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Review of ‘It’s a Sin’: Russell T Davies’ Vibrant ‘80s AIDS Drama Is a Classic in the Making

Credits: Channel 4

Roar writer Arjan Arenas reviews the new Channel 4 drama, It’s a Sin.

Two years after his BBC One miniseries Years and Years, a dystopian prediction of the next 15 years which has already outdated by blamelessly failing to forecast a certain pandemic, Russell T Davies is back with the vivid and deeply personal It’s a Sin. This five-part Channel 4 drama, which has been enthusiastically hoovered up by box-set bingers less than a week since its release, dazzlingly brings to life London in the 1980s, and follows a group of young gay men experiencing the hostility of the AIDS crisis, which claimed or otherwise impacted the lives of thousands of their demographic.

Davies, himself a gay man who entered adulthood in the ‘80s, has spoken of how close to his heart the subject matter is, and how long he has waited to write It’s a Sin. The show has already been frequently compared to Queer as Folk, the ground-breaking Manchester-set series with which Davies made his name, yet it stands in its own right as a highly memorable show which is hilarious, heart-breaking, and frank in equal measure.

The three central characters are outsiders who are lured to London by the promise of liberation, success, and pleasure. Ritchie (Years and Years singer Olly Alexander) is an exuberant, self-confident small-town boy from the Isle of Wight heading to university on the mainland, quickly ditching his law course to make his name as an actor. The outrageously camp Roscoe (Omari Douglas) escapes from the suffocating homophobia of his conservative Nigerian Christian family and embraces the bar scene, while Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a gentle, earnest young Welshman, gingerly navigates his way through the big city while settling into his new career as a Saville Row tailor.

Along with Ritchie’s college pal Jill (Lydia West), they move in together, plunging headfirst in the capital’s glamorous, hedonistic nightlife, Ritchie in particular wasting no time in sleeping with any man with a pulse. Meanwhile, a mysterious illness lurks in the background, first vaguely heard of in news reports from America. Breezily dismissed as a rumour at first (there’s a sequence in the second episode where Ritchie cheerfully describes to the audience why it’s all a hoax, accompanied by hilarious graphics), before long, friends of the gang start to disappear from their lives with little warning, explained away as having “gone home.” Soon, the gathering storm of AIDS becomes too great to ignore any longer.

Thanks to Davies’ painstaking recreation of the vibrant pubs, clubs and fashion of ‘80s London, It’s a Sin reads like the most adoring love letter to the period, without whitewashing the bigotry the leads are up against, the atmosphere of increasing rage and paranoia as AIDS took hold, or the ignorance of many in the gay community in their initially incredulous reaction to the news of the virus, with those trying to raise awareness of it belittled (like Jill) or outright verbally abused (like one unfortunate medical pamphleteer). Plus, any show or movie set in the ‘80s will by rights have a soundtrack bursting with bangers. Culture Club, Pet Shop Boys (it’d be a sin not to use their titular track), Bronski Beat, The Teardrop Explodes – they’re all here, serenading our heroes’ highs and lows.

The heart and soul of the series lies in the uplifting friendship between the main characters, and the brilliant lead actors gel with each other so well, you can easily believe they’ve been best mates for ages. The ensemble cast is packed with a who’s who of household names, including an alternately witty and moving performance (albeit with a slightly dodgy English accent) from Neil Patrick Harris as a kindly, middle-aged gay colleague of Colin who brings the younger man out of his shell. With the slightly forgettable Years and Years being a bit hit-and-miss, Davies, a national treasure of British TV, is back on spectacular form with It’s a Sin, which is not only memorable, but looks set to be a classic in 10 or 20 years’ time.

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