Warning: major spoilers for It’s A Sin!
By chronicling the lives of five flatmates in 1980s London, It’s A Sin provides an incredibly powerful (yet deeply heartbreaking) insight into the little-known history of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the UK, which took place against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s hateful and homophobic policies. The series was written and created by Russell T. Davies – the same screenwriter and producer behind the iconic show Queer as Folk, which followed the lives of three gay men living in a gay village in Manchester and was also produced for Channel4.
This series is a tale of chosen family – an experience that is quintessentially queer. Given that homophobia continues to isolate people across the world, many queer people form distinctly close friendships, familial ties, and kinships with people to whom they are not biologically related, but by whom they are loved and accepted regardless. In a well-loved London flat, which is affectionately named The Pink Palace, Jill Baxter (played by Lydia West), Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander), Roscoe Babatunde (Omari Douglas), Colin Morris-Jones (Callum Scott Howells), and Ash Mukherjee (Nathaniel Curtis) forge their own chosen family in 1981 – just a few short years before the HIV/AIDS crisis would have a devastating impact on queer communities this side of the Atlantic.
Over five episodes we watch as the lives of the Pink Palace family are shattered by the shame-inducing stigma of being gay, which is worsened by the epidemic, rampant ignorance, lack of information, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and, above all else, fear. Together these factors formed a violently homophobic social context that allowed for the disgusting mistreatment of so many LGBTQ+ people. There are so many scenes in which I could practically feel my heart breaking as I watched the events unfold on-screen, such as those involving Gregory (played by David Carlyle), a close friend of the Pink Palace family. After Gregory – who Jill lovingly calls Gloria – becomes ill with AIDS Jill begins to care for him in secret at his request, anticipating the shame and isolation that comes with a public AIDS diagnosis. In one scene Jill and Gregory try to figure out what the symptoms of the disease are but both are unsure of the actual facts, even though Gregory is already ill. At the end of Episode 2, after Gregory passes away in his hometown of Glasgow, his family reacts by burning every single one of his belongings. In their back garden, in broad daylight, his father and sister watch as his clothes, his furniture, and even his baby pictures turn to ash – a brutal indication of the fact that they were ashamed of how he lived and how he died.
Later, in Episode 3 (set in 1986) as quiet Welshman Colin battles AIDS himself, he is detained in a hospital – ‘justified’ by the provisions of the Public Health Act of 1984, under which he is labelled a “public menace.” Colin, who experiences rare neurological symptoms such as forgetfulness and poor impulse control, tragically passes away. Afterward, his mother struggles to arrange a funeral for him as funeral homes refuse to handle his ‘diseased’ body, which must be cremated, for fear of contamination. Her determination to do right by her son is both beautiful and agonising to watch. Mrs. Morris-Jones is the only parent of the four Pink Palace men who accepts their child’s sexuality and advocates on their behalf. In the first episode we watched Roscoe escape his conservative Nigerian parents who orchestrated his return to Nigeria in order to have his sexuality (which they call sodomy) ‘cured’ – an example that the experiences of queer people of colour would have been very different to those of their white counterparts.
The loss of Colin, who everyone assumed was a virgin, leaves the family devastated and reeling. Throughout the show the contemporary notion that only ‘sluts’ were diagnosed with AIDS is referred to, but this is proved wrong with Colin’s passing. In both life and death LGBTQ+ people were afforded no love, kindness, or respect as AIDS quickly became known as ‘the gay cancer.’ In fact, AIDS (which stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) was initially called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) until mid-1982. In the early stages of this public health crisis it was assumed that only gay men were affected – meaning it was their burden to bear and theirs alone.
As distressing as It’s A Sin is to watch at times, its portrayal of 1980s queer London culture is fascinating to watch. Although the shadow of the epidemic looms on the horizon, there are some wickedly risqué and uninhibited sex scenes that are so important and you just have to appreciate, especially given the context of casual hookup culture and a hectic nightlife on darkened dancefloors. Sex scenes in the show are often intense and sometimes hilarious (like Ritchie’s first encounter with Ash, in which he awkwardly tries to figure out the right term for Ash’s Indian heritage) in a way that feels both genuine and entertaining.
Ritchie, an aspiring Hollywood actor, is a real character of interest across all five episodes. Once the crisis really begins to take hold during the 80s, he and best friend Jill become increasingly polarised in their ideologies and approaches to the epidemic. Jill (who is based on real-life ally Jill Nalder, who actually plays her mother on-screen) is an extremely important ally and friend to gay men during this period, and she soon becomes aligned with a group that wants to spread information, fundraise, and offer support to those affected. Ritchie, on the other hand, does not want to take the illness as seriously at first, given the illogically homophobic overtones with which information was spread during that time. Ritchie even jokes that AIDS must only affect bisexual men part-time since it is ‘the gay cancer.’ His initial resistance gives a nauseating sense of foreboding as the plot progresses.
Ritchie soon becomes obsessed with preventing himself from contracting HIV (and then AIDS) – a whiplash reversal from his earlier stance. He goes to disturbing extremes, including drinking his own urine, but in Episode 4 in 1988 he is diagnosed with AIDS. After spending months refusing to tell his parents, as this would mean coming out as gay to them, his headstrong and homophobic mother Valerie (played by Keeley Hawes) brings him home to the Isle of Wight to care for him herself, refusing to let Jill and Roscoe see him. As days turn into weeks Valerie finally agrees to meet with Jill. As Jill asks after Ritchie, Valerie bluntly responds that “he died yesterday.” The sudden realisation that Ritchie died without his closest friends by his side is absolutely soul-crushing. As Jill tells her in an impassioned, thought-provoking, and deeply depressing speech: the ignorance like that of Valerie facilitated and permitted the preventable deaths of young boys and men just like Ritchie across the country, as they were forced to hide and live in shame.
It’s A Sin offers a beautifully powerful and transformative viewing experience. Given that discourse around the HIV/AIDS epidemic has largely centred American experiences, such an incredibly raw, honest, and inclusive portrayal of that experience in the UK is necessary – as agonising as it is to watch. There is so much more I could say about this series, like the reference to Phillip Schofield’s sexuality or Ash’s hilarious and venomous attack of Section 28 or its exploration of internalised homophobia through characters like Stephen Fry’s closeted MP Arthur Garrison.
It’s A Sin is impactful, intimate, educational, heartbreaking, raunchy, and hilarious. All five main characters are unbelievably well-developed; they are relatable, they are comical, they are unique, and they feel so richly authentic. This series will leave you grief-stricken and mourning for both the characters and the real people whose lives were lost due to ignorance and fear more than anything else. It’s A Sin is the kind of series that will haunt you for days, maybe even weeks, after you’ve watched it. To fully understand both the major themes and subtle references that make this show the masterpiece it is it must be watched.
It’s A Sin is available to stream on All 4. It will premiere in the U.S. on HBO Max on 18 February.