It’s a Sin

Spoiler Note:

I haven’t included any spoilers of plot points in the below, the following is just an overview and my feelings with regards to the show.  However, if you’d prefer to come into this show with few expectations then please avoid reading until after you’ve seen it all.

Links to information on HIV/AIDS

One of the most widely anticipated shows of late, with a lot of hype months prior to its airing comes ‘It’s a Sin’ by Russell T. Davies.  As such, there is a huge weight of expectation and Russell must have felt an enormous amount of responsibility in relating a period of recent British history that hasn’t previously been told in any significant way.  Many depictions of the AIDS crisis have been told from the American perspective with ‘Angels in America’, ‘Philadelphia’, ‘The Normal Heart’, ‘Longtime Companion’, ‘Pedro’ etc. but not of what it was like in the UK.  Additionally, the UK had its own ignominious element with the government legislation, Section 28, that added another layer of discrimination to an already marginalised group then having to cope with the trauma of what became to be known as ‘The Gay Plague’.

I have to admit, there were elements of the first episode I didn’t like, some parts of it felt wrong to me – but having now seen it all, I know that I came to this with some of my own baggage.  I was a bit afraid of watching it, afraid of how it would make me feel and afraid of what memories and feelings it would evoke.  That’s why good drama is good, it challenges you and moves you and boy does this move you. I grew up during the time the show is set and I’m just about the generation behind it so I was a teenager at school when it happened; coming to terms with being gay and then having this splashed across every part of the media, was pretty challenging. 

The show is largely set in London and takes place over a decade, 1981 to 1991, and it feels a very different show at the beginning than how it does at the end, almost unbearably so as the weight of it all gradually builds up and bears down.  The story follows a group of friends who find each other at university and in the gay scene; it’s then on these young people to navigate safely through society and those around them whilst also being young and everything that entails, and then in late 1981 along comes HIV/AIDS. None of the gay characters are out to their parents or in their subsequent workplaces as this was a time when it was not uncommon to be ostracised by your family and (legally) dismissed by your employer. In the absence of family support, they create their own family filled with friends.

I would say the closest this comes, if I were to make a comparison, is to Larry Kramer’s ‘The Normal Heart’ though ‘It’s a Sin’ isn’t quite as political (understandable given that ‘The Normal Heart’ is about a Larry Kramer character).  One character, Jill, becomes an early advocate for HIV awareness, there’s mention of Section 28 and Thatcher and also a demonstration later on (that’s shown in the trailer) but more than that this is a deeply personal story that depicts how it was for many in the LGBTQ+ community living in London during this time.  Even though I’m fairly well educated on this subject, I found some of the elements depicting how people were treated very shocking; the widespread, institutional, lack of humanity, borne out of fear and ignorance is awful to see in practice. A few early scenes in both ‘Heart’ and ‘Sin’, portray the treatment of early patients in hospital, it’s unspeakably tragic.

Another unique part of history that this show depicts is the trauma faced by the LGBTQ+ community during this time.  In no other modern period of peacetime was it ever normal for people in their 20’s to attend (or as was also not uncommon, to be excluded from) the funerals of so many of their close friends and lovers. Without doubt, this has left a permanent mark on the entire generation that lived through it. The current pandemic will undoubtedly leave a huge impact on our society for decades to come, but the difference is that we’re all in this together. The LGBTQ+ community was ignored and left to deal with it themselves for years before anyone in government even mentioned it.

In film and television, very often gay characters, especially lead characters in LGTBQ+ stories are been played by non-LGBTQ+ actors.  As with ‘Uncle Frank’, for example, and I don’t often have a problem with that decision if I take each film as a separate entity.  However, with the casting of ‘It’s a Sin’ being exclusively that of gay actors playing gay roles, I can see that this proactive decision provides a palpable and undeniable authenticity. It does seem that the ideal situation on every level is to attain that level of authenticity.

The casting choices work not just on that level but also in the blend of new and established actors with many of the lead characters being played by new actors; Callum Scott-Howells as Colin (in many ways I felt a very close affinity to Colin), Nathaniel Curtis as Ash and Omari Douglas as Roscoe.  Olly Alexander, of ‘Years and Years’ has also not done a lot of acting before this, but you wouldn’t know it, it’s a flawless, defiant, tough, confident, heart-breaking performance.

The established actors, Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry, Tracy Ann Oberman, Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley are all perfect and there isn’t a hint of them overplaying what they’re given.  It feels like a democratic, ensemble piece with zero ego. Keeley Hawes had arguably the most difficult, complex, emotionally charged character to portray, that of Ritchie’s Mum, to say more could spoil it, so I’ll leave it there…

Perhaps, the standout is Lydia West as Jill, a character inspired by a friend of Russell T. Davies’.  Jill carries the emotional weight of the story that never seems to be too much for her to bear.  She’s confident and loving from the very first episode then as time progresses, she finds a life and purpose that she wasn’t looking for but to which her natural kindness and empathy makes her perfectly suited; fighting for and caring for others.

Given the expectation of this show and what it would mean for so many that lived through this period, the responsibility is borne exceptionally. This is a seminal work that will be talked about by many and also studied by students of LGBTQ+ history for years to come.

Further Information

NetworkChannel 4 / HBO Max
CastOlly Alexander, as Ritchie Tozer
Lydia West, as Jill Baxter
Nathaniel Curtis, as Ash Mukherjee
Omari Douglas, as Roscoe Babatunde
Callum Scott Howells, as Colin Morris-Jones
SeasonLimited Series (2021): 5 episodes