If you’ve been looking for a sign to watch It’s A Sin, the boisterous and devastating show about gay men living through the AIDS epidemic in 1980s London, then consider this it. Russell T Davies’ five-part series is a masterpiece that will stay with you long after the final credits role. There’s a reason no one will stop talking about it, you know?
It’s A Sin stars Olly Alexander as Ritchie, the wannabe showbiz star who leaves the insulated Isle of Wight for London. The city in 1981 is a young gay man’s paradise, and Ritchie gloriously fucks his way through half his local bar. (The verging-on-explicit sex scenes – a.k.a. a realistic portrayal of gay sex – has made conservatives clutch their pearls, which is always a bonus.)
Be STILL my beating, horny heart.
In London, Richie meets bonafide snack Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), the angelic Jill (Lydia West), the gloriously flamboyant Roscoe (Omari Douglas) and sweet, shy Colin (Callum Scott Howells), who move in together and form a chosen family.
Star power is leant by Neil Patrick Harris (as a tailor in a loving, long-term relationship) and Stephen Fry (as the self-hating Tory MP), but it’s the young actors who make this show so utterly unforgettable.
The series follows young mates through the entire decade of the 80s, where their normal tribulations of 20-something life and love are marred – and later, obliterated – by AIDS.
It’s inspired by Davies’ own experiences of living through the crisis.
“I must have known hundreds of lads like them [the characters], but though we all had those mad nights on the town, I was lucky, I escaped HIV,” he told the Radio Times.
“I was rather more well behaved than my characters, that’s why I write them doing what they do.”
The characters’ exuberant joy at living authentically is contrasted at every turn by the straight-up homophobia so overwhelmingly present in 1980s London. From police putting on gloves to arrest protesters, to men being shut out of their long-term partner’s funerals, right down to the stark contrast between Colin’s sweet and supportive mum to Roscoe’s deeply religious (and deeply homophobic) family, you never forgot that the LGTBQ+ community were facing so many battles even before HIV came along.
Would I die for Roscoe? Yes. A thousand times yes.
It’s A Sin is being touted as a ‘companion’ piece to Davies’ other defining work, Queer As Folk, which was set in a late 90s queer scene untarnished by AIDS – something it was criticised for at the time.
Queer As Folk also cast three straight actors in the main gay roles. In It’s A Sin, Davies made a point of only casting gay actors for gay roles, and whether you want to argue about whether you ‘should’ do that or not, the experiences sure as hell comes through in the performances.
“I’m not being woke about this… but I feel strongly that if I cast someone in a story, I am casting them to act as a lover, or an enemy, or someone on drugs or a criminal or a saint,” Davies said in the same interview.
“They are not there to ‘act gay’ because ‘acting gay’ is a bunch of codes for a performance. It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020. You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places.”
Lending even more to the experience is that Nathaniel Hall, who plays Ritchie’s boyfriend Donald Bassett, is HIV positive.
The actor, 34, caught the virus two weeks before his 17th birthday, the very first time he had sex. HIV can now be treated to the point where the viral load is undetectable – a.k.a. it cannot be passed on – but the stigma, particularly leftover from the AIDS crisis, is still an uphill battle.
“I didn’t tell anyone, I didn’t tell my family,” he told Radio 1’s Life Hacks program.
“I lived with all that shame and all that stigma weighing down very heavy on me.”
You can – and should – smash though the entire show on Stan right now.