Sarah Morgan Jones
As the closing credits of Russell T Davies latest offering roll, the stunned silence in our living room is broken with the sound of sobbing. I dare a look at my husband, and his face is grief-stricken as the tears fall. We both knew men who succumbed to the death sentence that HIV/AIDS once was, and we both know people who can now survive and continue to live with the virus.
In Years and Years (BBC, 2019), Davies forecast the near future and revealed a dystopian Britain which was completely within reach, totally credible and alarmingly prescient of the year we have just experienced. His skill in delivering that world was to take what we have and just speculate a little, just push current political and societal attitudes forward enough along an alarming and logical pathway to reveal catastrophic results.
With It’s a Sin, he uses that skill to look backwards to the decade which began in 1981. A decade which is hailed by my daughter’s generation in the same way some of us look back on the seventies: the height of cool, an enviable vintage with a rosy-retro vibe. In reality, it was the post-punk era, dominated by the destructive forces of Thatcherism, the rise of individualism, and the dismantling of society which is still so evident today.
It is also a decade in which gay rights stepped back in time, homosexuality became society’s pariah and when a deadly virus became a tombstone on which the premature death dates of thousands were carved.
I was on the verge of teenagerhood in 1981, the youngest of five: four older brothers; the sister of twins who came out as gay men not long before AIDS was declared a gay plague. I remember, clearly, being as proud of their outcoming as I was terrified of the news headlines. The tombstone adverts, the iceberg adverts all struck fear into my idealistic young heart; and the injustice I felt that they might be targeted because of who and how they loved, shaped and shadowed my teenage years.
Stepping into the world of Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), Colin (Callum Scott Howells) and Ash (Nathanial Curtis) as they launch themselves onto the London gay scene at the start of the eighties, ensconced in their fun-filled freedom and cared for with loving openness by Jill (Lydia West), instantly feels so familiar. Able to be their flawed but likeable selves, at last, after growing up in familial closets, their joy is palpable, their behaviour hedonistic and delightful, their boundaries invisible.
They work hard and party harder, and as the disease begins to creep into their lives, they are torn with denial and disbelief; distracted by the feeling this is happening elsewhere, and by the spread of misinformation that we are all now so familiar with. Jill can see the writing on the wall, and as she starts to help ‘her boys’ as they face the reality of AIDS, Ritchie moves further along a path of denial, with heart-breaking results.
Drawing clear and pertinent parallels between that time and the current issues of pandemic, Davies explores the deniers, the snake-oil salesmen, the quackery, the fake news and the politicisation of death. He places Jill as the observer for those in the audience who can see the dangers, who read the science, who urge caution and protection. She is there to run head-on into the force of deniability, the abrogator of responsibility embodied in Ritchie’s mother – played with such power by Keeley Hawes. Jill is there to challenge the lies, with reason and with a quiet but firm voice. In a format that many will be familiar with today, she pays a high price for the ignorance of others.
Layered onto this time of terror and misinformation, and general alienation from professional medical help, was the state-sanctioned othering of homosexuality. Coming just twenty short years after the decriminalising of homosexuality, and still in a time where the age of consent was 21 for gay men, Clause 28 silenced all opportunity for young gay people to gain information and support for their emerging identities. A draconian form of censorship – which did as much for the spread of the disease as Victoria Gillick did for teenage pregnancies – Clause 28 gave a green light for homophobic discrimination in every part of society.
Societal hypocrisy was rife: being out would end your career, whether a simple tailor’s apprentice or a celebrity with national treasure status. The underground, hidden behaviour of prominent politicians, such as that undertaken by Stephen Fry’s character; and the declaration by Ritchie’s mum that she loves Barrymore, illustrates the very British dichotomy like a heavyweight punch. These discriminations and disjunctions served to isolate and alienate the men who found themselves classed as dangers to public health and treated with cruel inhumanity. Instead of being helped, they were hounded, blamed, judged and accused; shamed into denial and inaction.
Littered with uplifting music, keenly observed dialogue, moments of hilarity and the nitty gritty of sex which spares no blushes, It’s a Sin is populated with robust and well-developed characters, and is in many ways, Russell T Davies’ most holistic and penetrating work to date. The tragedy is not hyperbolic or overplayed, but painful in its shame and secrecy. He is firmly marking his place as a modern historian and cultural commentator while channelling that responsibility into a work of beautiful creative realism.
In a speech as powerful as that which closes Years and Years, the blame of this scandalous time, the responsibility for abandoning those in so much pain and need, is placed firmly at the feet of ‘You.’ If you demand people to be ashamed of who they are, if you allow blame to be the burden of the victim, if you insist that this is not an issue which affects you, if you allow lies to run unchallenged…then you are the problem.