Russell T. Davies knew that a drama about the AIDS crisis was going to be a tough subject to sell to audiences.
It’s one of the reasons why the first couple of episodes of It’s A Sin — which lands on HBO Max Feb. 18 — are unlike what most people would probably expect from a drama about the AIDS crisis. They’re full of love, laughs and, above all else, fun, showing its ensemble of young gay characters — brought together in London from various walks of life across the U.K. — enjoying their newfound freedom in the British capital in the early 1980s with plenty of wild parties, thrills, drunken behavior and sex.
But there’s another, arguably far more important, reason for Davies, who was 18 in 1981 when the series starts. It’s a Sin was written from his own memories, as a student in Manchester (where most of the filming actually took place), the friends he knew who died of AIDS and those who survived, and the anecdotes he gathered over the years.
“That’s how I remember those people,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I think many of those lives that ended too soon have been remembered with a lot of stigma, a lot of shame and embarrassment, and with a respectful silence over them. But I just wanted to show them living their lives and having a great time.”
Even if the sole aim was to draw in viewers, in the U.K. it worked spectacularly. It’s a Sin smashed records for Brit network Channel 4, the first episode becoming the best-ever drama launch on its All4 streaming platform, which enjoyed its most successful month in January thanks to the show. And even as it moved into darker, more tear-jerking waters as the terrifying disease starts picking off its core group of friends over the course of a decade, the audience didn’t budge, all five episodes recently being declared All4’s “most binged new series ever.”
An idea that had been “coalescing” in Davies’ head since 1995 — even before his groundbreaking 1999 LGBT drama Queer as Folk (which was actually criticized in the gay press for not addressing the AIDS epidemic) — It’s a Sin formally started taking shape in 2015 with regular producing collaborator Nicola Shindler (whose first project was Queer as Folk and has since produced many of Davies’ other dramas, including 2018’s critically-lauded Years and Years). It was actually first announced as The Boys, although Davies came up with the new title when it became clear it would clash with Amazon’s superhero series of the same name (“And thank god … it’s a much better title!” he says).
Shindler — who recently left her Red Production Company to set up ITV Studios banner Quay Street Productions (named after the Manchester road where she and Russell both worked at Granada TV) — says she believes the timing was just right for It’s a Sin, which she also claims was the first read-through that has ever made her cry.
“When Queer as Folk came out, it had only been 10 years since AIDS became a major talking point in the country — it needed some distance,” she says. “In taking the time to look and understand the reaction and understand the consequences of what happened to that generation, I think that’s what makes it feel really strong.”
At It’s A Sin’s heart is a group of small town boys: Colin (played by Callum Scott Howells), Roscoe (Omari Douglas) and Ritchie (Olly Alexander). Not only are they all acting newcomers (Alexander is better known as the lead singer of the band called, coincidentally, Years & Years), but they’re also openly gay in real life, which was a conscious decision made by Russell (who also cast Steven Fry and Neil Patrick Harris in smaller roles).
“I’ve been heading that way for a long time, trying to do that more and more, and with this show we made the conscious decision to try,” he says. “What we discovered was such a vast tornado of queer talent dying to be on screen that it was an absolute joy.”
When Russell first revealed this casting policy while promoting It’s a Sin in the U.K., it sparked the sort of reaction from commentators in the press that one might expect (“It’s unusual for straight people to have an opinion on how gay people should behave,” he says with a laugh). But this debate shut down as soon as the first episode aired.
“Because I think you can see what we mean,” he says. “There’s genuine queer energy rising off this show. It’s in the liminal spaces between them. It’s written into the flair of color rising off the screen. It’s very tangibly there. And I’m immensely proud of it.”
The emotional glue that binds It’s a Sin’s gay characters together is its only heterosexual central figure, Jill (Lydia West). It’s Jill who, as the drama develops, becomes an AIDS activist, leading fundraising campaigns to support awareness and research, and also helps support gay men suffering from the disease, often in solitude after being shunned by their families. And it’s Jill who is loosely based on Russell’s own friend, the West End actress Jill Nader, who he actually hired to play the Jill’s mom.
“She’s the one who lived that life and did those things,” he says, adding that when he called Nader to offer her the role she was “singing Les Miserables on a cruise ship.”
It’s also Jill who helps get across another hugely important aspect of It’s a Sin for Davies: the confusion, ignorance and lack of information surrounding HIV and AIDS in the early years, particularly regarding transmission.
In one scene, Jill secretly smashes and throws away a mug that had been used by a friend who had recently been declared HIV positive. In another, Ritchie gives a speech in which he flat-out denies that the disease exists, despite the growing evidence and death toll.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this, because that’s what I vividly remember in ‘83 and ‘84. Some people even felt like that into the 1990s,” says Davies. “I’ve watched a lot of HIV/AIDS dramas, and that early period of denial has never quite been captured. When you were told there was a plague that kills only gay men, I think we were absolutely justified in finding that ridiculous. You see the same kind of thing happening now with COVID denial, except that’s plainly stupid.”
Launching a drama about one deadly plague amid another is a coincidence nobody could have foreseen (Davies describes It’s a Sin’s ratings as an “unexpected success,” having thought viewers would have tuned away for this very reason). And while there are definite comparisons to make about the two sets of experiences, 40 years apart, the differences — particularly in the handling of each crisis from authorities, the press and the public — are stark.
“If we could all have talked out loud about HIV during the 1980s, there would have been thousands of less deaths,” says Russell. “If only this could have been as open and as public, with the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street discussing it and scientists on the news telling us how it was spread. All the silence is what made the virus breathe and what made the deaths so bad.”