By Rhys Bailey

It’s a Sin: Taking Powerful Television Storytelling to New and Important Heights.

The critically acclaimed Channel 4 series tells the story of a group of gay friends and thier fiight for surviavl through the AIDs epidemic in 1980’s London. It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking, a modern day masterpiece of storytelling.

Friendship, family, community, fear, prejudice, and death. These are some of the key themes in the groundbreaking Channel 4 series It’s a Sin. Created by the esteemed Russell T Davies of Doctor Who and Queer as Folk fame,. Now available on All4 the five-episode series is set over a decade and follows a group of friends of mostly gay men as they live through the darkness of the HIV/AIDs epidemic.

We follow the trials and tribulations of Ritchie, Roscoe, Colin, Jill, Ash, and Gregory as they form a family in the 1980s when the AIDS crisis began. Indeed the series is layered in temporal 80’s nuances in the fashion and music of the time, featuring classic 80’s songs and gay anthems from Blondie, Belinda Carlyle and, the Pet Shop Boys. 

The series’ unique take of a two-year time skips every episode, effectively shows how the attitudes and chaos of the disease developed over time. So while episode one starts in 1981, by the end of the series we are in 1991 and have seen the results of the epidemic after ten horrific years.

It’s a Sin is both parts wonderful and terrible in its honest depictions of the London gay community and the impact of the HIV virus. It unashamedly showcases the gay culture and identities of the time, with each character being different and complex. The show does not pull any punches, it does not have any mercy, and it does not shy away from some cruel realities.

The tone of the show can switch in an instant from a fabulous vibrant depiction of queer people and spaces to the sudden contrast of tragedy and death. It is more impactful in this way and has some of the most heartbreaking moments in recent television, perhaps because of the youth of the characters reflecting real lives that were cut short too soon.

Russel T Davies has said it is one of his most thoroughly researched projects, as well as one of his most personal ones, to tell a story he has long wanted to tell, having lived through, and lost friends to the epidemic himself. He drew inspiration from his own experiences and those of friends to create the story, especially his friend, AIDs activist Jill Nalder. He admitted that he had difficulty finding a broadcaster that would take on such a powerful topic, and any suggestions to alter the script to tone down the seriousness of the story were rejected by Davies. 

It is the careful craft that has been put into the writing and storytelling that has led the series to receive its critical acclaim, for tackling a story and a topic that is uncomfortable for so many, but still a story that needs to be told, not just for being an important part of queer history, but human history.

It’s a Sin tells a story from an angle not often, if ever, heard from those whom the AIDS crisis impacted most, who weren’t given a voice and were demonized and blamed for the disease while societies fear and hatred grew, and an entire community of people struggled to survive. And yet even when the story reaches some of its darkest points, there are still moments that make you laugh and showcase the love that these characters have for each other, in spite of a world that’s seemingly against them.

The cast also deserves immense credit for bringing these characters to life and making us laugh with them and cry for them. The main cast is made up of mostly unrecognised actors, but then this isn’t meant to be what the show is about. All of the central cast deliver strong performances, especially those of Olly Alexander (Ritchie), Lydia West (Jill), Omari Douglas (Roscoe), and Keely Hawes being standouts for their complex depiction and emotional depth. The show also features guest appearances from the likes of Neil Patrick-Harris and Stephen Fry. 

The first episode sees the main cast come together, forming their bonds and becoming a family unit, with them all having different backgrounds and reasons for coming to London and aspects of gay identities.  The gang appropriately name their flat ‘the pink palace’ and greet each other with a singular ‘La’ note as a symbol of their closeness.

The first character we meet is flirty and exuberant Ritchie Tozer, who has moved to London to escape his dull and ignorant family home on the Isle of Wight, having kept his sexuality secret from his conservative parents, Valerie (Hawes) and Clive (Shaun Dooley).

He quickly befriends Jill Baxter (inspired by and named after Jill Nalder), who acts as a pillar of support for the others throughout the series. Arguably, she acts as the lens of the heterosexual viewer as she goes on this journey with her adopted gay family, seeing the devastation it causes them as she does her best to help them survive while suffering herself. Interestingly Jill is the only main character whose sexuality is never overtly addressed, but this stands to make her role in the show even more significant.

Roscoe is the most overtly camp and flamboyant of the group, his story starts from him leaving his overly religious Nigerian family when they threaten to send him back to Nigeria to absolve him of his sexuality, instead he storms out in drag, a stark contrast to when we first meet him working on a construction site, and heads to London where he befriends the others in a bar while freely expressing his true self.

Colin (Callum Scott Howells) is a sweet and timid young man from Wales who is the least camp-appearing member of the group, who is a bit of an outcast but is loved by his friends. Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) is one of Jill’s friends and with her becomes engaged in activism against the epidemic and stigma surrounding it, while also having an off flirtation with Ritchie. 

Gregory/Gloria  (David Carlyle) rounds out the cast and acts almost like a guardian older figure who supports his younger friends. Before long the entire gang, with the exception of Gregory, move in together in a seemingly unbreakable sphere of queer bliss.

There is a notion within queer communities of people finding and forming their own families after being rejected or abandoned by their biological ones or for a sense of community in a society that may fear them. This is what the main gang are, despite being from all different backgrounds, they’re a family who all cares for and love each other.

The first episode is the most fun and lighthearted as it showcases the life and culture of the gay community, but the shadow of the HIV epidemic looms in subcontext, and there is plenty of foreshadowing across the series. In episode one this manifests through Colin’s co-worker Henry Colchrane (Patrick-Harris), a charismatic and confident gay man who has happily been in a relationship for 30 years and seems to inspire Colin, showing him it is possible to be gay and have a fulfilling life. 

Episode one ends with Ritchie, Roscoe and Colin establishing themselves and their futures at the height of their liberation, and then cuts to Henry’s corpse being lifted off his bed and placed in a coffin, the lid closing and then cuts to black.

From episode two onwards the prevalence of HIV/AIDS begins to creep into the plot more and more as time elapses. The first victim of the gang is Gregory, affectionately called ‘Gloria’ by the others, who falls ill and confides in Jill to support him in secret. Episode two showcases the fear and panic surrounding the virus as it grew more volatile.

The show effectively depicts the cluelessness, lack of information, and uncertainty about the disease, rather than dehumanising or demoralising the gay community. Ritchie is the most vocal about how he believes it’s all a conspiracy meant to oppress gay men and continues to engage in casual sex. Jill, who despite being part of the family of all these queer men, expresses the fear that the straight community felt at the time, obsessively cleaning herself while looking after Gregory, even going so far as to visit a doctor out of concern she herself has caught it. 

In a scene that reflects the stigma and lack of compassion about the virus, the Doctor Jill see’s immediately offended when Jill asks him for information on the virus, despite being an educated medical professional he shows disgust and contempt to any association with the virus, snapping at Jill for thinking why he would know anything about it, compared to Jill’s concern and care for her friends.

Her fear comes not from prejudice or disgust but from empathy to the plight of gay men who are seemingly the targets and victims of the disease, having watched it consume Gregory and witness his own fear. Even when she is scared of the disease she still continues to care and feel for her friend, becoming upset when his family appears to take him back to Glasgow.

There is a powerful moment when Jill comments on the boys slowing down in their casual sexcapades, and Ritchie accuses her of being ‘turned’ by the thought police. ‘Infected,’ he says. Little realising the weight and power of that one word in that one moment. We then see Gregory’s family burning his possessions in his back garden while his parents sob, and the flames consume photos of Gregory with the gang and as a young boy, his life tragically cut short.

The show also addresses how anyone can contract the disease, in this case, exemplified by Colin, who at this point we know as the sweet-natured and quiet one of the group. Aside from Jill, Colin is the only main character we haven’t seen in a sexual scenario, we assume his timid personality, frumpy appearance and meekness have kept him a virgin and safe from the virus.

And yet when he starts to have seizures, despite our hope it is caused by something else, the true cause is undeniable. His diagnosis shakes his adopted family to their core as it has the audience. It awakens them to the impending dangers of HIV/AIDs to the point that Ritchie, who had previously shown strong denial about the crisis, begins to rethink his stance on it all, to the point where he ends the only relationship he’s ever had.

My own heart broke when Colin’s loving mother and the gang, after fighting against the hospital where he is unethically detained and mistreated, secure his freedom, and he is told of his HIV diagnosis. He reaches out to his mother and cries into her shoulder. What is even more powerful is the love shown by his mother Eileen, who does not reject him in disgust or shame but shows the unconditional love that not everyone who suffered from HIV/AIDs would have had. 

Colin is desperate for comfort as fear takes over. He knows the fatality of the disease and that it’s incurable, and yet begs for his mother to make him better as a child would. The emotional rawness of this scene and the sudden vulnerability of it is what stands out most, the disease has infiltrated their lives in a way that can no longer be ignored, and to the most pure-hearted member of the family.

The last two episodes see the impact of the virus reach a pinnacle as the gang does their best to be activists in the fight against a society that hates and fears them, having been demonized and exploited by Thatcher’s government, with Jill and Ash organising protests. Meanwhile, Roscoe tries using his relationship with a closeted MP (Stephen Fry) to climb the political ladder and make a change. Ritchie, however, begins an intense internal battle with the realisation of his own HIV diagnosis and what his future holds, having not yet told his biological or adopted families.

Compared to the subtle mentions of episode one and the reluctance to the truth in episode two, Ritchie himself states that AIDS is now all anyone talks about and has now taken control of their lives, and Ritchie’s every waking thought. He is no longer the sexually liberated and empowered young man from episode one. Now, he is afraid of sex and intimacy, to the point of trying every remedy rumored meant to resist the disease, and turning down sex with Ash, quite possibly the only other man he has felt anything for.

In order to escape his reality, his once gay haven of London has become his prison and he flees back to his parent’s home in the Isle of Wight. The situation has reversed, the ever tumultuous social dynamics of London have him feeling trapped, whereas his parents’ home, which he was once so eager to escape, is now desired for its familiarity and unchanging, it has been untouched by the pandemic. 

And while this seemingly works, to begin with, Ritchie is ultimately unable to have dinner with his family, assumingly to tell them about his condition. Instead, he storms out and meets with an old friend, coming out to him. This friend then jokes ‘I don’t care, just don’t give me AIDS.’ And there it is again, Ritchie’s inescapable truth caught up with him, but this also ignites in him a desire and determination to survive.

He arrives back in London for the timely rescue of Jill, who is being beaten by police at the originally peaceful AIDS awareness protest she and Ash had organised. The police intervene and attack the protesters while onlookers hurl slurs and words of hatred, a reflection of the actual protests that took place in the ’80s. With them all locked up in the back of a police van, Ritchie finally reveals to his adopted family that he has the disease and he is going to beat it.

The final episode focuses mostly on Ritchie and his family, especially his mum Valerie’s discovery and coming to terms with his infection and the realisation that she never truly knew him, or pretended that his gayness didn’t exist. Despite previously being portrayed as meek and submissive compared to Ritchies’ stern and authoritative father, the revelation sees a reversal in roles. Ritchie is seemingly more scared of his mother’s reaction than his father Clive, who he previously stated would kill him if he found out about his sexuality.

It is Clive who has the emotional response to break down and cry, while Valerie becomes bitter and defensive, lashing out at Jill, Ash, Roscoe, the hospital staff and even her husband. Despite being faced with this truth she still seems in denial of his sexuality.

While talking with Jill who calls Ritchie ‘absolutely, beautifully gay’, Valerie makes excuses for his sexuality and focuses on his ‘gay disease’. It is only when she gets into a confrontation with another mum whose son is hospitalised with AIDS, who chides Valerie for not recognising Ritchie’s sexuality, that it brings to light how detached Valerie has been from him.

We see an echo of Colins’ scene with his mother, when Valerie walks back in to see Ritchie, her ferocity cracks and she holds him tightly while he breaks down in her embrace, sobbing and apologising. While Valerie comforts him and despite her own fear and confusion about the virus, kisses him on the lips regardless and cradles him. 

While Ritchie is moved back in with his parents for care, his mother desperately tries to construct a sense of control and shows the denial Ritchie once had, adamant that he can get better.

She also denies Jill, Roscoe and Ash the chance to see him, out of bitterness for not knowing the truth about Ritchie who chose to spend time with them over his family. It isn’t until Valerie finally meets with Jill, that the harsh truth is told. A truth that resonates with the stories of many gay men back then and even now.

“That’s what shame does. It makes him think he deserves it. The wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying, and a little bit of them thinks, yes, this is right. I brought this on myself, it’s my fault because the sex that I love is killing me.” Jill says.

Ritchie never told Valerie because their household felt so loveless and suffocating, he lived in shame of who he was despite his seeming confidence in himself, and it was this that led him to hide not only his true identity but his diagnosis of HIV for so long and it is attitudes like Valerie’s that led so many gay men to suffer in silence.

The series is undoubtedly an important reminder of a dark chapter in gay history, not only trying to pay respect to all those who died but also educating those who weren’t there or ignorant to the suffering of the gay community. It is both poignant and wonderful as well as a milestone in tv storytelling, lauded for its intense emotional moments, depiction of AIDS and exceptional writing tied together by stellar performances.

Aside from being praised by critics the show has received an outpour of support from celebrities such as Graham Norton, Russel Tovey, Michelle Visage and Nigella Lawson. Most significantly is the support and adoration for the series from Sir Elton John, who has done interviews with the Wall Street Journal and went on the Ellen Degenres show to promote the series over in the US.

The show has awakened a whole new generation to the truth of one of the darkest times in recent history. The show has reportedly caused an upsurge in the number HIV testing as well as restarting conversations about HIV/AIDs and commemorations  to those who lost their lives.

Although devastatingly heartbreaking, It’s a Sin is a story about resilience and survival, through the loss, pain, fear, and hatred. It reminds us of the strength and power of the queer community and the complex bonds of love in its many forms, and that life, even if cut tragically short, is valuable, beautiful, and precious.

Although devastatingly heartbreaking, It’s a Sin is a story about resilience and survival, through the loss, pain, fear, and hatred. It reminds us of the strength and power of the queer community and the complex bonds of love in its many forms, and that life, even if cut tragically short, is valuable, beautiful, and precious.

It’s a Sin/ UK 2021

Written by Russell T Davies

Directed by Peter Hoar

Executive Producers:  Russell T Davies, Nicola Shindler

Starring: Olly Alexander, Lydia West, Omari Douglas, 

Callum Scott Howells, Nathaniel Curtis, David Carlyle, Keeley Hawes, Shaun Dooley

Production Company: Red Production Company

Original Broadcaster: Channel 4

Available for Streaming on All4