Russell T Davies is speaking to me down Zoom from his home in Swansea, a short walk away from the grave of Thomas Bowdler, the doctor who famously ‘Bowdlerised’ books by removing references to sex and swearing. The significance of Bowdler’s final resting place - and how close it is - isn’t lost on the writer.
“Everything he took out - all the sex and swearing - I’m putting back in,” Russell tells me of new Channel 4 drama, It’s A Sin. “How weird, he’s buried over there! How bizarre…”
He’s right - It’s A Sin is an admirably honest, startlingly authentic and often shocking take on what life was like for gay men in the 1980s during the AIDS pandemic.
The five-part drama, set between 1981 and 1991, celebrates the lives of a set of young gay men who move to London.
As well as being good fun, It’s A Sin also pulls no punches and is a sobering education for viewers who weren’t alive at the time. I’d wager that even those who thought they had a good understanding of the period’s horrors are likely to learn something new.
Characters are inspired by Russell’s friends from the period. One of his mates from the time, a lady called Jill, even stars as the mother of the Jill character in the series, played by Years and Years actor Lydia West: an endearing example of how closely the drama borrows from Russell’s real life.
Jill is a tireless ally to the men who succumb - or swerve - the disease, as it so brutally ripped through the capital.
But as well as being a fearless ode to the thousands of lives lost to AIDS, It’s A Sin is a joyous tribute to the fashions, styles, and the party scene of the era. Russell attributes this balancing act to his own ageing.
“I am kind of glad that I’m older, that I’m coming to it as an older man and I’ve had time to reflect,” he says. “Maybe it allowed the fury to be controlled a bit more.”Russell T Davies
“I am kind of glad that I’m older, that I’m coming to it as an older man and I’ve had time to reflect,” he says. “Maybe it allowed the fury to be controlled a bit more.”
It is estimated that 35 million people have died from AIDS - once branded ‘the gay plague’ - worldwide since the 1980s. Approaching the drama now allowed Russell “the perspective to say this isn’t purely about grief”.
“I could have written a very very sad piece about those we’ve lost, which could have been very good - I’m not denying that’s not a way to write something - but the perspective has allowed me to remember the life,” he says.
The soundtrack features the titular Pet Shop Boys track alongside a collection of joyous nostalgic hits from the era like Gloria by Laura Branigan, Heaven Is A Place On Earth by Belinda Carlisle and Smalltown Boy by Bronksi Beat, as well as more sobering bops, such as Who Wants To Live Forever by Queen.
Ritchie and his ensemble of pals, mostly played by newcomers, all have jobs, but they spend an equal amount of their waking hours having the times of their lives: dancing and snogging in gay bars. The socialising often carries back to their shared house, nicknamed The Pink Palace, where Ritchie proclaims in the first episode, “we’re going to have a party every night!”
“I’m older, so I feel a little bit free to let go a little bit, actually make this entertaining. So hopefully it’s gained something from that,” says Russell of the show’s lighter moments.
“A younger man might have said don’t put the Daleks in this, this is a serious subject,” he continues. Yes, the iconic Doctor Who robots do feature, in a nod to Russell’s time as a writer on the long running BBC sci-fi drama.
As the parties continue and the hook-ups tally up, rumours of the virus manifests in conversation. The storyline eerily mirrors the early stages of 2020 when news of Covid began circulating. The timing of the new pandemic lends the show a chilling new dimension, but that was never Russell’s intention, given filming took place before coronavirus had become known.
[Covid] isn’t a sexually transmitted virus. Nonetheless, we’ve got a prime minister blundering and bollocking his way through with extraordinary clumsiness.Russell T Davies
“[Covid] isn’t a sexually transmitted virus,” reflects Russell of today’s pandemic. “Nonetheless, we’ve got a prime minister blundering and bollocking his way through with extraordinary clumsiness.
“There should be no similarities. There are 10,000 similarities.”
Despite the rumours about AIDS, the partying continued, remembers Russell, who was 18 in 1981. As activists would march from bar to bar hanging warning posters in the years before the government’s grim tombstone imagery campaign in 1987, misinformation and hearsay meant the severity wasn’t properly communicated. It certainly didn’t extinguish the sense of the party.
“I didn’t want to give the impression that we’re all walking round with mountains of shame piled up on our shoulders, because that’s not what we did,” remembers Russell.
Instead, he recalls gay groups finding like-minded people.
“And that’s what these people do - these characters come together, like finds like, and they live in a flat and they create a gay space for themselves where they’re very happy,” he says.
Sex scenes illustrate how easily the virus could be transmitted, and conversely, how joyous and spontaneous moments of affection could be disrupted to prevent the spread of the virus.
Russell mentions the show’s very first sex scene, in which Ritchie leaves a partner midway through a intimate sex scene to go and have a wash. The scene was meant to display how easily viruses can spread during sex.
“Am I doing that to shock? No I’m not, because actually I’m kind of taking the drama down to a level of physicality, of hygiene: that’s how the virus is transmitted,” Russell explains.
“I absolutely needed to do that to be on that playing ground. That’s where we are - we’re talking about the transmission of fluids.”
The show paints a progressive, sex positive world, but a world where sometimes characters must fall into one of two categories: ‘clean’ or ‘dirty.’ These terms may not make immediate sense to young gay people today, but alluded to whether or not a someone was HIV+.
“Imagine people’s search history on the night after transmission,” jokes Russell of how intrigued new audiences may take to the internet to look up the show’s references while they watch.
The terms ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, says Russell, were partially to blame for the culture of fear and silence which pervaded much of the 1980s.
“[They] bring a whole cultural wave with them, and a whole level of shame as well, and that’s when it starts to get complicated, and when it gets complicated that’s when people start dying, because that’s when people shut up and stop talking about it,” he says.
When the illness takes hold for some of the characters, The Pink Palace becomes in many ways the replacement of the traditional family home set-up. As many LGBTQ people in the era were not out to loved ones at the time (many still are not), people who fell victim to the virus often turned to friends for support instead of going through the arduous process of coming out and potentially facing a hostile environment.
Of the show’s more challenging scenes, which revealed the physical and mental effects of the virus, Russell says: “I wanted to show the mercilessness of the virus.”
Due to the secrecy, lack of information, misinformation and shame surrounding AIDS, deaths were often quick to happen after diagnosis, and shocking for friends and family.
“I think everyone in this drama is denied their last words to their loved ones,” says Russell. “It’s just not how it works, it doesn’t end like that at all.”
When it came to the distressing scenes, Russell says: “It wasn’t how shocking I could get, it was how tough I could be with this, how tough I wanted to get. And it’s Channel 4, it’s not prime time BBC 1. It’s a tough channel: there to show material that challenges.”
Many of the harrowing symptoms and side effects of AIDS displayed will educate younger audiences on the day-to-day realities of the virus for sufferers. Everything from the terrible illnesses provoked by it, such as dementia, to the way families struggled to arrange funerals because funeral homes wouldn’t accept the bodies for fear of infection.
Unsure whether the virus would spread on surfaces, or through corpses, loved ones took whatever actions they could to protect themselves, often burning the belongings of a victim for fear of anything being contagious (the virus was later proven not to spread that way).
It’s at times uncontrollably sad, but what audiences may find most fulfilling is how It’s A Sin forges a new legacy for those that lost their lives, simply by representing them.
These men work a variety of jobs, exhibit a variety of passions, interests and temperaments, each with their own desires and dreams, each one likeable; each with their own flaws.
“Oh God, it’s hard to watch, I know,” Russell tells me when I say I wept my way through each episode.
But he reassures me: “None of us, including people who worked on those wards, including families who suffered those losses, we do not remember it as a funeral parade - we remember the fun that we had.”
He continues: “When I think of my friends who died I don’t think of them in their final moments on their deathbed - I do, I do think of that, I can picture that - but I also remember them at their funniest, when they were putting on shows in the West End or turning up to my mate Jill’s 30th birthday party.
“All those laughs, all those good times.”
It’s A Sin debuts Friday 22 January at 9pm on Channel 4, when it is also released in its entirety on All4.