‘It’s a Sin’ is dramatic art as redress— it tells our story and gives a voice to those who didn’t make it
‘The houses are all gone under the sea. The dancers are all gone under the hill.’
East Coker, The Four Quartets. T S Eliot
In the beginning, I sobbed. At the denouement, I howled. I cry routinely at the telly. But this was different. These tears came not just from shallow, passing sentiment but deep, permanent scarring. A place beyond the space between remembering and forgetting. Not just of grief, but shame.
When my partner and our friends died, a part of me went with them. Under the sea, under the hill — to a place I thought was the end of something. But in time I came to realise it was unending. Because what we went through left an indelible mark.
In the years since I have hung around the entrance to that place quite a bit. Lingering in the cause of memorialising and destigmatising. But now, a quarter of a century later, watching It’s a Sin on Channel 4, I found myself hurtling towards it. Careering, no gears, no brakes. The exhilaration, the fear, the whole shebang. Memory upon memory. All over again.
As the credits rolled the final time, one more memory was unearthed. It was REM’s Nightswimming we played at Lawrence’s funeral, but some always remembered it as Everybody Hurts. Now, I was done in, my emotional guts spewed up. A tweet, the only words I could muster — the only ones that made any sense:
‘Thank you, Russell T Davies, and everyone involved. You told our story and gave a voice to those who didn’t make it.’
He had passed the one test, perhaps the only test, which really mattered. Truth.
In the days before the show aired, each time the trailers flashed across the screen, I had to catch myself. Chest heaving, tear ducts welling, I was momentarily filled with the sense of panic you get when waking from a dream — crying out, voiceless.
I knew it would be brilliant. Russell T Davies is never anything less. Yet despite that, not everything he’s done has quite cut it for me personally.
Coming from Manchester, Queer as Folk should have been right up my street. But Davies’s decision to leave AIDS out of the plot scunnered me. I know why he did it. But I could not suspend disbelief.
Queer as Folk’s spiritual successors — Cucumber, Banana and Tofu — felt, for all their quirkiness, their tendency to the didactic, much more relatable. Sometimes very movingly so.
I liked Bob and Rose, affectionately. I’ll watch anything with my one time Manchester Youth Theatre pal, Lesley Sharp, in it. But love Alan Davies as I do, I’m sorry, he just didn’t work for me as a gay man.
And then there was A Very English Scandal which everyone (rightly) raved about. It gave us undeniably magnificent performances from Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw. But the rather jaunty treatment of an episode in recent history which had spooked me horribly as a closeted adolescent in the late 70s left me feeling just a tad uneasy.
Now Davies had decided to face the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s head-on. And this time his brilliance really wouldn’t be enough. Not for me. Because the pain of those years is still so raw that anything less than authenticity would leave me cold.
I was prepared for the Russell T Davies treatment — pacey, breathless, in your face. And at times, as in his recent masterpiece, Years and Years, shockingly counterintuitive. It would be very different from the artistry stitched into Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, 15 years ago by Andrew Davies. Not so much playing gently with your emotions as chucking them around the room.
But as I watched it, one question would override all others. Did it happen like that? And by the end of the first episode, I knew he’d pulled it off, teed the whole thing up so sublimely. From liberation to incarceration in the space of 47 minutes, a terrifying reminder of the unknowingness with which the virus upended our world back then.
I was reminded of the scene in The Times of Harvey Milk (the documentary not the film). All those men dancing with gay abandon in the streets of San Francisco to Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). You know the film will end with the tragedy of Milk’s assassination. But you can’t help asking about the tragedy beyond it. How many of them would have been alive ten years later?
Davies gives us all that as his characters descend upon each other — and us. So much possibility, so much hope. And from the start, your heart tightens because know some of it will be dashed. You know some of them will die and others will live. You don’t know which of them will go home — under the sea, under the hill. But you know all of them will be scarred.
And here’s the thing, the characterisation is not devoid of cliche. Neither is the plot free of artistic licence, including the slight improbability of that group, in that household, at that moment. But ultimately none of that matters — it is relentlessly and searingly resonant.
The hushed half-truths and awkward silences dialling home from the phone in the hall or the call box in the street. The moments at work when the spaces between words could mean as much as the words themselves. As a friend reminded me, this was as much about the subterfuge of daily life back then. Virus or not, we were all sinners. And as I reminded him, how remarkable it was that we just got on with it. I feel quite proud, now.
Davies got the hospitals too. From brutal isolation in the very early days to the warmth of the pioneering wards which came later. They were like small communities. You never quite knew who you’d run into. From the heroic parents who took the tragedy of it all on the chin and came with you on the journey, to the cold comfort and outright rejection of those who refused to.
And each of the core characters and those who surround them represents something unmistakably real. They are all there for a reason. And what happens to them happened. Maybe not quite like that. But it all happened.
How do I know? Because I was there. I arrived in London as a 21-year-old gay man in 1982, a year after the first episode and just two years older than Ritchie, Colin and Roscoe. As each episode unfolded I could hold it up to my own life and ask, did this happen? Yet I scarcely needed to. Because it all did.
The testing clinics — you didn’t always give your name. The mortgage questionnaires — you had to hide the truth. Using the office photocopier when no one was looking — that’s how I first came out at work. Going over the minutia of a sexual encounter — could the virus have seeped in? Through a mouth ulcer or a bleeding gum? The constant checking for symptoms every time — each crimson blemish, each hardened lymph node. And most haunting of all — the clumsy moments you discovered were near misses in tragically short order.
It’s a Sin is not perfect. Even allowing for the fact that it’s about the gay community rather than the experiences of intravenous drug users — I write from Edinburgh which became known as the AIDS capital of Europe — it still misses people out. Most obviously for me the lesbians who stood by us. One of my best friends was one of them. And the women who died too.
It doesn’t follow every thread through either, the AIDS activism for example. But hey, life is messy — it sure was back then. Art imitating life will always be messy too. And five episodes isn’t long. Davies had to make choices.
It’s also a very particular telling of the story. Perhaps not for everyone but I loved its lyrical quality. At times it could almost have been a musical — even an opera. Such lightness of touch combined with such breadth and depth of content. From levity to gravity in a heartbeat. And yes, it’s the hope that kills you — and them too.
The thing is, there are so many ways to tell a story. So commission another version. And another. They can be just as true in their own way. This should be the start of something, not the end. And whatever the artistic merits of It’s a Sin, its cultural significance far, far outweighs everything else.
If I had been in any doubt about that beforehand, it is what happened while I was watching and since that sealed the deal. The conversations with my husband, Allan, who watched most of it with me — quite unlike any we’d had before. The outpouring of camaraderie among friends, young and old, straight and gay, people I knew then and people I didn’t: ‘Hope you’re okay, Chris, that must have been a tough watch.’
Perhaps most extraordinary was becoming the subject of a tabloid feature. My life and Lawrence’s — our friends’ and Allan’s — splashed in technicolour alongside the show’s stars across the centre pages of the Sunday Mail. Kudos to the paper — and the journalist couldn’t have been lovelier as I fought back tears throughout the interview.
But when you remember the poison of the tabloid press back then, it felt so precious. As an old friend generously commented: ‘That’s a lovely piece of journalism from a perspective that just wouldn’t have been published in the 1980s, we’ve come a long way as a society and people like you (and Allan and Lawrence) have made that happen.’
And I cannot mention that feature without touching on the response it got, not just from people I know but from people I’ve never met. Most especially those who contacted me to say how much the show and my interview meant. People with the most heartbreaking stories.
There’s the woman who cared for her dying friend against the wishes of his family who would not. And the man who, like friends of ours, was cruelly cut adrift from his partner when the estranged family swooped in. Stories people have carried ever since, sometimes in silence. Because even though their loved ones died, the stigma didn’t.
It is those stories which reveal the deep meaning of It’s a Sin. Stories which could not be more timely, because it has come to our screens in the age of COVID. Davies hadn’t even planned that, but thank goodness it has. Some of us have been telling you for a year — you don’t have to go back to Spanish Flu.
It’s a Sin is a story of its time. Thanks as much as anyone, to the astonishing activism of people with HIV and AIDS themselves, HIV is, at least in the developed world, a very different condition now. Something people live with rather than die from. Yet there is still no vaccine. Around the globe, millions continue to perish. And even here, HIV stigma remains stubbornly pervasive. Forty years on — just think about that.
But it is also a story of startling contemporary relevance. It is the story of what happens when society shuns people, when governments don’t care, when people are allowed to die — just because of who they are. The disjuncture of tender and brutal, joy and heartbreak, makes it almost unbearable to watch. And yet it is utterly life-affirming too. Because we were there. It happened to us.
Margaret Atwood said recently that you need distance to really understand what happened in the past. She’s right, of course. But that isn’t the reason this story has failed to reach a wider audience before. The reason for that is quite simple — the denial at the very heart of the story itself.
In producing a series for popular television, rather than an arthouse film, for a mainstream rather than merely an LGBT audience, Russell T Davies has finally brought our story in from the cold. I understand that upwards of 6.5 million have seen it.
As entertainment goes, it doesn’t get much more harrowing. But then It’s a Sin is so much more than entertainment. Like Steve McQueen's Small Axe last year, it is dramatic art as redress — an act of redemption, of pardoning. Late — very late, too late — it tells our story and memorialises those we lost. And it gives a voice to those who didn’t make it.