The real-life history behind Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin

Neil Patrick Harris and Olly Alexander play gay men living during the 1980s AIDS crisis.

It's A Sin

Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin is penned by Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk), and takes an unflinching look at the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis and its impact on a whole generation of gay men.

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The series begins in 1981, when AIDS is still just a rumoured, mystery illness affecting gay men in New York, and it’s a rumour that some characters in the It’s A Sin cast are quick to dismiss, at least initially.

The series is also loosely inspired by Davies’ own experiences and those of his gay friends, to whom It’s A Sin “pay[s] testament”.

Read on for the real-life history and autobiographical details behind It’s A Sin.

What was the HIV/AIDS crisis?

It's A Sin
Neil Patrick Harris and Callum Scott Howells in It’s A Sin (Channel 4)
Channel 4

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages your immune system and weakens your ability to fight off everyday infections. This virus is transmitted from person to person through bodily fluids (most commonly via unprotected sex), and while today there is treatment available, there’s currently no cure for it.

Meanwhile AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the name used for the infections and diseases that can prove life-threatening for someone with HIV.

The first UK death from HIV/AIDS related illness was in 1981, but it wasn’t until five years later that the British government launched its public health campaign (AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance) in response to the rise of HIV/AIDS and the misinformation surrounding it.

In April 1987, Diana, Princess of Wales opened a ward for HIV/AIDS patients at Middlesex Hospital. Her decision to shake hands (gloveless) with an infected patient is today credited with helping to change attitudes to AIDS.

Is It’s A Sin based on real-life?

Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin charts the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis in the UK through the eyes of a fictional group of young gay men. The virus is first introduced as a rumour of “this cancer thing in New York” affecting gay men in the US.

The series also takes a head-on approach to the initial lack of understanding and conspiracy theories that surrounded HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s, portraying central character Ritchie (Olly Alexander) as an AIDS-denier.

“The whole thing is a pack of lies,” he says in a first-look It’s A Sin clip, dismissing the rumoured mystery illness. “You know what it really is, AIDS? It’s a racket. It’s a money-making scheme for drugs companies.”

Writer Russell T Davies lived through the 1980s AIDS crisis, and has spoken about losing friends to the epidemic.

Speaking at a press Q&A, Davies confirmed that much of It’s A Sin is autobiographical, or else based on people he knew. “It’s a lot, yeah – a lot of it is based on myself, people I know, and stories of people,” he said, before confirming that, like the main characters, he was 18-years-old in 1981.

“This series fits my life literally. I was 18 in 1981, [and] I went to university. A lot of my friends went to live in London, all my gay friends all went to London, and they moved into a big flat in Hampstead I think it was, and they called it the Pink Palace [a name that’s used in the show].

“So this is quite literally, a lot of the dialogue has got their jokes and their rhythms and stuff like that. There will be a few friends who I haven’t seen for years who’ll be watching it going, ‘This is slightly familiar. I lived in the Pink Palace once.’ 

“Some of them, of course, are no longer with us, they passed away because HIV came along and claimed a lot of their lives. So it’s nice to pay testament, it’s nice to remember them, I’m very lucky in my job that I can do this.”

Davies also based an It’s A Sin character, Jill Baxter (portrayed by Lydia West), on a real-life “inspiring” person from the period.

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It’s A Sin will premiere Friday 22nd January 2021 at 9pm on Channel 4. All five episodes will be available to stream on All4 after that. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide.