Steven Moffat once joked that the philosophy of his fellow TV scriptwriter Russell T Davies was to “create interesting characters – and melt them”. The quote dates back way before Davies’ latest series It’s a Sin and, in this instance, it might seem flippant to apply it. Really, though, that’s exactly what Davies does here. He does it intentionally and brilliantly.
A lazy shorthand would be that the show is ‘about AIDS’, but of course, it isn’t at all. It’s about a group of vivid, complex, engaging characters, skilfully created and brought to life, whose destinies are bulldozed by what happens within their community during the 1980s. There’s no ignoring the shadow of death that’s cast over them, but death means little unless it’s shown in sharp contrast to life, and It’s a Sin is full of it: vibrant to the core, often joyous, celebratory and very funny.
Some gob-smacking factual detail is conveyed along the way and it’s a stark education in the history of HIV/AIDS, but it wears this lightly. Clearly driven by fury, it’s always carefully measured, steering well clear of info-dumping or lecturing. Again, that’s because it’s anchored in character, putting human faces to the awful facts. The young main cast really makes this work, and much praise is due to Olly Alexander (of the band Years & Years), Lydia West (as seen in Davies’ show Years & Years, no relation), Omari Douglas and newcomer Callum Scott Howells. It’s an ensemble drama, but Ritchie (Alexander) is essentially the main character and it’s at its strongest when this comes into sharp focus. Ritchie is like a gentle barrage of charisma, but he’s certainly no saint, and it’s this richness of character that lifts the show way beyond being a dry box-checking history lesson.
The leads are impressive, then, but in contrast, the bigger, more established names in the cast can be less satisfying. Neil Patrick Harris gives an affecting performance but lumbered with a ‘posh English’ accent that would have Dick Van Dyke arching an eyebrow. Meanwhile, Stephen Fry’s performance only bolsters the lengthening suspicion that the nation’s favourite actor, presenter, comedian and writer is a gifted presenter, comedian and writer. On the other hand, Keeley Hawes excels as a Ritchie’s mum Valerie, a character who mostly sits on the sidelines before taking centre-stage for one particularly powerful sequence.
Unusually, It’s a Sin runs for five episodes and there are moments when certain characters, not least Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), could do with more time in the limelight to unfold. Presumably there’s an alternate universe out there where the show ran to six episodes or more. Ah, if only their TV signal reached this far (actually, Davies has spoken about changes to the episode count which the show went through in development, and even the abandoned plan for a final part set in the present day, which would have centred on Lydia West’s character Jill).
Then again, at five episodes the pace feels turbo-charged and that would seem to suit the youthful vitality on show – plus, tragically, the sheer relentlessness of the virus. Characters you’ve grown to adore are seen to test positive, suffer and die within a single episode. It’s crushing, and appropriately so, of course.
Director Peter Hoar marshals the assorted elements here with style as well as skill, creating moments that will linger longer in the memory. For a writer so often (and quite rightly) praised for his striking dialogue, Davies is bold enough to tell the parts of the story without any, notably during sequences soundtracked by period pop hits. (Hooked on Classics is never going to sound the same again, that’s for sure).
Ultimately, for all the skill on show, it’s Davies’ script that dazzles brightest. Seasoned RTD viewers should recognise many familiar elements: copping-off in bars and clubs like in Queer as Folk, gay campaigners being arrested as in Bob & Rose. It hinges on a ‘family of friends’, like so much of Davies’ work. In fact, it shares a surprising amount of DNA with Davies’ Doctor Who 2006 story Love and Monsters, in which a group of strangers gravitate together and thereby find a place to belong, only to get picked off one by one. Yes, in that case the threat was Peter Kay dressed in a fat suit as a hairy green alien but strip away the family-friendly sci-fi trappings and the two stories have plenty in common. Dig even further back into obscurity and you could even claim that, to a degree, It’s a Sin resembles Misfits, Davies’ unmade Queer as Folk spin-off which would have starred Denise Black’s Hazel as the mother-hen owner of a boarding house (it was quite some way into development before Channel 4 pulled the plug).
A more direct career link, perhaps, is that Davies, in collaboration with Red Productions, is still making drama filmed in Manchester, although in this instance some familiar sites – Paton St, Victoria Baths, The Embassy Club, The Marble Arch, The Thirsty Scholar, The Star and Garter – are all standing in for London (except for scenes set in New York, which were filmed on location…in Liverpool).
Back when writing Queer as Folk, Davies was adamant that AIDS would never be mentioned by name on-screen because they were other stories about gay lives to be told. It’s a Sin can’t avoid that, but still waits until the second episode to use the virus’s name, before which it’s hidden in background whispers, rumours and theories. Yes, it’s tempting to draw parallels between that situation and the current pandemic (though the drama was fully in the can, then under its original title The Boys, before COVID-19 took hold). Certainly, it’s hard not to wince at the accidentally on-the-nose moment when a protester at a demonstration – in this case, outside the offices of a pharmaceutical company – shouts through a megaphone that “we are dying, and they profit”. Really, though, it’s the differences between the two outbreaks that stand out the most. As the vaccination process rolls on just after a year after COVID-19 was first identified, it’s especially heart-rending to see characters with no clear information about their plight and seemingly no hope at all, just shame and death.
Whenever it had been broadcast, though, It’s a Sin would surely have been recognised as a singularly impactful, important piece of TV drama by a first-rate team and a writer at the peak of his powers.
It’s a Sin can be streamed via All 4 and is also available on DVD and Blu-ray from February 22, 2021.
To watch the BFI at Home Q&A launch event for the show, click here.
To watch the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain online discussion with Russell T Davies, click here.