Chosen families, Thatcherism and the Pet Shop Boys: It’s a Sin Review

L-R: David Carlyle, Callum Scott Howells, Olly Alexander, Lydia West and Nathaniel Curtis in It’s a Sin (credit: Channel 4)

There is a scene in the first few minutes of It’s a Sin, Russell T. Davies’ latest epic drama about the 1980s gay community in London, which sums up the essence of the show. Teenage Roscoe, tired of being ostracised from his homophobic family, defiantly storms out of the house, befit in a crop top, miniskirt and head-wrap. Pacing across the street in the pouring rain, umbrella in hand, the cries of his father in the background are drowned out by the sound of Kelly Marie’s 1981 disco classic, ‘It Feels Like I’m in Love’. The scene is poignant, delightfully camp, but also feels slightly on-the-nose. Whilst the complex, culturally specific (Roscoe’s family are Nigerian and deeply religious) nature of Roscoe’s background are explored more in later episodes, this opening gambit is wilfully provocative. It is this lack of subtlety that makes It’s a Sin great fun — and also makes it occasionally stumble.

Davies, a gay man himself, has been depicting British queerness on screen for over two decades. His breakthrough work, 1999’s Queer as Folk, was highly controversial for its groundbreaking (at the time) depiction of gay sex and an uncomfortable relationship between an underage boy and older man. 2015’s Cucumber centred on an older gay man struggling to grapple with shame and self-hatred, even though he was out and in a long-term relationship with his boyfriend. Even Doctor Who, the 2005 revival of which Davies spearheaded, has been reclaimed as a queer classic for its depiction of gloriously camp villains (Cassandra, anyone?) and openly gay characters. Whilst the spectre of AIDS hangs around his more gay-centric work, It’s a Sin is Davies’ first work specifically dealing with the epidemic that ravaged the gay community in the 80s and 90s. It is clearly a topic close to Davies’ heart, as he has stated that the show is a tribute to those that he himself loved and lost during this period.

Provocative and boundary-pushing… L-R: Charlie Hunnam, Aidan Gillen and Craig Kelly in Queer as Folk (credit: Channel 4)

Historian Matt Cook talks about ‘Archives of Feeling’ — the emotional complexities that underpin historical moments, especially the AIDS crisis. This emotional intensity, no doubt fuelled by Davies’ own nostalgia and memory of the era, runs through the heart of It’s a Sin, which depicts five friends living and loving in 1980s London. The drama of these characters is set against a glitzy, neon backdrop of nightclubs, raucous house parties in the Pink Palace, and a slightly-too-obvious soundtrack (I beg anyone formatting music for an 80s period piece to find a Blondie song that isn’t Call Me, thanks). However, it is their relationship with each other, and the subtle tenderness of it, that really makes this show a distinctly queer triumph. This is probably the best on-screen depiction of a ‘chosen family’ I have ever seen.

The chemistry of the excellent cast is what makes this dynamic, and the show itself, work. Olly Alexander stars as Ritchie, the de facto protagonist, balancing his closeted home life in small-town Isle of Man with his cosmopolitan, outrageous and popular London persona. The times when these two lives intersect are some of the show’s best moments. His mother and father (played by UK small-screen legends Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley, no less) playfully tease him about his relationship with his best friend Jill, despite them repeatedly stating that they are just friends — an awkward sensation many once-closeted LGBT+ people will be familiar with. Jill, played by Lydia West, is the beating heart of the show, the ultimate ally as she tries to warn her friends of the impending threat, much to their annoyance — and tragic ignorance. Nathaniel Curtis and Callum Scott Howells also deliver star turns as the caring Ash and shy, timid Colin. Tellingly, small appearances from gay superstars Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry do not detract from the power of the show’s central quintet. However, the show’s true breakout is Omari Douglas, who plays Roscoe. Douglas steals every scene he is in, a perfect balance of glamour, charm, and emotional dexterity. Standout scenes involve him holding his own against Fry, and the depiction of Roscoe’s close relationship with his sister, his only link to his estranged family.

A revelation… Omari Douglas as Roscoe (credit: Channel 4)

Its exploration of the AIDS crisis avoids some of the more treacly and sentimental depictions of this era, as it is unafraid to show the creeping terror and personal disunity caused by the disease. In later episodes, clear divides between the characters begin to show, with Jill and Ash becoming more involved in community work, supporting those living with HIV and AIDS and engaging in activism to improve research and education around the disease. Meanwhile, Roscoe tries to transcend his status by acting as a secret toyboy for closeted MP Arthur Garrison, and Ritchie votes for Thatcher and refuses to take part in protests due to fear of losing opportunities as an actor. During these tense scenes, the show depicts an often forgotten effect of AIDS: the internal division that the the crisis wreaked upon the gay community.

Of course, death and secrecy pervade the show. In the first episode, Harris’ Henry Coltrane, a debonair tailor living happily with his partner, Juan Pablo, falls ill with a mystery illness. The illness, which we know to be HIV, is said to be akin to pneumonia or psittacosis. Colin, his colleague and mentee, tracks him down to an empty hospital ward where he is alone, with no visitors, left to die. This is just one of the many injustices the show lays bare. This inhumanity is later tackled when another character (no spoilers here) contracts the virus and is kept in the same isolated conditions, essentially kept as a prisoner in a hospital ward. His friends and family rally to free him, eventually hiring a lawyer and getting him transferred to a specialist, and much more humane, hospital. Whilst the systemic brutality faced by these men is horrifying and at times unbearable to watch, it also showcases the power of both community and familial acceptance. Colin’s mother’s unconditional love of her son and acceptance of his sexuality contrasts with the religiously-motivated homophobia of Roscoe’s family, and the domestic frigidity of Richie’s mother and father. This diversity of experience adds shades of complexity to the tragedies faced by these characters.

The show does have some issues. For instance, the aforementioned lack of subtlety can sometimes jar. In some instances, the show’s emotional heft and agility can be undercut by scenes and writing that seem designed to stir the audience, in a way which sacrifices plot and character development. An instance of this is when, during a blistering, uncomfortable protest scene, Ritchie comes out of nowhere to jump on a police officer’s back and save Jill from violence. While this scene is triumphant and feel-good, it doesn’t make much sense in terms of plot, and feels a bit disjointed. Alternatively, it is the quieter moments that really serve the show well. An early scene showing closeted Colin phoning his mother, lying about pub trips and non-existent friends in London, as he sat alone in his room, felt both moving and genuinely relatable. A standout moment is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance from Ruth Sheen as Sandra, a mother visiting her dying son in hospital. Sandra confronts Valerie, Ritchie’s mother, about her denial of Ritchie’s sexuality, deliberately provoking her to confront her emotional neglect of her son. Sheen’s reserved, deadpan performance is in stark contrast to Hawes, whose performance sometimes verges into pantomime villain territory in the last episode. It is these small moments which are often more revealing than the bombast of other scenes.

If it occasionally feels as if the show is over-explanatory, this is a tendency that often befalls many queer shows. Jack King, writing in i-D, articulates the tendency for queer and LGBT-centric art to take on the role of educational material, due to the lack of knowledge that the wider public has about the LGBT community. While It’s a Sin doesn’t suffer as much as its predecessor, Cucumber, in this regard, it still sometimes feels overly educational, and does not always follow the school of ‘show, don’t tell’ storytelling. However, it is unfair to blame Davies for the systemic issue of our dismal sex education system, a relic of Thatcher’s homophobic Section 28 policy (an issue depicted in the show, when teacher Ash is asked to remove anything from his school library which might depict gay themes).

Image from a 1988 protest in London against Section 28 (Credit: Rick Colls/Rex/Shutterstock)

Overall though, it is hard not to be won over by It’s a Sin. Davies pumps enough vitality and love into this show for it to escape feeling overly didactic or emotionally exploitative. The Show isn’t perfect, but it’s a long-overdue opus from Davies which depicts a grim chapter of queer history with a vibrancy and pathos few writers could manage. Much has been made, somewhat ahistorically, of the parallels between the AIDS epidemic and our current pandemic moment. This show is inherently political, and it is clear that the lives of these characters are affected, and indeed sometimes destroyed, due to the indifference and inaction of Thatcher’s government. In this sense, the show should (but almost certainly will not) act as a warning to our current incompetent overlords. As Cook states:

‘To return to one moment of danger, to try to grasp its emotional complexity, might allow us to see more clearly the dangers which threaten us now and suggest something of our need for vigilance and our capacity to resist and respond’

Today, HIV is not a death sentence, due to properly-funded research into antiretroviral therapy. Recently, PrEP was finally made available on the NHS, and campaigns from the Terrence Higgins Trust have greatly increased HIV testing awareness and accessibility. If nothing else, let this show help us commemorate the generation of LGBT+ people whose stories we will never know, whose futures we will never see, and whose lives were needlessly lost due to hatred and fear. Long may we remember them.

It’s a Sin airs on Fridays at 9pm on Channel 4, and the whole series can be streamed for free on All 4.

Part of the AIDS Memorial Quilt 2019 Exhibition Trail in Manchester (credit: Home MCR)

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