Queer As: It’s a Sin’s portrayal of life, love and AIDS in the 80s

Queer As It's a Sin's portrayal of life, love and AIDS in the 80s

By Emma Doyle

Anyone who has had access to a television in the UK has no doubt experienced a brief encounter with Russel T. Davies’ latest creation It’s a Sin – a poignant, joy-laced portrait of friendship in mid-AIDS epidemic Britain.

Since its first airing on the 22nd January, It’s a Sin has catapulted Channel 4 to record-breaking levels of success not seen since 2006, with six and a half million live viewers across all five episodes.

Lucy Mangan of The Guardian named it as a “companion masterpiece” to Davies’ critically acclaimed Queer As Folk, with Graham Norton proclaiming it “the best five hours of television I’ve seen in years”. High praise, and expectedly so from one of the best-known names in British entertainment

In retrospect of February being LGBTQ+ History Month, It’s a Sin has played a vital role in introducing and reminding many of us of the heart-breaking legacy of the AIDS crisis, as well as the shadow it continues to cast over the collective queer experience. However, what Davies does with aplomb is capture the tangible humanity of his characters, without misplacing any of the sincerity which makes them so accessible.

The Plot

The plot follows a patchwork group of friends over the 1980s as they navigate life in London and the tumultuous course of their twenties; an extended celebration of personal victories and the elation of open queerness.

Ritchie (Oli Alexander of Years And Years), Roscoe (Omari Douglas) and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) are the three young gay men placed under the magnifying lens for examination, and we shadow them as their (highly contrasting) paths collide.

Both Roscoe and Ritchie, in their respective pursuits for freedom, escape their stifling home situations, which are pro-heteronormative as well as extremely homophobic. Hailing from the Isle of Wight, Richie leaves his predictably comfortable nuclear unit behind for the bright lights and wild hedonism of London. Roscoe has a similar tale. Raised in the capital’s suburbs by a stubbornly pious family who vow to pray the gay out of him, even if it involves returning to Nigeria, he escapes in undeniable style.

By contrast, Colin’s arrival to the scene is much quieter. Whilst diligently making routine phone calls to his mother in the Welsh Valleys, he inconspicuously finds his feet within the queer community by befriending Henry, his superior at the high-end tailor whom he undertakes an apprenticeship with, played with incredible sensitivity by Neil Patrick Harris.

The Impact

From the start, the series is entrenched with the new hope that comes with forming a life in a new location – this deeply melancholic undertone foreshadows the stranglehold of AIDS as it’s about to manifest.

Henry, and his partner of thirty years, Pablo, simultaneously fall ill with what one doctor suggests is Psittacosis, typically only contracted through contact with exotic birds.

“You haven’t got a parrot though, have you?” Colin broaches.
“Of course I haven’t got a fucking parrot” Henry retorts.

From this point, what we have been anticipating, though in no way wishing for, begins to unfold. Many key characters who we connect to as a united audience begin, one by one, to contract HIV and succumb to the AIDS virus.

Often enough, this is not portrayed through any loud or dramatic display, but rather a quiet disappearance from the circus of queer London existence. Ritchie’s long-suffering acting agent, Carol Carter, played with beautiful sensitivity by Tracy-Ann Oberman, provides him with some evocative and sobering advice:

“There are lots of boys who are going home nowadays. Don’t be one of the boys who goes home”.

In direct comparison to Queer As Folk, which seems to only scratch the surface of the continuing legacy of the epidemic into the early 2000s, It’s a Sin delivers us portrayals of the multitudinous symptoms of AIDS, in particular ones that aren’t often brought to light.

The most shocking of these were undoubtably Colin’s swift decline and passing resulting from an accelerated form of dementia and epilepsy from the virus, and Richie’s drawn-out battle with cancer. No likeable character – and there are many – is spared from a brush with the illness which killed so many. The only crime they were guilty of was being confident enough to explore a varied sexuality that was considerably ahead of its time.

Davies’ has used his invaluable first-hand experience to compound how a disproportionate number of people from a generation effectively became extinct, and what the world lacks from being unable to listen to their stories today.

The Limitation

As a queer-identifying woman, it would be dishonest of me to say that I wasn’t somewhat disheartened by the lack of representation of people like me. Although the HIV virus has overwhelmingly affected gay men since its first identified cases, the role of others on the LGBTQ+ spectrum and the collateral fallout which they took the brunt of when providing both emotional and medical support, is something which has once again been overlooked.

There are only so many instances in which those identifying on the wider spectrum can go without their existence receiving recognition from prominent figures of the queer community, who would not be in the fortunate position they are today without this demographic of peers.

Despite a nod to the contemporary scene with the inclusion of Stephen Fry as fictitious Tory MP Arthur Garrison, who preys on Roscoe to fulfil his physical urges (and who harbours a disturbing crush on Margaret Thatcher), this is another narrow representation of the Caucasian male experience.

It would have been interesting to see more LGBTQ+ representation, for example,through including someone like Princess Julia, crowned the “first lady of London’s fashion scene”. She rose to prominence in 1981, the year It’s a Sin commences, with her ties to the Blitz Kid movement alongside Boy George, and her renowned appearance in the music video for Visage’s hit single ‘Fade To Grey’.

With her real-life story running parallel to the show’s elapse, Princess Julia’s story would not only have been and insightful one to include, but a relevant and punchy portrayal of the female experience of LGBTQ+ culture in 1980s London.

The Legacy

Despite Davies’ angle coming from a largely white, male standpoint, It’s a Sin offers a perspective on life during the AIDS crisis that hasn’t been given the opportunity to be seen until now. The loveable nature of its characters generates an empathy among viewers which no doubt will pave the way for further stories from a larger cross-section of the LGBTQ+ community to be told in a prime-time setting. Not only is Davies’ approach candid, but the spark and effervescence injected into the starring performances are a rare occurrence in current cinema, let alone prime time TV.

Its primary goal is also far from making an attempt at simulating perfection. Through Davies’ lens, we are urged to see the unfiltered beauty within the pitfalls of being human – gay, straight, queer or otherwise. LGBTQ+ History Month may now be over, but our kindness to others regardless of sexual or gender orientation is paramount. It is up to us to be the support each other’s needs, now more than ever.

It’s a Sin is available to view on demand with 4OD now.