It’s a Sin is genuinely powerful and unflinching; a drama in the true sense of the word, with that delicious sweetness and vulnerability at its heart that’s a Russell T Davies hallmark. There’s glittering ambition, buzzy energy, naive innocence, and fates entwined. A group of friends, really a little self-made family, are pulled together by fate, proximity, poverty and circumstances. Big characters sweep up the quieter ones in their wake; waifs and strays who form an unbreakable life-long bond, and we take that plunge with them, ready for the ride of their lives.
It’s 1981 and we meet adorable little Ritchie (Olly Alexander) from the Isle of Wight, off to seek his fortune at university amongst the bright lights of London. His new friends are the gorgeous cross-dressing Roscoe, (Omari Douglas) son of a strict Nigerian Christian family, lovely innocent buttoned-up Colin (Callum Scott Howells) from South Wales and mother-hen Jill (Lydia West). They’re all ready and set to take on whatever London throws at them, and they’ve got big plans for the future. They’re full of life and drymanic energy, excited to take all the opportunities for fun they can find, in their studies, their work and their sex lives.
But already there’s a gatecrasher at this party. Interspersed in the fantastic campy pop soundtrack there’s whispers of gay men mysteriously dying in New York. And the only outcasts in the local gay bar, so welcoming to everyone else, are the doom-mongers leafleting about a “gay cancer”. As Ritchie says incredulously “How can a disease know you’re gay?”. In the early 80s, there’s nothing about AIDS in the news, there are no public health campaigns, GPs are dismissive, and conspiracy theories run rife. At this point in time it doesn’t even have a name. Sounds familiar? Having been filmed well before the Covid-19 pandemic, RTD never intended the AIDS storyline to be quite so timely, but the parallels are incredible and the tragedy is unbearable.
The moments of joy are so authentic and exciting too; the parties in their nasty flat, the stupid greeting they adopt and use all the time, the intimate closeness when some guys you’ve met on a night out become friends as close as brothers. We cheer them on in their victories as they lose their virginity, as awkward moments of intimacy become self-assured swagger, and as they learn to embrace their true selves without shame. The period details and fashions are perfect – you’ll be on eBay by the end of the first episode trying to buy a rotary phone – but Colin navigating a new city with a gigantic paper map is the clearest indication that this is the ancient before-tech era.
Russell T Davies makes sure that no character is short-changed. Everyone gets a spot in the limelight and everyone will be your favourite. Neil Patrick Harris steals every scene he’s in, as you’d expect, but all the actors with weighty stories to tell don’t flinch. It’s powerful and unrelenting, and every word rang true to me. You don’t want to believe horrors like this have ever happened, that it can’t possibly have been that bad, but you know it’s true, especially given what we’ve all collectively been through in 2020.
This is a lean drama with impeccable pacing. Even though it deals with traumatic events that will haunt you, you’ll be fully onboard for each new episode. It’s a painful history, and a timely warning, and an important message about society and how we shape it, but at no point does it feel preachy. We’re emotionally invested in these characters’ lives from the off and we want to know what happens. There’s no backing out from this, no turning away. Other people who have been lucky enough to see a preview have said this feels like the drama RTD was born to write and they’re exactly right. Not only this but it feels like It’s a Sin is the apex of his career so far.
Contributed by Sarah Kennedy
It’s a Sin starts Friday 22nd January 2021 on Channel 4. The entire series will be available on All4 Following the first episode airing.