it's a sin
Image: Channel 4

‘It’s a Sin’ review: an astounding series by Russell T Davies

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There’s a 1987 episode of the American sitcom Designing Women called ‘Killing All the Right People’. It was given that title by writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason after visiting her mother in hospital, who had become HIV positive after a blood transfusion. Whilst there, she overheard someone claim maybe the new pandemic was doing exactly that. HIV and AIDS were often seen as a gay problem, and who cared, thought far too many, if it killed off those people? As thousands lay dying, others either ignored or judged them. Just a year earlier, in Britain, the head of Greater Manchester Police argued those affected were in a “human cesspool of their own making”.

Yes, some things have changed; science has saved lives, campaigners have changed laws. Society has, albeit slowly, become a bit more tolerant. But it is also something this country is shamefully uninformed about. Just last December, BBC North West Tonight encouraged viewers to tie red ribbons, long associated with HIV/AIDS awareness, to trees to commemorate Covid-19 victims on what was World AIDS Day. Remembering those lost to the coronavirus pandemic is respectful, but doing so by appropriating that symbol on the worst possible date? Anything but. Britain remains woefully ignorant about its own recent history.

Russell T Davies’ writing, combined with some superb performances by the cast, paint a picture of life far more detailed and complex than most dramas could ever hope to achieve

Enter It’s a Sin, the latest drama by former Doctor Who and Queer as Folk writer Russell T Davies. We start in the early 1980s and finish in the early 1990s. In a single decade, so much comes crashing down around our protagonists. Some of the residents of the Pink Palace, who at first even denied the existence of such a condition, now have no idea how long they’ll live because of it. The reason It’s a Sin works though is because of these characters. In the hands of another writer, it could so easily have become an emotionless documentary, telling us about how viruses work or on which date events happened. But we all know a Colin, a Roscoe, a Ritchie, or an Ash. This isn’t just about how people died, it’s about how they lived. They face violence and prejudice and oppression, but they also experience love, passion, and friendship. Russell T Davies’ writing, combined with some superb performances by the cast, paint a picture of life far more detailed and complex than most dramas could ever hope to achieve.

The Channel 4 drama is utterly gripping stuff. I’ll admit I rarely binge-watch TV, but with this I couldn’t help but watch all five episodes in a single day. Just when you think you know what’s about to happen, something comes along and utterly stuns you. It’s devastating and emotional. It’s also infuriating seeing how time that should have been spent on stopping the spread was instead used to create homophobic legislation like Section 28. However, apart from Arthur Garrison MP, played brilliantly by Stephen Fry, we don’t focus too much on the elites who got it wrong. Rather, it celebrates those who got it right. The partners who stood by their dying lovers. The lawyers and activists who did everything they could to raise awareness. People like Jill who just never gave up. It doesn’t end happily. That moment of silence in the final episode is a horrific reminder of just how many lives were extinguished. Nonetheless, it’s good to see this story being told, and I hope it leads to people wanting to find out more. I wasn’t alive in the 1980s, so I can’t even begin to imagine how tough it must have been to write this, but it’s clear that Russell T Davies deserves so many awards for this.

Just when you think you know what’s about to happen, something comes along and utterly stuns you. It’s devastating and emotional

There are some humorous moments too. Roscoe urinating in Thatcher’s coffee. “23 Piss off Avenue, London W Fuck!”. “La!”. Daleks! That last one, by the way, being a small tribute to actor Dursley McLinden, who really did appear with them in 1988. Praise must also go to director Peter Hoar and composer Murray Gold for their outstanding work across the five episodes, although it appears everyone involved did a phenomenal job. You start to wonder if Davies and Gold took some parts from the TARDIS during their time on Doctor Who, because they’ve transported us back to the 80s so convincingly.

I honestly would not be surprised if It’s a Sin turns out to be the best series of the year. It’s an outstanding piece of television, and everyone who worked on it should be immensely proud of themselves. It is also, for those of us who weren’t there, an education. We see not only the devastating effects of AIDS itself, but the harm the stigma around it caused, and the fear, shame, and confusion so many people felt. It is moving, eye-opening, and brilliant. It is flawless.

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