David Llewellyn reviews the opening episode of It’s a Sin, the powerful new Channel 4 drama by Russell T Davies which follows the lives of three young gay men in the 1980s.
Now in its fourth decade, Russell T Davies’ career in television has been a slalom across genres, formats and audiences; from Why Don’t You? to Doctor Who, and from the 1920s heyday of Manchester’s fictional Grand Hotel to the pubs and clubs of its modern day gay village. With Queer as Folk, Bob and Rose and Cucumber – along with its sister series Banana – he’s become a kind of chronicler of contemporary queer life, British TV’s answer to Armistead Maupin. He first discussed writing a drama about the AIDS crisis, then provisionally titled The Boys, back in 2015.
Set in London in 1981, It’s a Sin is in some ways a spiritual prequel to Queer as Folk. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s advancements in the treatment of HIV and AIDS transformed what was almost invariably a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition. When Queer as Folk aired in 1999, its big, brash shamelessness depicted a community marching defiantly out of the previous decade’s darkness, but with plenty of battles still to fight.
It’s a Sin takes us back to a time before all that, when unprotected sex in the gay community was both common and carefree. Early on, as he sets off for university, the character of Ritchie throws away the condoms given to him by his dad, unwittingly to prevent his son from getting some girl in trouble. Its cast of characters are from families who don’t know about their sexuality, or who refuse to accept it. Ritchie leaves a sheltered family life on the Isle of Wight to study in London, Colin leaves Wales to work at a gentlemen’s outfitters on Savile Row, while Roscoe flees his family and community before they can send him back to Nigeria to be “cured”.
Davies is a dab hand at world-building, introducing not only this trio of gay men but their families, friends, lovers and colleagues before we’ve reached the halfway mark of episode one. He also captures that unique experience of literally “coming out”, in the antediluvian days before the internet and Grindr. This reviewer found a scene of Ritchie hiding magazines from his mother and Colin’s crosstown journey in a car full of strangers uncannily familiar.
It helps that many of the younger It’s a Sin cast members are relative newcomers. Olly Alexander, who plays Ritchie, will be familiar as the frontman of Years & Years (the band, not the Russell T Davies series), while both Omari Douglas (Roscoe) and Callum Scott Howells (Colin), are making their TV debuts. Alongside Lydia West, as the accomplice to Ritchie’s adventures in queer London, they appear on the screen with very little in the way of baggage, making that wide-eyed innocence and enthusiasm all the more convincing. Elsewhere there are more familiar faces in supporting roles. Keeley Hawes plays Ritchie’s mother, while Neil Patrick Harris delivers much pathos and an impeccable English accent as Colin’s dapper Savile Row colleague, Henry.
Though there are signs of what’s to come, there’s a carnivalesque feel to much of the opening episode. As in Queer as Folk and Cucumber, its handling of sex is celebratory and gleefully explicit. With the benefit of hindsight, we the audience know that darker times are on their way, which only makes these moments of joy all the more poignant.
Russell T Davies’ writing often wears its concerns on its sleeve. Whether it’s right wing populism in Years and Years or organised religion in The Second Coming, you can guess quite easily how he feels about a given subject, and at times this can veer towards the didactic. At its best, however, it combines that moral purpose with believable and nuanced characterisation. His protagonists will say things that are thoughtless or cruel, or make irreversible mistakes. They can win or lose our sympathy in a second. Though It’s a Sin is tackling an especially dark chapter in gay history, this strong opening episode retains the lightness of touch and emotional complexity of his very best work.
It’s a Sin will premiere on Channel 4 on Friday 22nd of January 2021 at 9pm.
David Llewellyn is a novelist and dramatist.