March 2021

Arts & Letters

Pride and prejudice: ‘It’s a Sin’

By Dion Kagan

‘Years and Years’ creator Russell T. Davies turns his attention to the despair, anger and protective humour of the gay community in HIV/AIDS-era Britain

In early 1999, at the tail end of the decade dubbed “the gay ’90s” by Entertainment Weekly, some 3.5 million viewers of Channel 4 in the United Kingdom were exposed to the first primetime depiction of a male-on-male rim job. This hitherto unrepresented sex act appeared in the first episode of TV drama Queer as Folk, which was quickly scolded for what it portrayed but, ultimately, celebrated widely for its frank depictions of gay life – and gay sex. The scene in question raised more than a few eyebrows, not least because it also portrayed the seduction of a minor, Nathan (Charlie Hunnam), picked up during his first ever night out in Manchester’s Canal Street club scene by alpha-gay and unrepentant hedonist Stuart (Aidan Gillen). When Nathan has to leave the next morning to attend high school, both Stuart and the viewer discover he’s a mere 15 years old.

The controversy stirred up by Queer as Folk, including backlash from some quarters of the queer press (who criticised the show’s conspicuous silence on the matter of HIV/AIDS and its allegedly inadequate representation of safer sex), was likely a bit of a coup for its creator, Welsh screenwriter Russell T. Davies. After a decade in which gay men were routinely trawled out in film and TV as objects of sentimental pity (Philadelphia) or comedic sideshows in heterosexual marriage plots (The Birdcage, My Best Friend’s Wedding), Queer as Folk was a high-impact TV intervention. As well as offering viewers an entirely queer-centric and sexually permissive social world – which was unprecedented – its characters and textures felt affectionately English enough to appeal to a broad audience. By the time Davies got the gig to revive Doctor Who for BBC One (2005–10), Queer as Folk had made him into a UK household name. His more recent projects include the 2018 miniseries adaptation A Very English Scandal, about disgraced Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, and 2019’s alarmingly prescient dystopian satire-drama, Years and Years.

Fifteen minutes into the first episode of Davies’ latest project for Channel 4, It’s a Sin (screening on Stan), there’s a call back to that primal pop-culture act of anilingus from Queer as Folk. Central character Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) is hooking up with dreamboat drama student Ash Mukherjee (Nathaniel Curtis), whom he’s just met at the pub. But the sex is cut short. “You need a bit of a wash,” Ash says. “I had a shower this morning,” Ritchie responds, forcing Ash to be explicit. “No, down there. Your arse. You need a good wash. Okay?” Ritchie looks mortified, and we briefly see him scrubbing himself clean in the shower. It’s not the first wash that’s been mentioned in the series: in the opening scene, discussing Ritchie’s imminent move from the Isle of Wight to London to study law, his mother, Valerie (Keeley Hawes), talks enthusiastically about giving his bedroom “a good scrub” once he’s gone. Then, in It’s a Sin’s first visual gag, Ritchie has to dispose of his secret stash of gay porn before he leaves home. These moments presage a good deal more scrubbing and sanitising over the course of the series’ five episodes – hospital beds, a teacup used by a man with HIV/AIDS, a backyard bonfire incinerating his possessions – efforts to scour off the threat of contagion or purge the traces of unbearable, shameful secrets.

If HIV/AIDS was unmentionable in Queer as Folk – partially so it could vend its glossy vision of a new urban gay modernity and sex positivity in the wake of almost two decades of public AIDS scandal – It’s a Sin turns back to grapple directly with the plague years that Davies himself lived through as a young gay man. Opening in 1981, when a now-famous New York Times article reported on a “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals”, the series chronicles 10 turbulent years in the lives of a tight-knit friendship circle who leave home and forge a household together in a London flat that they name “the Pink Palace”.

The show’s original title was “Boys”, which goes some way towards accounting for its focus on three gay male characters. At the centre is charming and complicatedly self-obsessed Ritchie, who soon tosses off lawyering to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. Then there is Roscoe Babatunde (Omari Douglas), a construction worker in forced flight from his religious Nigerian family who are scheming to return him to the motherland to cure him of his homosexuality. Roscoe escapes the family home with a spectacular “fuck you” that recalls Stuart’s famous in-yer-face coming-out speech in Queer as Folk. Davies is a big fan of the extraordinary dressing-down speech, where the good characters censure family members, homophobes, racists and their other antagonists with fabulous, vituperative speeches that typically leave the baddies stunned into silence.

The third boy is Colin Morris-Jones (Callum Scott Howells), who arrives from Wales to train at a London atelier. Colin is taken under the wing of his senior colleague, Henry Coltrane (Neil Patrick Harris), a middle-aged homosexual gentleman with a kind of stately queer knowingness. However, the mentorship is regrettably truncated when Coltrane falls ill with a mysterious illness and gets quarantined away in a hospital ward. He is the show’s first AIDS casualty, and Harris plays the character with a devastatingly stiff upper lip.

The three boys become fast friends with Jill Baxter (Lydia West), who, at a slight remove from her gay male friends, soon becomes the rational and political heart of the new household. The four bright young things move into the Pink Palace with handsome Ash (of the aborted rimming scene). The impending plague sets an atmosphere from the start, but not in the foreboding way you might expect. There’s a hilarity and a joie de vivre in the introduction of these sparkling humans – and in their queer household – that permits them to continue joking and revelling all the way through, in spite of the epidemic that comes. Davies’ writing is wildly adept at balancing levity and heartbreak. It reminds us that humour, specifically camp humour, can help to forge and strengthen communities, particularly under conditions of crisis. In the context of HIV/AIDS, it has often been used to express resistance to the dominant social interpretation of infection as a sign of depravity and stigma.

A particularly English style of sexual reticence and bodily disgust informed the public response (and lack of response) to HIV/AIDS in Britain under the Thatcher administration. In 1988, for example, the department of health censored the distribution of HIV/AIDS prevention education materials produced by the government’s own Health Education Authority. The censorship of information considered erotic or pornographic, or which acknowledged that homosexuality or other non-marital practices such as casual sex even existed, was one effect of this reactionary social policy. Alongside the notorious Section 28 legislation, which forbade the “intentional promotion”, publication of “material with the intention of promoting” or the “teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of” homosexuality as “a pretended family relationship”, this made the frank discussions required to promote safer sex virtually impossible to implement legally.

It’s a Sin’s core antidote to this official culture is a number of cathartically angry speeches. Some of these are expository, as when Ash explains Section 28 to a group assembled at a party. Some are instructive, as when a community lawyer is called in to liberate Colin from unlawful medical detention, enacted because, as a policeman explains, he’s “infectious”, and “his disease [has become] a public menace”. It’s an early example of legal advocacy for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). These you-go-girl speeches start to feel like a typically English revenge fantasy, but it’s also clear that Davies has sympathy for the ignorant, the belligerent and the prejudiced, for they too are suffering within a system of terror and shame. “Don’t look for a villain,” Jill warns Ritchie, though the show’s own approach to AIDS tends to lean on mythic modes of storytelling, including superhero narratives and the most classic tropes of crime and punishment.

Arguably the most shocking and upsetting of these diatribes is the one Jill directs at Ritchie’s mother, and it is the dramatic screw upon which your moral interpretation and response to It’s a Sin may turn. For some, it may seem heavy-handed, and a harsh unravelling of the narrative. For others, it may just appear a less weighted, more spontaneous assertion of culpability and guilt. Valerie’s timid “I didn’t know” is a devastating response either way.

How forgiving you are of these moments depends on how forgiving you are of popular entertainments that delve into the complex political and ethical territory of AIDS history. It’s a Sin joins a growing archive of such works, from Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club (2013) to Ryan Murphy’s ongoing series about the drag ballroom scene in New York, Pose. It’s a storytelling trend that Brooklyn-based writer, organiser and activist Theodore Kerr has called the “AIDS Crisis Revisitation” – looking back, with both horror and nostalgia, at this not-so-distant historical period. It’s a Sin may be the biggest example of this yet: Channel 4 reports that it has, at the time of writing, gained 6.5 million views on its streaming service, making it the third-biggest release on the platform to date and its “most binged new series ever”. Elton John, on his Instagram account, declared it a “triumph of creativity and humanity” and Nigella Lawson tweeted that she was “poleaxed”. My take is that It’s a Sin has good intentions. It is a bit of a hot mess, but so was the period in history and people’s lives that it re-creates.

Dion Kagan

Dion Kagan is a writer, researcher and the author of Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post-Crisis’.

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