Russell T. Davies’ miniseries that almost wasn’t is a harrowing and effective look at the joy and pain of coming of age in 1980s London.
In 1979, the Village People released the song “Ready for the 80’s” on their double-LP Live and Sleazy. The song is upbeat and bright, full of hope and promise. The group sings “I’m ready for the 80s / Ready for the time of my life” throughout the chorus, and one verse starts “Everything is gonna work out fine / I have faith in this old world of mine / We’ll be loving in the bright sunshine.” Listening to this song over 40 years later, you can’t shake a sense of dramatic irony. In the end, the 80’s weren’t kind to the Village People, disco, or queer men in general. As I watched the opening episode of Russell T. Davies‘ latest mini-series, It’s a Sin, I kept thinking of this song and its optimistic outlook for a new decade, an optimism echoed in the fresh faces of its cast, blissfully unaware of the heartbreak awaiting them.
Spanning almost an entire decade, It’s a Sin tells the seven year story of a group of friends living, loving and dying in London at the start and height of the AIDS crisis. The series opens by introducing its ensemble cast: Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander), moving from the Isle of Wight to London for college, Roscoe Babatunde (Omari Douglas), the son of a Nigerian preacher who runs away from home to live as an out gay man, Colin Morris-Jones (Callum Scott Howells), a Welsh tailer trying to make it on Saville Row, and Jill Baxter (Lydia West), a young woman who becomes fast friends with all three, especially Ritchie. As the four youths begin their new lives in London, they all come together as roommates in a run-down but spacious flat, affectionately dubbed “The Pink Palace.” The group finds a new freedom and community in queer spaces around London, and fill their nights partying with their friends Ash Mukherjee (Nathaniel Curtis) and Gregory Finch (David Carlyle).
A specter looms large over their hedonistic nights, however, as rumors of a mysterious illness affecting gay men in America make their way across the Atlantic. At first the group waves away the stories, but eventually as friends and lovers fall ill and die, nights at the bar are replaced with nights by a hospital bedside. While Ritchie pursues an acting career, Jill becomes more engaged with HIV/AIDS activism, begging her best friend to take the disease seriously. Throughout the five episodes, the audience is given a front-seat view of the fear, intolerance, and inaction of a world coming to terms with a deadly new disease.
It’s a Sin packs a lot into its under four hours runtime; not only an almost decade long story, but depictions of homophobia, racism, classism, coming-of-age, and prejudice in the medical field. With so much packed into so few episodes, and Davies not afraid to pour on the melodrama, binging the whole series in one or two sittings is liable to leave you feeling more than a little emotionally drained. As it turns out, Davies originally planned for an eight episode run, but BBC 4 made him cut it down to only five. This explains why there are such odd time jumps – at eight episodes you could have one episode depicting one year from 1981 to 1988 – and some very truncated personal arcs, like Roscoe’s odd relationship with an MP played by Stephen Fry, which seems to come out of nowhere.
With so much packed into so few episodes, and Davies not afraid to pour on the melodrama, binging the whole series in one or two sittings is liable to leave you feeling more than a little emotionally drained.
Luckily, despite the narrative compression, Davies’ script and the actors performance imbue the characters with a rich inner life and vibrancy. Davies ensures that we get a glimpse into the small moments and inside jokes that form the heart of close friendships. An oft repeated line through the series is the characters saying “LA!” to each other in reference to an early party, as well as learning their pet names which makes you feel like you know these people in real life. The young actors are adroit at expressing their characters, and while each character has semblance of a stereotype, the actors’ performances never let them slip entirely into cliché. Ritchie may be a young pretty boy, but Alexander never becomes overly obnoxious. Colin is naïve, but Howell’s body language and delivery give him an air that he is more knowledgeable than he seems. Douglas commands the screen as Roscoe, living up to the characters larger than life personality.
Moreover, their youth functions for those unfamiliar with the 80’s London scene as naïfs who need to be taught like the audience. The early episodes have a heavier emphasis on broader social themes: the casual racism of whites in the UK, the way in which doctors and public officials stigmatized people with HIV, sexual harassment in the workplace, among others. These themes were, of course, in context with the characters – especially the way Ritchie and his family from the very white Isle of Wight interact with people of color – but they felt like a representation of a global phenomenon. We are shown both the highs of the 80’s – parties and rich night life – and the lows – racism, homophobia, and the rise of Margaret Thatcher.
But after the third episode, the story narrows down to be almost exclusively about Ritchie; a disservice to the story because a pandemic is never really just about one person, and Ritchie is the most bland of the main cast. While the plot focuses on Ritchie, it’s really Jill who is the emotional core of the whole series. Despite being the least likely to contract HIV, she is impacted earlier than the rest of the main cast by the disease, and West’s performance in the second episode is the highlight of the series. When she learns a friend has AIDS, she agrees to help take care of him, and she struggles with wanting to help her friend, keep his secret, and dealing with her own fear of contracting a disease no one at the time knew the exact way it spread. After a particularly awful encounter, West races to her apartment, shaking with fear, sadness and anger. With such a strong performance, quite frankly, it’s a sin that West didn’t get top billing.
The visual storytelling highlights the stark contrast between budding sense of the gay community, and the utter loneliness of the hospital wards. Cinematographer David Katznelson is at his best in the scenes of isolation. The first death from AIDS ends the first episode: a pallid body carted away after dying alone. The second episode ends with a family burning the belongings of a man who died from AIDS, an event that was not uncommon in real life. The scenes are powerful, and left me shook thinking about them the following day.
Musically, the score by Murray Gold is serviceable, but ultimately it’s the licensed music that helps tell the story. The pop tunes highlighting emotional moments read like a greatest gay hits of the 80s: “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, “Oh L’Amour” by Erasure, “Hounds of Love” by Kate Bush, and, of course “It’s a Sin” by the Pet Shop Boys. The common theme is most of these artists were closeted at the time, much like Ritchie, they needed to hide their sexuality for the sake of their career, but they still served as a rallying songs for the LBTQ community – and are still popular today.
It’s a Sin is hardly the first story to focus on the AIDS epidemic, but it’s special in that it focus on often overlooked parts of the story. The focus on the UK rather than America offers American viewers a new perspective. Most importantly, by making Jill such a central character, It’s a Sin spotlights the women who helped take care of the men dying from AIDS when their families and the government abandoned them. It’s important to remember this history, of people getting locked into wards of hospitals and families not allowing friends and lovers to visit patients and being banning them from funerals. This important piece of history coupled with an excellent cast of characters makes It’s a Sin a must watch. Most striking, is even forty years after AIDS first appeared, we still haven’t learned from the past. Echoes of fear and misinformation (“it only affects people in New York, not people in London” becomes “oh it’s just that Wuhan flu”) and government inaction that helped cause more death are sadly as relevant as ever.
It’s a Sin premieres on HBO Max February 18th.