‘It’s a Sin’ Review: Russell T Davies’s Channel 4 Drama is a Vibrant and Sincere Depiction of the HIV/AIDS Crisis in 1980s Britain

Russell T Davies has been a reputable figure in the British television industry for many years, having written a number of esteemed programmes such as Queer as Folk, The Second Coming, and the 2005 revival of Doctor Who. My introduction to his work, however, came with the 2019 limited series Years and Years, a joint production by the BBC and HBO which drew upon contemporary political and economic issues to deliver an arresting and disconcerting piece of dystopian fiction, centred around a Mancunian family. It was one of my favourite shows of that year, so when I heard about Davies’ most recent drama It’s a Sin, it jumped straight to the top of my watchlist. Having caught up with all five episodes in just under a week, I am pleased to state that this Channel 4 series is a stellar follow-up to Years and Years, and is one of the first shows of 2021 I would consider to be essential viewing.

It’s a Sin commences in 1981 and follows a quartet of lead characters over the course of a decade. Three of them – Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) – are gay men who move to London and become acquainted with each other, as well as Ritchie’s best friend Jill (Lydia West) who occupies a crucial role within the narrative. While they become very close friends, living together in a flat and seeking to forge careers for themselves in the British capital, they gradually begin to reckon with the developing HIV/AIDS crisis in the country. The series explores how this disease affects their lives in a personal and professional capacity.

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Viewers familiar with Russell T Davies’s work on Years and Years may assume that his latest offering continues a trend established with the 2019 series, whereby he uses a topic of current concern as inspiration for the drama that unfolds in the show’s narrative. There is no doubt that certain lines and imagery in It’s a Sin will resonate with audiences more strongly now than it would have done this time last year in light of the coronavirus pandemic, because the scepticism exhibited by various characters towards HIV in the first couple of episodes parallels the initial attitudes of some individuals towards Covid-19, shrugging off the potentially devastating consequences that the spread of the disease could have (I should note that the scripts for the show were written pre-Covid). Eventually, as we all had to acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic, the figures in Davies’s show are forced to confront the implications of becoming a victim of AIDS, with Jill in particular being the first major character to show the initiative to ensure that various items in the flat are washed and cleaned scrupulously and gather as much research on the topic as possible. Hence, the encapsulation of the evolution of attitudes towards a virus like HIV or Covid-19 is one of It’s a Sin’s most striking elements.

However, the crucial differences between the subject matter of HIV/AIDS in the United Kingdom with the current pandemic is starkly showcased in the show as well. While the latter is an issue of universal concern, the former targeted a specific community – mainly gay or bisexual men – and It’s a Sin highlights the alarming contrast in how its development was handled by numerous institutions and individuals compared to what we have seen over the past 12 months. Although the characters are made aware of the spread of HIV/AIDS through sensationalist tabloid headlines, it takes Jill sending Colin to America in order for them to get access valuable medical information on the disease, as it is apparent from the opening episode that medical professionals in London are at a loss as to what the initial victims are suffering from. Furthermore, whilst genuine criticism can be levelled at leading politicians for the slow response to Covid-19, the fact that this drama spans ten years exacerbates the ambivalence and even denial of the grave consequences of becoming inflicted with AIDS. This is even epitomised through members of the gay community like Ritchie, who undergoes arguably the most drastic change in his attitude towards the disease throughout the show. He initially refuses to acknowledge the evidence of HIV’s existence, viscerally captured in the second episode during a noteworthy sequence when he highlights the hypocrisy apparent in the way the disease has been reported not only to his friends but to the audience, breaking the fourth wall (“They say that it affects homosexuals, Haitians, and haemophiliacs, like there’s a disease that’s targeted the letter ‘H’. Who’s it gonna get next? People from Hampshire, Hartlepool, and Hull?”). As he experiences tragic losses however, Ritchie’s insecurity and helplessness comes to the fore; he arrives in London with the aim of becoming an actor, and is understandably fearful of failing to achieve his dream through a development he could not have anticipated. Ultimately, he is dealing with misguided feelings of shame, a theme which serves as a salient feature of the series.

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When you consider ‘shame’ in regards to the coronavirus, it is often associated with reckless behaviour, whereby one disobeys the restrictions/regulations imposed in a particular region for, more often than not, selfish reasons. There is a level of guilt resulting from that, especially if one ends up spreading the virus to close relatives, but the shame attached with becoming a victim of HIV had a far deeper impact given its connection to an individual’s sexuality. The core figures in It’s a Sin are unabashed in being open and honest with each other, but many of their explanations for ending up in London together are borne out of a dissatisfaction with their family life, whereby opening up about their sexual identity and receiving acceptance is an arduous task. Their newfound sense of freedom manifests in various ways, especially through a plethora of sexual encounters, but with this comes an increased position due to being members of a marginalised community, are forced to determine whether it is worth stepping away from this group of companions for the sake of their health, or facing the risk of catching HIV in order to remain true to themselves. Davies ensures that the figures responsible for the neglect these people have suffered in their youth and continue to suffer as adults eventually confront the errors they have made, but he keeps a sharp focus on Ritchie, Colin, and Roscoe’s journeys, which feature a transition away from these feelings of shame that have emerged from their dysfunctional familial relationships to finally being embraced and approved in a social circle.

These bittersweet emotions that reverberate throughout It’s a Sin, as Davies ensures that the experience of following these people during this crisis is not an entirely sombre one. Just as the members of the Lyons family in Years and Years boasted a charm and tight bond with each other that kept viewers engrossed in their stories in spite of the bleak backdrop, the characters in his latest drama are consistently endearing, admirable, and sincere, rendering the events of the narrative even more heartbreaking. On the surface, sprawling ten years in just five episodes might seem like the series is destined to short-change its key personalities and subject matter, but Davies ensures that any fundamental scenes which shape his characters’ decisions are given the necessary dramatic weight without sacrificing the humorous nature of certain scenarios. There are occasions when important individuals are lying in a hospital bed, their condition declining, yet still manage to have witty exchanges with close friends, whether it involves teasing them about crushes or career developments. The vivacity and spirit displayed by this group of people, enhanced by the cast’s excellent performances, ensures that the series never gets bogged down in the sadness of the storyline. In It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies neither downplays the topic of the HIV/AIDS crisis nor indulges in excessive sentimentality, and ends up creating a show that is simultaneously thoroughly entertaining and extremely moving.

It’s a Sin is currently available to stream on All 4 in the UK and Ireland. It will be available on HBO Max on 18 February.

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