‘It’s A Sin’: Dying Of Loneliness
Russell Davies’ ‘It’s A Sin’, his five-part drama about AIDS in 80s Britain, will probably become the definitive look at the period. It’s a big hit and I can see why. Davies is brilliant at connecting with the young and keeping things warmly human. However, it’s not ‘Angels in America’. It’s issue-led soap opera rather than mature art.
I’m not the target audience. The series is aimed at those for whom the 80s is ancient history, an era as distant as the Crimean war, a time they only know from parents or even grandparents. So there’s quite a bit of education to be done and concessions have to be made.
Yet Davies has quite a track record – ‘Years & Years’ was one of the best things on television last year. His humanity shines through in every scene of ‘It’s A Sin’, but for those of us who survived that time the series holds up a very distorted mirror to the past.
I remember it in a way most people would not wish to. I lost my partner and most of my friends. I watched as young men in their twenties and early thirties like me were kicked out of their homes and fired from their jobs, and left to die alone. Patients were treated with condescension and hostility by doctors, but that was only one of many problems. My partner was brave enough to fight his homophobic boss in court, and won. Most battles were fought alone. Isolation and loneliness made everything worse.
‘It’s A Sin’ has to balance the surreal horrors of the past with the disbelief and incomprehension of young present-day viewers. The series follows a group of fast friends from innocence through tragedy to understanding. The leads cover every shade of the multicultural rainbow. This feels like a factual error; in the early eighties black and white communities not only did not mix; they often hated each other. It’s an uncomfortable truth but I remember the racial tension on both sides. It was a time when most gay black people faced a double stigma while kicking back against their Christian roots in London; self-hatred was ably encouraged by white cabals, especially by rags like the Daily Mail and Sun, and the government.
The series gets better as it progresses. Davies brings in political activism in later stages (there’s a lot of photocopying) and forces a new generation of young viewers to draw modern parallels. The older characters (Stephen Fry, Neil Patrick Harris) are one-note; Channel 4 cut the series from 8 to 5 episodes, so perhaps their roles were more rounded. The series’ success shows that the original length should have been kept. Still, what remains is ultimately devastating.
The mothers carry the burden of their children dying. Mr Davies has always been better at writing women, and so it proves with a final confrontation between two women that reveals a brutal truth; some prejudices will never be overcome.
The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan suggests that the current pandemic means ‘We can empathise that bit more with the fear’ – but as it’s been pointed out since, who are ‘we’? The 50+ age of the Guardian readership who lived through it? Did ‘we’ need another plague to make us finally sympathetic to the first one?
To have portrayed the era exactly as it was would have been too bleak. Black people suffered more; one American friend lost three of her four sons to AIDS. Doctors told each of them to ‘go home and prepare for death’. She continued working at the hospital where they died. That story requires a whole other drama.
I don’t envy Mr Davies’ dilemma; it’s as much about what to leave out as what to put in. One of the protest slogans of the times was ‘Complacency = Death’. The takeaway for the audience of ‘It’s A Sin’ is that it has a parallel with Covid, but the analogy is false. Nobody blames Covid patients for getting sick. Nobody wishes them dead.
The decision here to give the leading role to Olly Alexander’s unrepentant hedonist plays into the hands of those who’ll say, ‘You were promiscuous, so you have yourself to blame.’ In reality the quiet, lonely, closeted ones suffered far more, but then there would be no upbeat musical montages (a favourite of Davies). There are too many communal celebrations of life in ‘It’s A Sin’ to make the era feel real. Perhaps that’s the point; reality is the one thing we can’t handle right now.