"There'll be images of joy now" - Russell T Davies on It's a Sin
The writer, creator and exec producer talks about the incredible impact of his 2021 TV show
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Russell T Davies remembers the day vividly. December 2020. London’s St Martins Lane Hotel. Transmission of his new show It’s a Sin on Channel 4 was just over a month away, but the creator, writer, and exec producer was suddenly worried. And a journalist was sat across from him.
“It was a genuinely apologetic interview, genuinely apologetic,” he cringes now in a new chat with WHITE NOISE. To his surprise, he still received a sympathetic write-up for the show about five friends living through the AIDS crisis in 1980s London.
(Photo: Fabio De Paolo)
But what was there to apologise for? “I honestly felt that I pulled my punches [with the show]. I thought: that was your one chance of writing AIDS and you’ve gone quite lightly, you haven’t shown the suffering.”
As the press junket continued, journalist after journalist, all of whom had seen the show in advance of speaking to him, came in and told Davies the exact opposite of what he was nervous he’d hear. Not only did they not think he’d gone “too soft”, they unequivocally loved it. “And it was the first time,” he says, “That I began to think, maybe this does work”.
Of course. Of course it does work. It seems ludicrous to even be entertaining the notion of otherwise today, knowing what we know now. Because what we know now is that It’s a Sin immediately broke all streaming records for All 4. It was named the best show of 2021 by The Guardian, Radio Times, and EMPIRE (amongst others). At last count, it had won 13 awards (including two BAFTAs and three Royal Television Society Awards) and been nominated for a whopping 57 across performance and craft in equal measure.
But this is only a part of the picture. For outside of the fevered critical acclaim and the gigantic audience it swept up, the social and cultural impact of It’s a Sin continues to reverberate today. Seventeen months on, there’s no sign of it stopping.
So why It’s a Sin? And why now?
One name. The man with the doubts: Russell T Davies.
To properly unpack and weigh the impact, we need to go back - to not just the start of the journey to bringing It’s a Sin to screens, but to the start of Russell T Davies’ life as a screenwriter. In fact, to him becoming a man, the very same year that AIDS was first clinically reported in the US and the first UK AIDS-related death occurred. “In my experience, as a gay man being 18 in 1981” says Davies. “Homosexuality and death are inextricably linked in my mind.”
It’s been said that It’s a Sin is an idea that Davies sat with, sat on, for thirty years. But it’s really closer to 40, given that so much of what he saw and experienced in the ‘80s percolated down into the 2021 show. By the time he received his first writing credit in 1989 (on the TV series On the Waterfront), Davies had almost a decade of life to draw on.
Yet he didn’t lift from it for another five years, when in 1994 he wrote a storyline for ITV’s Children’s Ward about a child who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. “It was about prejudice and being treated badly - sometimes by peers, or sometimes by staff as well,” he remembers today. “I did my bit in sort of baby steps.”
It would be another five years again until he took another baby step in terms of the representation of HIV and AIDS, but a giant leap in gay storytelling, with the now-iconic Channel 4 show Queer as Folk. Though HIV and AIDS isn’t mentioned once, it was on Davies’ mind, as ever.
“I hate to say this because Nicola [Schindler, Davies’ long-time producer) always laughs at me,” he admits. “But with the drug overdose - the drugs are sold to Michael Harvey, which is my nod to HIV. Harvey, HIV...Nicola said never tell that to anyone because that's dreadful [laughs]. But 23 years have passed now, I can confess”.
Another decade passed and he wrote the underrated Cucumber (seriously, don’t sleep on it). Again, while the discussion of HIV and AIDs may not be overt, Davies sees both shows as the path to It’s a Sin.
“It is there, it is ticking,” he insists. “And I think that's because that's my gay experience, that death too soon is fundamentally bad.” He’s aware of course of the ‘bury your gay’ trope (narratives where gay characters almost always die and are expendable) but rejects it in his work, saying, “Frankly, I'm arrogant enough to say that's the work that’s just not well written. And mine's well written. I've got an obsession with death being written properly on screen because television drama is simply full of death, and it's rarely treated properly. I think it's the most dramatic subject you can possibly write - but why do I think that? Maybe that's because I was that gay man in 1981 and people [had] started dying.”
And this is the great theme coursing through Davies’ work. “I've got the three great gay shows in my life - Queer as Folk, Cucumber and now this - and they all have death in them,” he says. “Queer as Folk and Cucumber have pivotal turning points where a death occurs to a gay man and that changes the lives of everyone around them.”
It was this, thinks Davies today, that led to It’s a Sin being rejected by the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 originally. “People would say, how are you going to make all these deaths different? It's like death after death after death. I said, ‘Well, yes, yes, it is’. At that point, to be honest, they should have trusted me.”
What would It’s a Sin have looked like as a contemporary piece of work, rather than several decades on? Perhaps like Larry Kramer’s furious 1985 play, The Normal Heart, which was forged in the flames of the virus.
“That’s simply one of the greatest acts of genius in the history of the world: that he sat down and wrote that play in the middle of a disaster,” says Davies. “And was right! That very first article he wrote for The New York Native [ a bi-weekly gay newspaper] was an article called ‘1112 and counting’. [spotted in episode two of <It’s a Sin> when Colin visits New York]. He foresaw the epidemic, and every reaction to it”.
Davies though took the exact opposite approach, make a decision early on that drove every storytelling and filmmaking choice. It was this decision that was making Davies nervous that December day. And one that perhaps, he concedes he wouldn’t have made decades before: “I decided not to be particularly angry with it”.
It was certainly a risk to reject both rage and inflicting unnecessary suffering on characters: tread too softly and people may feel he was minimising the truth of what was endured. Go too hard, it could be seen as exploitative. The balance was delicate.
“You could have had entire episodes of Ritchie [Olly Alexander] dying,” he says, aware of how other dramatists may have tackled it. “Of all the skin diseases that comes along, the Molluscum, the blindness that happens and I really thought long [and hard].”
In the end, perhaps surprisingly (or at least randomly), Davies followed the example of Anne Hathaway, who lost a significant amount of weight for Les Misérables, but refused to detail how, not wanting to make it attractive for young female fans. “It sent me off a long process of thought,” he admits. “[Thinking] I'm going to use glamour very carefully - and I don't mean glamorous, but I mean the charm of things, the power, the presence things have on screen - of suffering and suffering, I think it can both repel an audience and I think can also attract an audience in the wrong way.”
So, he was light with the use of Kaposi’s sarcoma and the sheer number of illnesses the men could suffer with. There was no midnight scene in a hospital ward with a character tearing their heart out in agony.
Responsibility aside, Davies was resistant for a second reason. There was an audience he was determined to reach. “It was absolutely conscious to make it more accessible, to open the doors and bring it to a wider audience than just the gay audience or the gay-friendly audience.”
Davies points to the films, plays and books written about HIV and AIDS, acknowledging that even as the first British drama, It’s a Sin “is very aware that it doesn't exist on its own. And it's skating around just about every other piece of drama about AIDS that you could possibly mention”. Though many of these “aren't talked about enough except in our little circles”, Davies was in constant conversation with the wider body of work.
We discuss the 2015 Australian film, Holding the Man, which Davies says has “the best death scene in the history of the world”. Yet, it’s a film you won’t hear mentioned in discussions of great on-screen deaths, or even more generally in mainstream film culture. For Davies that’s “because it's kind of niche, it's seen as ‘gay’”. So, with It’s a Sin “it was a plan to say, let's not niche this, let's not make it [only] for an audience that knows all about it” And to achieve that? “There's a little bit of softening.”
This lent an approach that arguably we haven’t seen before in dramas about the AIDS crisis. A philosophy of tone, character, and action that’s visible from the first episode as we meet Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who’s about to be sent to Nigeria by his deeply religious family. His sister warns: “Roscoe, if they send you back home, they will beat you, and bleed you. In the name of God, they will kill you. And then they’ll throw your body into the forest and leave you for the animals.”
We, the audience, brace for scenes of violence and terror as he tries to make a run for it, but instead are gifted with Roscoe, in a crop top, mini skirt and headscarf, busting open the living room and in typical Roscoe style saying, chin up and out, “If you need to forward any mail, I’ll be staying at 23 Piss Off Avenue, London W Fuck. Thank you and goodbye!”.
As his father and uncle rage (and it’s actually Roscoe who slaps his dad) and his aunties laugh uproariously, he strides out into the rain, pops up a brolly and 1980 banger ‘Feels like I’m in Love’ by Kelly Marie kicks in. Pure It’s a Sin. Pure RTD.
What makes it even more so, are two easter eggs that speak to the spirit that Davies drove through every frame. Firstly, the address Roscoe ad-libs with: “The BBC address on Blue Peter was London W12 8QT,” smiles Davies. “He’s parroting that because he's been at home all his life and all you did in those days was watch television.” And secondly (and most brilliantly, even though it’s invisible to us – though crucially not to the writer and his cast). “The date is the fourth of September 1981. That's the day Beyonce is born. It's in the stage directions. We were thinking, how can we get that on screen? And we just couldn't…but that's the day she is literally being born as he walks out of the house. And I love that.” It’s these thought processes, “some of those decisions” says Davies, “that make it more accessible”.
Davies puts knowing what to avoid, the magic meta details to include, down to not just being a television writer, but a voracious television watcher. “I kind of know the dodges to make”, he says. “In Years and Years, you think you know which refugee is going to drown. But it's not, it's Russell Tovey - because you've seen the victim, the boyfriend dying before. I think it's very important to keep on your toes and [find] other stories to tell”.
Like that of Colin (Callum Scott Howells), whose story you originally think will be one of workplace abuse, when actually, through his friendship with Henry (Neil Patrick Harris), it’s “about gay mentorship and allyship and older gay men protecting younger gay men in an age where that happens to be doubly important.”
When it came to the death scenes, it meant explicitly not doing what Davies loved in Holding the Man. “Ritchie's death is an absolute reaction to that,” he says. “I'm sitting there thinking, how do you beat that scene, that absolutely perfect moment of seeing someone die? And I reached a conclusion: right, don't see it. Deprive the audience of that and make Jill [Lydia West] feel the shock of missing that.”
Far more interesting to Davies was looking for the gaps in the HIV and AIDS stories told so far. Examining the other work and finding the unrepresented and unseen. “Things like having to have an HIV test when you apply for a mortgage,” he says. But beyond just subject matter, Davies was determined to explore the knotty sides of the virus not just through bigoted characters (as so often happens), but through the five friends themselves.
“The whole anti-AIDS sequence where Richie denies the existence of HIV,” he says. “I've never seen that property done anywhere - I've [only] seen that done by homophobes in dramas. I had to have someone who was afraid to drink from the same mug as someone with HIV. And it's very easy to embed a homophobic character who comes in and says, ‘Oh, that's disgusting’. So, I've got to make that someone we love, who didn't have the information at that time.” Hence, it’s Jill – one of the most absolutely-beloved characters – who worries about a mug that Gloria (David Carlyle) drinks from, eventually smashing it to bits in a tea-towel with a hammer.
Likeability is not something Davies particularly worries about, has ever worried about. “I think I do this with all my gay characters,” he says. “Because I'm not remotely interested in making them likeable, because that's easy. [Although] I do sit and watch Heartstopper with absolute envy, thinking, why didn't you just take your foot off the pedal Davies!”.
But there was something that went beyond likability. A narrative decision that gave Davies more sleepless nights than any other. For not only does Ritchie deny HIV, but he also continues sleeping with other men when he suspects he might be HIV positive. But while it gave Davies concerns, he had a very specific point to make.
“I was absolutely determined to write about those people who are made villains,” he says. “Which is people who knew they had the virus and knowingly slept with other people. They're not villains - once in a while, there are mad villainous people, people convicted for knowingly passing it on, but that's one in a million - but the thing [is], boys are stupid. They do this with every other sexual disease under the sun - it just so happens that this is a killer. It's hot blood and alcohol and [they’re] very young and horny and it’s a simple refusal to look at the truth of what's happening to you.”
Davies expected backlash to Ritchie’s actions, worried that this “would take us down”, especially as “no-one bollocks him” on screen either. But blame was deliberately withheld in Davies’ script as “I didn't want that simple drama. I think people like something written for adults that isn't just blaming, thats shows things in all their complexity. You know, we accept that with The Sopranos, we accept that with The Wire, and I don't think we accept it with British drama sometimes”.
To the relief – and vindication - of Davies and the team, there was little commentary on it, no real vitriol. The reaction could be put down to a greater tolerance and understanding on the part of audiences, but it’s also undoubtedly bound up in Olly Alexander’s electrifying performance as Ritchie Tozer. “He's a great force in the world,” smiles Davies. “He's a great queer force. I love him. And I think something beyond acting came across on screen.”
The refusal to make his guys and girls plain bad or good, the undercutting of violence and horror, the blending of it with sadness and heartbreak and joy and humour and fun: all of this is key to landing the central message of It’s a Sin.
And while Davis may return to the theme of death in his work over and over, this was never going to be a show that ended with the bodies of boys and men felled by AIDS. That was solely about how death tore so savagely through a community. Where no-one survived. Until they panicked that they were inadvertently ending up with exactly that.
The series was meant to finish on an episode set in 2021 (present day when the show aired). In it “grown up Jill - imagine Minnie Driver has grown [older]. Minnie Driver! Imagine that!” exclaims Davies. “Minnie Driver goes back to the Isle of Wight to find out what exactly was going on in that family [the Tozers] - those cryptic references that Keeley Hawes [Valerie Tozer] keeps making about her dad. Something was very wrong in their house.”
Jill – now a singer on cruise ships - had never returned to Ritchie’s hometown but says Davies, “her manager accidentally makes a booking for the Isle of Wight and she’s like, ‘Oh fuck, that's the one place I said I didn't want to go. But then she goes and she meets the grown-up sister and [his mum] but it wouldn't have been Keeley Hawes anymore, it would have been an old woman in a nursing home, but with dementia. So you go for answers, but you don't get any”.
Roscoe would also have appeared as “one of those men… who would then contract HIV in their 50s. And who now of course is completely fine with HIV, he's on the pills.”
With all that built into the plan, there was never a moment’s worry about what the show would be seen to say. Until that final episode “got sheared off” after Davies was granted an extra episode to take it from four to five, but “just never wrote that episode. I handed it in as five episodes where we never went to the present day. But you couldn't read those scripts and not say that it worked”.
And then on the eve of filming the penny dropped, “it was like fuck, we don’t have that last episode! From then on, we were very worried about showing it as a disease that [always] kills you.” In the end, concerns were allayed by the fact that we are all internet-literate and viewers would know, or could educate themselves to, the facts about HIV and AIDS.
But then, what was the central message of It’s a Sin, for Davies? “Every little plot has a message,” he says. “I wanted to get across the HIV testing for mortgages. I wanted to show homophobic women, because they're almost never shown and of course, they exist - which is actually a grieving mother handling things terribly, that's what's actually going on there. But overall, it’s simply to remember. To remember that this happened. And there's all sorts of versions of this story, there are all sorts of stories I didn't tell. But simply to remember, that was my point, in the end. To say that this happened.”
Not just that this happened, but that this happened here. Davies points out that it’s often seen as an American experience, with the British experience “more of a subplot, in episodes of Casualty and Peak Practice and stuff like that”.
He believes that this is due, at least in part, to the dominant HIV narrative in popular British culture for many, many years. Which was Mark Fowler in EastEnders, the heterosexual character (and legend Pauline Fowler’s son) discovering he was HIV positive in 1991, when the soap could still receive north of 20 million viewers.
It was a ground breaking moment in soaps and British television more broadly, and one which Davies praises (to a point), saying “[writing] a straight man with HIV was a brilliant thing to do”. But one that also, he feels, became problematic because “what you couldn't anticipate is that straight man would stay on screen for 13 years and would become the representative of HIV. So, your gay audience feels slightly robbed - where's the gay men with HIV - which wasn't their intention at all. And I hate criticising such good work. And yet it was so successful, it became kind of monolithic, that it happened to a straight man. So that’s a great legacy but also an unfortunate legacy.”
And a legacy that Davies sought to engage with and disrupt. It was on his mind as the show was made. “I thought that [storyline] was very, very important - when I say skating around all these other pieces of work, that was a great big monolith in the way.” But it’s one that Davies says, “we do seem to have genuinely counteracted and I'm very pleased”.
How? Well, it turned out that a 20 million strong audience wasn’t just reserved for soaps in the 1980s and ‘90s.
In March 2021, just weeks after It’s a Sin launched, Channel 4 made an announcement: the show had registered 18.9 million views on All 4, making it the streaming service’s biggest ever “instant box set”, and the most binged to date. Plus, the first episode was Channel 4’s biggest drama launch in three years among younger viewers. Mission accomplished for Davies, tick tick against the original plan. Something that he still doesn’t take for granted.
“I honestly never thought I'd have that kind of success ever again,” he says, pointing to the hugely popular Queer as Folk, Doctor Who and A Very English Scandal, but also to the bruising experience of the brilliant Years and Years (“I loved that show and my god, that died a death”). He says now: “So, you can look at your work and think [you’ve had] it all now Russell! And so I never saw this coming: ever, ever, ever.”
Yet, the success of It’s a Sin can’t just be measured in viewing figures alone. For what happened alongside it means it is, will always be, far more than just a massive telly show.
The broadcast coincided with the National HIV Testing Week, with the Terrence Higgins Trust revealing that HIV tests were ordered faster than ever before. In fact, on the first day, orders tripled compared to the charity’s prior biggest day, and across the week, doubled. The day after It’s a Sin launched, there was a 30% increase in calls to their helpline. And sales of Philip Normal’s ‘La’ t-shirt have – to date – raised over half a million quid.
They’re numbers I share with Davies, who becomes emotional hearing them, even though he clearly knows them in his bones. “We didn’t know we’d raise a penny,” he says now before pointing to – apart from “the most important thing” the money” – what he considers emotionally to be the best thing to have come out of his show. He and the real Jill (Nadler) have been contacted by family after family, “families - who had lived in silence, saying that their uncle or brother had died of cancer, pneumonia - actually stepping up saying no, that was an AIDS death”.
He shares the story of a woman who actually works at Channel 4 and heard him talking about the show on the radio and “she went, ‘Oh my God. That's my uncle Derek’”. She remembered the man who would get her tickets to West End shows and was glamorous and brilliant. And then he died. “And there she is 30 years later going; ‘he didn't die of cancer. It wasn't cancer’.”
It's especially vital now Davies says, since those parents, who hid the truth of how the men died, are starting to die themselves, and “there’s a danger those lies - and they are lies - those lies will seal over the grave with them.”
It’s increasingly down to the next generation, who Davies shares are “reacting with joy actually. They're not going, ‘Oh my god, this is a family tragedy’. They're going, ‘We can say he died of AIDS, and that's fine. There's no shame’.” His eyes fill with tears. “That’s just really sensational. None of us expected that to happen. And it's happened. It's happened big time.”
Davies has one more wish, one more hope, for the legacy of It’s a Sin, one that will only truly be proven by the passage of time. And it’s not just that the stories of those who lived and died through AIDS are remembered, but that, “It’s remembered differently. I think now there's a chance - there's an audience that when you mention HIV, you think of that Pink Palace. You don't think of a ward with a drip, you don't think of Kaposi's sarcoma. You don't think of misery. You think of those parties in The Pink Palace. That the memory will have not changed necessarily but there’ll be alternative images in it now – those of loss, but also of joy.”
And what a legacy that would be: for It’s a Sin. For Russell T Davies. And for the full lives that he and so many other men have lived.
It’s a Sin is available on All 4
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