‘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.

19 comments on “‘It’s A Sin’: Dying Of Loneliness”

  1. Paul C says:

    Really like Simon Garfield’s (dated now) book The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS (1994) which is still worth reading. His best book is a history of maps : On the Map. An odd and fascinating book is Mauve about a forgotten Victorian scientist. Garfield is a wonderful writer.

  2. David Ronaldson says:

    I love anything Russel T Davies has written. As a straight man at college in North London at the time, the impact of AIDS was relatively minimal, but the slow creep of strangers getting sick, then friends of friends getting sick, then friends getting sick, then all of the above dispersing around the country to die was shocking. Smalltown Boy in reverse. The sick guys were often badly treated by intolerant local communities and even refused entry to shops. I hope It’s A Sin opens the eyes of younger generations.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    I am so sorry, Chris, to hear about your awful experiences. As a gay man myself, I can obviously emphasise with you. However, I would like to balance things with a brief mention of my own experiences.

    At the time, I was working in the accounts dept of a West End cinema. I, and my gay colleagues, met with not one instance of abuse. To be honest, there were a lot of gay men, and one gay woman working for the team so that helped. But the remainder who weren’t gay were very pro gay. Indeed, my immediate very hetero boss was what I can best describe as a straight male “fag hag” What did happen, however, was the hetero House Manger that we had was sacked on the spot when it came to light he was sexually harassing the female usherettes.

    My separated parents and also my family were fantastic, and I include my somewhat homophobic and straight-laced Dad. My hetero friends were brilliant, and my friends and colleagues in the amdram society I belonged to in South London were just fantastic. Brilliantly so. And some of them were rather Conservative. Indeed, my left-leaning mate used to jokingly call them an off-shoot of the Catford Conservative Club.

    I have been sitting here trying to thing of bad things that happened, but I just can’t think of anything. All of my gay friends never had any nasty abuse happening to them either. The people we knew were just so supportive. The only nastiness around was from the gutter press that Chris mentioned above, but this was cancelled out by the horror expressed at these articles by the people we knew.

    The only very unhappy experience I had was a few years later when my lodger died of the illness. He was so young, and his mum was beside herself. Looking back, I cannot get over how virtually no one I knew died of the illness.

    I have become very misanthropic in my dotage, and if I could point the finger I would happily do so. But sadly for Chris, his experiences were just so different from my own.

  4. SteveB says:

    As a straight white guy I sailed through the 80s to be honest
    RTD is always even at worst entertaining and at best very thoughtful
    A lot of this show was pretty much new to me despite being the same age as Admin and Ive appreciated it. I think also since Admin is a professional writer he can see the craft behind – maybe that can spoil things a bit???

  5. Liz Thompson says:

    I remember the 80s vividly. My gay brother was living in London, working in theatre admin. The theatre world was friendly, accepting, and generous. But beyond the theatre, my brother got mugged three times. His partner had lost his job as a teacher because he was gay. They lost close friends to AIDS, I made a memorial cushion for my brother and his partner after two particularly good friends died. As a quilter, I followed the AIDS Quilt project with enthusiasm. My brother was lucky, our parents accepted both him and his partner. My kids called them both Uncle. They didn’t get infected with HIV. But I can’t forget those who did, died alone, rejected by family. And LGBTQ people are still suffering now, which is why I support them all I can, on Twitter, Facebook, as a community volunteer.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    Oh Dear Liz-I wish there were more people like you xxxx

  7. brooke says:

    I too recall the 80’s, tinged with sadness as colleagues and friends struggled with HIV and discrimination. In graduate school, fellow students who were nurses would do long weekend duty to care for HIV patients. We were so naive, though well meaning. We were surprised when a popular faculty member died; we though he just had the flu. By the mid-nineties, all gay male friends were HIV positive and another round of care giving began. And funerals/memorial services.

    My issue with woke dramas and indeed the woke generation is the flattening of real experiences, especially decisive conflicts, into the pleasantly visual. It prevents thought and learning.

  8. Bonnie Ferguson says:

    My experience of the AIDS epidemic is personal, I live in Northern CA born in San Francisco, my cousin died of AIDS. While my family supported his mother and siblings at the same time privately expressing bigoted opinions. Had my aunt had not permitted his partner to be with him and share the family’s grief, partner had no way to change that. A close college friend simply disappeared. His family contacted me to help find him and we never did. News coverage was not balanced but gradually became more equitable. The book by Randy Shilts And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic is still shattering to read. No national leadership so SF, NYC and other large cities banded together politically, medically, legally to support victims and survivors.

  9. Roger says:

    I’m helping to sort out the archive of a gay writer and one of the interesting – and frightening – parts is letters from an American friend about the new disease, beginning with claims that it’s nothing like as bad as people say, then that it can be dealt with by a healthy lifestyle and eating organic food and finally panic. I don’t know if he died of AIDS or was simply frightened of the prospect and the archive is in a godawful mess so the absence of later letters might just be because they’d lost touch or the mice got them, but it’s a chilling account.

  10. admin says:

    When I lived in LA my best friend Kim became sick and confided that he was in two minds about taking the pernicious drug AZT. He was persuaded by a holistic wellness guru and his group to tackle his symptoms with a diet of woo-woo herbs.
    As he seemed well for a while they dragged him around the state, putting him on stage as an example of someone ‘cured’ by positive thinking and health supplements (which of course they were selling). He died while he was on the road with them.

  11. Joel says:

    I’m ‘straight’ (a term I try not to use as it implies that others are ‘bent’, which in my East End of London slang meant then and might still do, anyone who isn’t ‘normal’ without realising that everyone is ‘normal’, even the real @r$e#0les) and grew up in working class London where mostly no-one gave a smelly brown one about ‘different’ people, as we all had lives to lead, bills to pay and trying to find something better.

    I left my boys’ school, which had its fair share of closet gay folk, and went (by accident) into the airlines, where we worked with and for every race, every creed, every colour, every faith, every whatever. You couldn’t be prejudiced, there wasn’t time, the next check-in was in the queue, the next plane was readying to go, the people you worked with were there because they could do the jobs.

    Gradually it dawned on me (I’m not the quickest) that those different people were (a) all over the shop, and (b) no better or worse than anyone else. That may sound patronising but no other way to say it without sitting with a Thesaurus for an hour. What has changed over the years is the open-ness of being different, the acceptance of it, and the welcoming of people into a diverse Society. Not everyone has reached that level of tolerance but they will, sooner or (sadly) later. We need peoples’ skills, knowledge, experience, tolerance, not the bigotries peddled by a diminishing few, or at least until Brexit and Trump [and the Blond Buffoon] became headline-makers.

    This is the only planet we have – and we do not have the right to wreck any other planet – so we have to make the best of it. Bigotry is too slowly diminishing but one day it will have to crawl back under the slab it slid out from. It’s a dream but I might see it come true in my lifetime, in part if not in the whole.

    We do not give up, we believe in an inclusive future, and even just one step at a time we can make it happen.

  12. Peter T says:

    Joel I think you may live a few centuries before bigotry and prejudice disappear. At some point, they must have been evolutionarily advantageous. Even after a mile in the other fellow’s moccasins, too many, young and old, still don’t understand.

  13. mike says:

    I was in the Merchant Navy at 16 and surrounded by gays. At that age I just accepted them for who they were and grew up with same attitude. I don’t have a problem with anyone, any colour any orientation. We’re all people

  14. Peter says:

    I am a HIV+ man and an AIDS survivor. I count myself lucky, when I was diagnosed with AIDS (and already in the intensive care) there were already good medications to bring down the viral load. But it took a long time to get back where I am now, there is no short cut to a good health, it takes a very long time and patience. And I was lucky that the HIV-care and health care of seropositive men, women and children in The Netherlands is in my opinion the best in the world (and I looked around in other countries). I am completely out about my HIV and am now an activist in the fight against the stigma that a lot of people still feel and/or experience in their work, social contacts, love/sex life and family. HIV also brought me a lot of new insights and people all over the world whom I would never have met. I am grateful.

  15. Wayne Mook says:

    I remember the 80’s, the intolerance then compared to now was worse. Someone shot Ronald Reagan, politics here was madness, at the end of the 70’s Airey Neave’s murder was partially an inside job, the INLA were ‘helped’, and the conspiracies around that are scary for democracy in the UK. The divisions across society in general were bitter in places. Race riots, miner’s strike, football hooligans, Northern Ireland, Cold War and the list just goes on.

    I remember the AIDs, don’t die of ignorance, a pure scare tactic which cut down all STDs. Some of the vitriol aimed at suffers was terrible, and then there was the scandal with blood products for hemophiliacs. Oddly enough the thing that has had the biggest visible lasting effect is in sport and blood injuries. Terry Butcher with a head injury playing at the end of the 80s for England, they bandaged him up but he carried on playing, by the end his white England shirt was red, he was leaking so much claret he could have opened an off license. At the time people were thinking captain courageous, now looking back how did people think it was OK. He should have gone to hospital for stitches and a brain scan.

    I was a care assistant in 1991/2 and I remember going through AIDs awareness training, I new most of it but it was surprising how many of my colleagues didn’t know anything. Every now and again it surprises me how insular people are and not just lacking in knowledge but so unwilling to learn.


  16. Helen Martin says:

    I gave this post to a friend who said he had to erase half of his address book during the 80s. I doubt he did that, probably put it away and started a new one when the sight of some names became too painful. Anyway, I’m waiting for his response since I was living in a fantasy world at that point.

  17. Porl says:

    Best scene of all was the other mother with her one scene “How could you not know…….?” – outstanding!!
    The social media response to Its a Sin from the next couple of generations down is all a bit “I cant believe that happened / I cant believe people were treated like that back then” without acknowledging that a lot of stigma and ignorance still exists out there, and I still maintain that the show missed a bit of a moral and social obligation to re-educate – a tag scene at the end with Jill working as an educator / health worker dispelling myths and educating on the current Undetectable = Untransmittable message might have been a godsend (that throwing the cup in the bin moment doesn’t get revised does it?) , and have been the updated re-educating National Campaign needed for people who’s knowledge and learning is still attached to that John Hurt Tombstone advert….
    I’m also not big on how RTD always pushes the gay sex scenes just a tadge over from whats actually needed into sensationalism and tittilation…..If they were lines, I’m sure they’d be cut in a redraft to tighten things up, but lets piss Sun and Mail readers off a bit shall we?

  18. Ian Luck says:

    As I’ve said before, it was drummed into me from an early age, to treat EVERY person I encountered in life, the same – no matter what colour, creed, race , or age they might be. That also applied, later, of course, to sexual orientation; there was a flamboyantly gay bloke called Andy at school, and everybody loved him. He was clever, and funny, and never had any trouble from other pupils. However this was in the late 1970’s, and had it been later, in the first emergence of AIDS, I suspect his time at school would have been a lot less pleasant. It was fine to dislike someone if they were bad, unpleasant, or dangerous – but to dislike someone who was simply different in some way, from me, was completely, and utterly unacceptable. And this was told to me, by my dad, in the early 1970’s. He loved people, whoever they might be. And got on with them, too. He’d often start up a conversation with random people when we went on days out, or holidays. I remember him having a long chat with a tramp on Weymouth seafront, once. People were simply people, to dad – what they were, their circumstances, where they came from, mattered not one jot to him. Tolerance seems to be going backwards, nowadays, sadly.

  19. Auntie Jellyfish says:

    I think you are right to limit the parallels being drawn – the blame around contracting SARS-Cov2 seems to be more ahead of it happening rather than “It was your own fault”

    But I do think there are groups of people dying that too many people, including decision makers, do not see as much of a loss and who had it (as in early death) coming anyway. It’s more casual hate though for sure.

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