While Russell T. Davies’ new drama is both touching and engaging, it’s only a part of the story, argues Martin Hall
SPOILER ALERT: This review contains details about the plot
It’s a Sin, the current C4 mini-series set in the midst of the Aids crisis, has garnered much critical acclaim for its writer, Russell T. Davies, and producers, Salford’s Red Production Company. With various parts of Manchester substituting for London, the show spans the 10-year period from 1981 to 1991, covering the beginning of the crisis, the misinformation, stigma and oppression, and the deaths, all through the prism of a tight-knit group of friends.
There’s much to commend it: the performances are uniformly excellent, it’s shot with intimacy and warmth, and gives a moving picture of elements of what is now a lost world. There is light and shade, as we see various young men coming out in episode 1, if not always to their own families, and the subsequent explosion of sex that had been at the liberating centre of the period after the decriminalisation of male homosexuality some 14 years earlier.
We are initially introduced to Richie (played by Years and Years singer, Olly Alexander), a young man leaving the Isle of Wight for university in London, Roscoe (Omari Douglas), a young man from a Nigerian family, and Colin (Callum Scott Howells), who’s leaving South Wales for a job at a Saville Row tailors and bed and board with a family. Richie meets Jill (Lydia West) on arrival, has a failed night of passion with Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) and goes home to tell his parents that he’s changing from Law to English and Drama, much to the consternation of his conservative father, Clive (Shaun Dooley). Meanwhile, Roscoe, with the help of some borrowed money from his sister, narrowly avoids being shipped off to Nigeria for an exorcism, and instead loudly and proudly walks out of the family home in drag.
As the episode goes on, they all meet each other and get a flat together, named the Pink Palace. Subsequently, the shade overtakes the light: first, Colin’s colleague and friend, Henry (Neil Patrick Harris) and his partner both die of rare cancers (with the former having been put in a locked isolation room in hospital), which of course the audience knows are Aids-related, though the characters do not; then in episode 2, their friend, Gregory (David Carlyle) falls ill and enlists Jill to do his shopping and care for him, and tells her not to tell the others. His father and sister then arrive and whisk him back to Glasgow – but not before telling Jill to fuck off – where he subsequently dies.
In episode 3, the wide-eyed innocent Colin becomes ill and dies. It’s not clear initially where he caught it, as he appears to have lived a celibate life; after a while, flashbacks show him having sex with the son in the house where he initially boarded. His mum, one of the few positive and accepting characters of that generation in the series, gets the London crowd to find her a solicitor to free Colin from hospital in Wales, where he’s been effectively imprisoned by the local police and council and designated a danger to public health.
Following this, they all get HIV tests, but Richie runs off without finding out his result, fearing that he has caught it off his lover, Don (Nathaniel Hall), upon whose back he has noticed Kaposi’s Sarcoma, the type of skin cancer caused by the HIV virus. The others test negative.
Richie finds out he is positive in episode 4 and announces defiantly that he is going to live. Of course, as this is 1988 and almost no one who caught the virus in that period survived, the final episode sees his death in 1991, having been taken back to the Isle of Wight by his parents, who arrive in London to find their son ill in an Aids ward. They discover he is gay at this point (there have been previous attempts to come out, and indeed to tell them about his HIV status) and react poorly, effectively banishing Jill and his other friends from his life. Jill and Roscoe ensconce themselves in a seaside B & B near their house and ring every day, to be met by excuses about why they cannot visit. When Richie’s mother (Keeley Hawes) consents to see Jill, it is to tell her that he has died.
Russell T. Davies, in a revealing article for The Guardian, has written about how he couldn’t face looking at the Aids crisis in his previous work, such as Queer as Folk (1999-2000), where it is almost completely absent, and Cucumber (2015), where it also barely raises its head. I don’t want to criticise him on a personal level for this; if anything, the fact that he’s so candid about how, to use his own phrase, he ‘looked away’ in the 1980s, is to his credit. Moreover, there were myriad responses to the crisis and the full-scale trauma it brought about. However, the 1980s that he lived and describes in the piece does find its way into the series in a number of ways, while another 1980s does not.
Other than a direct action that Jill and some characters put on, there is no sense of the politics of the period, and indeed the huge reaction from gay men and the left to Aids and subsequently, Clause 28 in 1988. Where is OutRage!? Stonewall? While both were started towards the end of the period depicted, you would still expect there to be some sense of what led to their formation. The Terrence Higgins Trust, set up in 1982 to campaign about HIV and named after one of the first British men to die of Aids? Where is Derek Jarman, who early in 1987 became the first public figure in the UK to announce that he was HIV positive? The response from gay people in this period was a great example of when a group of oppressed people, faced by ignorance and hatred, took matters into their own hands and organised. There’s little of that to be seen.
While we see the initial response of the health authorities, and a nod towards the level of oppression Aids sufferers underwent, there’s no real context given regarding where it came from. Then, when we see the incredible level of care that Richie gets in 1991 compared to that given years earlier, there’s no sense of the struggle that it took to get there and achieve that. Indeed, the only one of the main characters who’s politically active is the straight woman, Jill. Other than her, there are some older men who are active in the fight, but they’re on the periphery.
What we see with the gay characters is a hermetic world, with characters to a large degree hiding from the realities of what was unfolding before them. While this is clearly an accurate portrayal of Davies’ life at the time, it doesn’t give a full representation of gay life in the 1980s. As late as 1986 we are presented with men in their mid-20s displaying quite a high level of ignorance regarding the realities of the infection. As someone starting his A levels that year, everyone I knew by then, gay or straight, was fully aware of the realities of Aids.
Another negative aspect of the closed world inhabited by the characters is the absence of the appalling media response, fully stoked by Thatcher’s government. Here are some contemporary tabloid headlines, taken from Derek Jarman’s At Your Own Risk (1992), and presented in upper case, as in the original:
- AIDS MENACE: HE CARRIES KILLER VIRUS YET WORKS WITH SICK KIDS
- AIDS BLOOD IN M & S PIES PLOT
- 18 VICE BOYS IN AIDS REVENGE
- VILE BOOK IN SCHOOL – PUPILS SEE PICTURES OF GAY LOVERS
- SWIM POOL GUARD IN AIDS HORROR
- POLL VERDICT ON GAY VICARS: KICK ‘EM OUT
- I’D SHOOT MY SON IF HE HAD AIDS SAYS VICAR
- AIDS STORM OVER A PONTIN’S LIFEGUARD
- SODOM AND GOMORRAH
- LESBIAN TEACHER HORROR (to make the point that women were not immune from the homophobia on steroids that was normalised in the era)
That’s just a sample of what Jarman compiled, which is itself just a small amount of the full extent of such language and attitudes. Such attitudes emanating from the British state led to increased levels of violence, to sackings, to evictions, to more deaths.
To return to It’s a Sin, while it’s of course reasonable to present gay men to a degree hiding from what was happening, it does mean that the audience doesn’t really get an accurate picture of the times, with reactions such as Richie’s parents not taking on the explanatory power they could have possessed given a fleshed-out context. Anyone watching the series who is too young to have lived through the era won’t really have that much more of a sense of it after finishing it.
When we do see the government, it’s in the form of Tory MP Arthur Garrison (Stephen Fry), with whom Roscoe is having an affair, in an attempt on his part to sleep his way out of his situation and into the good life. Of course, Arthur is deeply closeted; indeed, having asked Roscoe to attend a trade fair and meet Margaret Thatcher with him, presumably to add a bit of both literal and metaphorical colour, he then tries to tell him that he’s not really gay. Roscoe responds by pissing in Thatcher’s coffee, telling Arthur he’s done so, and leaving him. The scene is played for laughs, so when we do see the individual most responsible for the environment in which gay men found themselves in the 1980s, it’s for comedy purposes. Similarly, a scene about books that may have fallen foul of Clause 28 is also played for laughs.
As I said above, it’s a moving series. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be close to weeping at various points; the performances are great, with Alexander a revelation.
But it’s hard not to see it as a bit of a missed opportunity, and really, Davies has been so at pains to reproduce accurately his own response at the time (even including having the real Jill play Jill’s mother, which is a nice touch) that’s he’s unfortunately done only that. As he discusses in his piece, there was a wider world, but we only see glimpses of it in the series.
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