It's a Sin: AIDS and the 1980s

Submitted by martin on 2 February, 2021 - 5:33 Author: Clive Bradley
It's a Sin

The main characters in It’s A Sin (Channel Four), Russell T Davies’ five-part drama about the AIDS crisis in Britain through the eighties into the early nineties, are roughly my age. It describes, therefore, an experience I lived through (minor spoilers here).

I remember vividly the first rumours of a disease killing gay men in America, the first time I heard the term "AIDS" (I was sitting in a freezing cold kitchen in Manchester). I remember the growing sense of dread; I remember - this must have been in 1984 - calculating (god knows on the basis of what) that I had a 1/50 chance of dying as a result of every sexual encounter.

I remember arguments - dramatised very well in It’s A Sin - with men who thought the whole thing either a plot to stop us having sex, or a lot of fuss over nothing (in particular one guy, who described himself as "Foucauldian", explaining that it "depends how you problematise disease").

These arguments, of course, have an unintended, chilling resonance with debates now about Covid. In fact, though, I was lucky, if that’s the right word. Of course I knew people who died, but only one I could meaningfully describe as quite close to me. Even at the time I was aware that there was this storm raging around us - I knew people who were exhausted by all the funerals - yet somehow it was only indirectly affecting me.

I honestly don’t know how that happened. Maybe it’s just as simple as that I got a boyfriend in 1985 and we were (I think) monogamous for a few years and by the time I was back on "the scene" we knew a lot more about it, about HIV, about safer sex. Maybe it was just that.

Nevertheless, It’s A Sin cuts very close to the bone. Its characters live (at first) in a maelstrom of wild parties and youthful exuberance I did not recognise (unless I’ve just forgotten it), but I recognise myself in them. It captures that time, and the problems gay men faced, with a raw potency which I’m sure will affect even those less connected to it than I am.

Russell T Davies is the obvious person to have written this. He made his name with Queer as Folk, over twenty years ago, and since then, in addition to reinventing Dr Who, he has written several dramas which chronicle British gay life - most notably Cucumber (with its companions Banana and Tofu), in 2015. Years and Years, in 2019, featured a central and very moving gay storyline. AIDS was absent from this body of work; he has said he felt it was time he wrote about it, and is perhaps better able to write about it, now.

The contrasts are striking, in fact. Although the character-types in Queer as Folk and It’s A Sin are recognisably similar, the problems they face are radically different. Indeed, AIDS is not a problem in Queer as Folk. Right at the start the sexually-successful (and about-to-turn thirty) Stuart has sex with (underage) Nathan, who later gleefully describes to his best friend at school what it’s like to be fucked, but the threat of dying as a result is never (as far as I can recall) discussed.

Here, the threat hangs over everything. The fabulous wild partying in It’s A Sin is - we know - setting us up for the horrible crash which is to come. It’s Paradise, but with the Devil slithering in.

As with Queer as Folk, we follow a group of friends. Ritchie (played by pop star Olly Alexander) has narrow-minded parents on the Isle of Wight who can never know he is gay. Roscoe has to run away from his Nigerian family when they threaten to send him back to their village. Colin has come to London from Wales to work in Saville Row, where he meets a charming and cultured gay man (played by American TV star Neil Patrick Harris) - who is (sorry, spoiler), the first character we see when he’s sick. Ash is Ritchie’s sometime lover. The group is bound together by Jill (Lydia West, a Davies alumna from Years and Years), whom Ritchie meets at university.

In a sense it is Jill’s journey we most closely follow - up to her inevitable confrontation with Ritchie’s mother (played with terrifying uptight rage by Keeley Hawes). It is she who first takes the threat of this new disease seriously; she who sees most clearly what is happening to young gay men and why.

It’s a pity, therefore, and my one substantial criticism of the show, that the character has so little life beyond her relationship with these men. She seems to have no emotional, romantic or sexual existence outside of them at all (okay, we meet her lovely mum and dad), and is pretty much from start to finish an almost-literal angel.

Indeed, Ritchie’s mother throws this at her ("Where’s your boyfriend?" she asks angrily); but this feels like an afterthought rather than a deliberate feature of the character.

It is my only substantial criticism, though. I watched all five hours of It’s A Sin in one day, glued to it. I laughed and I cried. And I don’t think you can ask for much more than that. It is surprising, moving - though far from the relentlessly bleak story you might expect with this subject matter - and very entertaining.

It is a feature of Davies’ writing that sometimes you hear his voice above the character’s as he climbs on his soap box. But this is a drama with a point to make, and if soap boxes sometimes have their place, this is one of them.

Now that the dread of AIDS has faded - medication means most people who contract HIV are able to live long and healthy lives (though there are worries about consequent abandonment of safer sex practices by younger gay men) - it would be easy to forget what it was like. We should not forget.

It’s A Sin, which I’m sure will be watched by a few million people at least, is a powerful antidote to forgetting.

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