I cried. No, howled. The ending of Channel 4’s hit new series, It’s a Sin, set during the AIDS crisis, is a sucker punch. And the tears flow when you least expect. In these Covid times, a period we all hope will one day be confined to history, the parallels of a deadly virus snatching vulnerable groups hits close to home.
The beautifully written story about love and friendship, from Queer as Folk writer Russell T Davies, follows a group of young gay men as they each flee their homophobic homes and move into a ramshackle London flat dubbed ‘the pink palace’. They become each other’s chosen family and enjoy the thrills and spills of the burgeoning gay nightclub scene during the early 1980s, beneath the backdrop of the emerging AIDS epidemic.
Protagonist Ritchie (Olly Alexander – Years & Years) is an infectiously bubbly budding actor. Shy Welsh boy Colin (Callum Scott Howells) works as a Savile Row tailor’s assistant, yet to fully explore his sexuality. His mentor is colleague Henry (Neil Patrick Harris – How I Met Your Mother), who has been in a same-sex relationship for decades. Roscoe (Omari Douglas) is our queer hero, who, after strutting out of his childhood living room in heels and a crop top after his family’s failed homosexual exorcism and threat to ship him back to Nigeria, finds himself as an escort for a Thatcher-loving M.P, played by the brilliant Stephen Fry. Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) completes the male quartet, introduced when Ritchie lusts after him at University, only to become his occasional lover.
The group’s matriarch is Jill (Lydia West) – a character inspired by Davies’ own best friend. She’s first to note disturbing headlines of a mystery virus killing people Stateside. Despite initial ignorance about catching it – she discards a mug used by one of their infected mates, cleans incessantly with rubber gloves and aggressively scrubs her skin in the shower – she later arms herself with information to educate others. She is truly an angel. Nursing the sick, medicating, feeding, bringing groceries, keeping schtum.
The boys are in denial. Especially Ritchie. He views the virus as a conspiracy suppressing their fun. Mmm, sounds familiar. And they do have fun. Dancing and drinking, laughing, loving, and sleeping their way through the decade. Foregoing condoms for trust. It’s Henry’s turn first. Locked alone in a hospital ward, grim reality sets in for visitor Colin. And he’s not far behind. After suffering a seizure, doctors think it’s epilepsy only for his mental capacity to dwindle to dementia, to his friends’ shock. His mother is supportive. Yet she’s at the vile receiving end of bigotry when boxed faeces is dropped through her letterbox.
Ritchie can’t come out to his parents. He tries with Jill’s help, instead simply saying he’s swapping law for drama. It’s ironic when Michael Barrymore comes on TV his Mum says, “ooh I like him”. The prejudice doesn’t stop at home. During a mortgage application Ritchie is forced to answer whether he has had sex with men or animals. The foursome eventually gets tested, but Ritchie can’t face the results. Pet Shop Boys track, It’s a Sin, highlights the intolerance. “When I look back upon my life, it’s always with a sense of shame, I’ve always been the one to blame” Neil Tennant croons.
Princess Diana disagreed. Famously encouraging people to hug AIDs sufferers she said, “heaven knows they need it”. Jill is their Diana. Combing hospital corridors passing isolated patient after isolated patient, she visits in their darkest hour. In a moving moment she clasps the hand of one. “Is this ok?” she asks. “Yes” he says smiling.
It’s a Sin is streaming now on All4.
Years & Years cover of It’s a Sin is out now.