We speak to Russell T Davies and Olly Alexander about the 1980s drama set during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, as it arrives on Channel 4
By Simon Ward, Content Editor
The spectre of the pandemic looms large in the opening episode of Russell T Davies’ new drama It’s A Sin. But it’s not the one you’d expect. The show is set in the 1980s, and the pandemic is the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis that will go on to kill millions of people worldwide, devastate lives and fuel hate and prejudice for decades.
There’s a moment early in the show where Ritchie (Olly Alexander), a budding actor full of life and longing, makes idle small talk at a party when he’s warned, “There’s a strain of flu, and it only affects gay men, and it kills them. It’s called GRID, it started in America, and it’s coming over here.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he shoots back. GRID, its first moniker, stood for Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease. “That would be all over the news!” And yet this virus, even in 2021, still subsists in the shadows. We’ve had a sprinkling of US productions (The Normal Heart, for example), but it’s staggering to discover It’s A Sin is the first British TV drama to fully tackle the AIDS crisis.
Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander as the infuriating yet lovable Ritchie Tozer
“It’s strange to listen to Radio 2 and hear people talk about the one great virus in their lifetimes,” Russell explained to a select group of journalists, including us, over video chat just days after the January lockdown restrictions for this pandemic were announced. “I’m sitting there going, “Two. There’s been two.””
For Russell, this series has been a lifetime in the works. “There’s so many stories,” he continues. “I could have written 100 episodes about this.” Here it’s told across just five, through three young gay men on the cusp of adulthood and self-discovery. Then comes the virus. Unstoppable. Relentless.
At first, it’s tabloid gossip of chimpanzees and Russian labs (oh so familiar!) and the inevitable denial (“They want to scare us and stop us having sex and make us really boring,” Ritchie says). Soon it’s an undeniable and tangible threat, sat in their lungs and blotted purple on the skin. And then, terror.
It’s A Sin is a powerful and hard-hitting series that lingers long after the credits. But it’s also raucously funny, fabulously filthy and dazzling and breathless in the way that’s so typical of the man behind Queer As Folk, Cucumber and the rebooted Doctor Who. There’s death, of course, but it’s a show fundamentally about life, and living.
Omari Douglas as Roscoe Babatunde steals every scene
It’s also Russell’s most personal story to date, his witness testimony that draws from his own experiences. “A lot of it is based on myself and people I know, and stories that have built up for decades,” he said. “I was 18 in 1981. All my gay friends moved into a big flat in Hampstead and they called it the Pink Palace.
“There will be a few friends I haven’t seen for years watching going, “This is slightly familiar!” Some of them, of course, are no longer with us. Some of them passed away because HIV came along and claimed a lot of their lives. So it’s nice to remember them like this, I’m very lucky in my job that I can do this.”
Russell’s friends live on in the show’s own Pink Palace: the feisty Roscoe (Omari Douglas); sensitive Colin (Callum Scott Howells); the motherly Jill (Lydia West); and sweet Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). The series also has an incredible supporting cast including Keeley Hawes, Neil Patrick Harris, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Stephen Fry.
Neil Patrick Harris’ storyline as Savile Row tailor Henry Coltrane is a highlight
It’s A Sin arrives on our screens more than 20 years after Russell’s era-defining drama Queer As Folk. For Years & Years lead singer Olly Alexander, whose central performance as the beautiful, insufferable, lovable Ritchie is simply perfection, the legacy of that series was part of the reason he wanted to be a part of this show.
“I remember being 14 years old and watching Queer As Folk with my friend at her house in secret. And I remember being so scandalised because I had never seen men on television touching each other before, or with their clothes off.
“It wasn’t until later when I revisited [it] and I felt like it had such an important part in shaping me as a gay guy and the culture and the community I’ve grown up in.”
Olly, also an LGBTQ+ campaigner, believes this series has the potential to be just as life-changing, and not just for future generations. “I really think a story has the power to really change the way you feel about something. I've really come to understand a lot this era through amazing works of fiction and the stories.
“I think this story is so moving, and I hope people are moved by it. I think that leads people a little bit more to more understanding.”
Nathaniel Curtis as Ash Mukherjee gives an incredibly nuanced performance
The first episode concludes with Ash scouring a newspaper. It’s September 1982. He stops. The camera pans in. Page 16. It’s a small article. “Concern over mystery illness.” It’s there. In the corners. It’s a “concern”. In the margins. On page 16.
It has taken two decades, but the neglected virus of our lifetime is finally out of the margins and into the mainstream. It’s A Sin is a must-watch.
When is Channel 4’s It’s A Sin on TV?
It’s A Sin starts on Channel 4 HD (CH 104/141) on Friday 22 January at 9pm. There are five episodes in total, with the episodes screening weekly until Friday 19 February.
The entire series will be available as a Box Set after the first episode has aired in Apps & Games > All 4.
TV channels: Channels, content and features available depend on your chosen package. Channel line-ups and content are subject to change at any time and to regional variations.
HD: HD TV set, V HD Box, TiVo box or Virgin TV V6 connected with HDMI cables required for HD channels. Number of inclusive HD channels depends on package.
Catch Up TV: Catch Up TV content available for up to 7 days or up to 30 days after broadcast, depending on content.
On Demand: Content available to view depends on TV package. Time limits apply for viewing chargeable On Demand content – see virginmedia.com. Once purchased, all chargeable On Demand content must be viewed within 48 hours. Premium channels and upgrades must be kept for at least 30 days.
Interviews: Any opinions expressed in interviews are those of the interview subject and not those of Virgin Media.