As someone who grew up watching Russell T Davies’ work on television, to state that the announcement of It’s a Sin caused a great deal of excitement is a gross understatement. Davies is a British writer of critical acclaim and great influence over the past two decades, working on cult classics such as the revival of Doctor Who, Casanova, Years & Years, Queer as Folk amongst others. Needless to say, he has become a staple in terms of British screenwriting that demands attention, especially regarding his foregrounding of queer identity and lived experience in his work. It is vital to have these character-led stories immortalised through television and with Davies at the wheel, the audience is in extremely capable hands. It’s a Sin is an absolute powerhouse in terms of gay representation and entertainment, aside from its subtle limitations.
It’s a Sin begins in the early 80s, following the lives of Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) as they all move to London to start the next chapter of their lives. Throughout all portrayals, it is made immediately clear that even though each character is aware of their sexuality, – whether they explicitly state that they are gay or not, or in Ritchie’s case first exclaiming that he is bisexual – these explorations into queer expression are far from welcome in their primary domestic spheres. This is all, of course, due to widespread homophobia that 80s Britain was unfortunately rife with, further amplified by the passing of Thatcher’s cruel Section 28 legislation in 1988. London, in this sense, is presented as a safe haven for these young men to express themselves freely and away from judgement of prosecution, joyously shared with those who make up their chosen family: Jill (Lydia West), Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), and Gregory (David Carlyle) to name a few. Of course, this sweetness is made to feel all the more sour as we are reminded of their potential future demise, as they are unknowingly about to experience one of the darkest periods in queer history. Getting attached to these characters is ill-advised.
The ambiguous and looming threat of what would become known as the AIDs epidemic is first overheard outside a university dance class, then on the radio, in the papers, dismissed at a party as a conspiracy, and so on. It is an unwelcome, unnerving threat that is yet to have an official title. The audience is thus offered a taste of dramatic irony in the worst sense, positioned as onlookers unable to help them with all we now know. Albeit an uncomfortable watch at times, this rejection of rumours and the overwhelming uncertainty felt by professionals and the general public alike highlights the sheer lack of knowledge at the time, something important to be remembered when watching, and a matter that is executed brilliantly through performances of the core ensemble and character development, especially Ritchie’s.
One of the main takeaways from the series is Davies’ unapologetic and bold approach to depicting these characters’ lives and choices. The show does not ask for more sympathy than needed from its audience, as we are welcomed into the ‘Pink Palace’ and its subjects’ vibrant lifestyle of partying, boozing, hooking up with strangers (or friends). It is hard to recall a more explicit portrayal of gay sex and culture on mainstream British television if there ever was one. “We had so much fun,” Ritchie utters to his mother (Keeley Hawes), solidifying the show as a cathartic celebration of these victims’ lives. With an electric ‘80s soundtrack and tongue-in-cheek humour throughout, it’s equally heartbreaking and absurd. Even though it may feel overwhelmingly devastating at moments (it would be a lie to say these moments are not often), everything is not doom and gloom. The appreciation of audacious queerness and living your truth is a core message of the series.
As much as this portrayal of queer culture and characters is surely valuable, further representation of other groups would have been especially appreciated. One may hope for more bisexual representation (other than a couple of throwaway jokes or statements), but there must equally be a level of understanding that Davies is speaking from, and is influenced by his own lived experiences, thus it does not feel fair to criticise his presentation in this way. That being said, however, it would have been refreshing to see this portrayal of queerness extend beyond homosexual men.
The portrayal of emotional turmoil felt by the straight male counterparts in the series is not to be underappreciated, also, as various father figures throughout the series are shown grieving, trying to come to terms with the horrors happening to their fellow men. It is in these moments, especially that the subject matter is so delicately handled, a bittersweet reminder that everything on screen is not fully fabricated.
The character of Jill, elevated by West’s flawless performance, deserves the highest of honourable mentions, as she fully embodies the emotional weight of the tragedy occurring all around her, a character that demanded more in terms of her arc. She is presented as the ultimate nurturer, a bottomless pit of giving that drops everything to care for those around her. As heartwarming as this is, it would have been refreshing to see her presented as more than a gender-assigned role, especially as one of the only main characters that is not granted any portrayal of romantic or sexual relationships with others.
It is safe to say that It’s a Sin is a crucial series, making it a well-deserved addition to this new wave of social commentary within British television that we are in the midst of currently. It is still shocking how little younger generations are taught about this devastating period, one that still affects many to this day, and what the series succeeds at is encouraging those impacted to share their stories, in hope of further healing. The cast carries the story on their backs to the highest of standards, asserting themselves as one of the best ensemble cast on TV in recent years. It’s a Sin, despite its occasional hangups, deserves to be a celebrated series for many years to come.
Dir: Peter Hoar
Scr: Russell T Davies
Cast: Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Lydia West, Nathaniel Curtis
Music: Murray Gold
Number of Episodes: 5
Episode Run time: 46-48mins
Dazzler Media presents It’s A Sin on Blu-ray & DVD from 22nd February