’s coming out scene with another older gay man played by Neil Patrick Harris. There are no clichés—just an older gay man helping a younger, gently and playfully, and letting him know without over-egging it that he is there to support him. Seeing the stoutly proper Colin—never willing to do the wrong thing, who says very little but the little he does say is pithily spot-on—find a place for himself is heartening, as is watching Roscoe deal with the hypocrites he encounters, Stephen Fry having a great time as an oily Tory MP among them.

The young men and Jill congregate to live in the “Pink Palace,” first a party house and later a vital emotional refuge. They are a family, and so different to the families some of the occupants have escaped from.

It is hard to convey to younger LGBTQ people what that time was like, but Davies captures the contra-currents perfectly; the joy of coming out, and finding a place to come out, and then this pall of death and hurt—and the sense, as one of the character’s voices, that if this were happening to straight young men the media would be full of it. We see the willed ignorance of those gay men who wanted to just carry on partying.

Throughout It’s a Sin, you will be left winded—for the first time, or all over again, depending on how old you are—by how young the men were, by how many were lost, by how much was lost. But in that time, AIDS was a weapon to be used against gay people; off-camera, and among themselves, as It’s a Sin shows, it was left to gay men and their allies to organize, strategize, and care for one another. Jill cooks, washes dishes, and wears rubber gloves because back then no one knew how HIV was transmitted.

Ritchie is angry to be cheated of simple fun and exuberance, and resists the direct-action politics of the Act-Up style group led by Karl (Ken Christiansen). Roscoe enjoys finding a way to be “stinking rich” until he realizes what the cost of that is—and then vengeance is his.

Any Pet Shop Boys fan will immediately not only welcome the title of the drama—a nod to their 1987 hit, a charged, caustic piece of pop brilliance—but wait for it to be played in It’s a Sin’s wonderful jukebox of songs. It is played at a significant moment of returning home, and taking stock of a life now in the balance.

“Don’t go home,” an acting agent played by Tracy-Ann Oberman says. She has seen so many young gay clients get sick, and then be taken home by their families, back along those criss-crossing train tracks, to die. We see this in It’s a Sin too, and really what family means emerges as the over-riding theme of the drama. We see parents who welcome and affirm their kids, and we see parents who do not. We see parents who see the errors of their ways, and we see parents who do not.

Jill Nalder, who plays Jill’s kind and embracing mother, is the real-life inspiration behind the Jill in the show, whose life in theater at the time meant she was well acquainted (just like the fictional Jill is) with gay men and the impact of AIDS. If It’s a Sin has any shortcomings, a significant one is in how little we know of Jill beyond her being a loving support to her gay male friends. More than one antagonistic character asks her who the hell she is—and this viewer found himself nodding, even if the question was asked viciously. Jill deserves to be as multi-faceted as the men she supports, but in It’s a Sin she is not.

It glancingly addresses the racism that Roscoe and fellow Pink Palace resident Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) may have faced on the gay scene, though neither are anybody’s victim, far from it. This viewer just wanted more for Jill, Roscoe, and Ash, and for other characters who seemed under-developed. Perhaps this comes down to the temporal limitations of a mini-series. Jill and Ritchie have very different approaches to the impact and presence of AIDS, but this—unconvincingly—rarely evolves into conflict between them.

It’s a Sin asks its audience to understand characters who know themselves, but never fully admit these selves to others. A character wonders who infected him with AIDS, and who he infected himself. He carried on having unprotected sex with others even after he knew he was positive. He wonders how many men he killed. He knows it was wrong, and he kept on doing it.

The drama underlines how wonderful sex can be, how much fun was had, and then also sketches the pain that lay beneath it—the men that came from “loveless” households that made them first feel ashamed. Davies’ script advances the notion that the ultimately destructive sex that followed was sourced in that early shame. As the men lie dying, one character says, the shame of who they are returns, the sense that they deserve this.

“They all die because of you,” a parent is told, an emphatic placing of blame. Davies is writing as a gay person, in a drama about gay people, with gay actors cast to play them. The sentiment is deliberately uncompromising.

Shame and LGBTQ people are longtime bedfellows, although we hope—in times of greater acceptance—that the shame is receding more and more. It’s a Sin asks us to confront it and its residual currents anew. It asks the families and loved ones of LGBTQ people to confront it, and, by extension, it asks society to confront it. Davies clearly thinks that it is shame—how it is implanted, how it blooms, how it destroys—that we could all most usefully, healthily confront.

AIDS revealed this as a harsh necessity, but Davies means for it to be heard just as clearly today by LGBTQ people, their biological and (as Armistead Maupin called them) “logical” families, and lawmakers. Coming out is a wonderful thing, but not the endpoint it is often sold as when the tendrils of shame can grip so deep.

It is telling that It’s a Sin ends in 1991, a few years shy of the first protease inhibitors and combination therapies becoming available—when, suddenly, AIDS ceased being a death sentence and when “the boys” stopped having to go home and started being able to live with their conditions.

We hear a parent’s defensive lament—“I didn’t know”—that could mean so many things in the richness of Davies’ storytelling, their figure a receding blur. But you sense the response to this would be that ignorance is never an excuse for not trying to understand, or for not replacing that ignorance—fast—with knowledge.

Perhaps it also says something about Davies that It’s a Sin does not finally echo with the ring of recrimination, but rather a burst of art and laughter, of life and togetherness, on a beautifully sunny day—an image of bright lives lost to time, but never forgotten.