Leaning against the rail on the top deck of the ferry, teenager Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) is finally bound for the mainland. He’s spent his formative years on the Isle of Wight, the closet door firmly shut, both metaphorically and literally – it’s where Ritchie has been hiding his gay porn, beneath the rack of Eighties-style knitted polos.
His gruff dad, also on the ferry, slips him a wad of condoms (“It’s different on the mainland”), which Ritchie promptly and gleefully chucks overboard when his dad looks away. Condoms are for straight couples, after all. Why on earth would Ritchie need one?
It’s just one of many moments in this first, joyful episode of It’s A Sin that foreshadow the bleak and dangerous decade to come for young men like Ritchie. This is the calm before the storm – if that calm involves sex scene montages set to Hooked on Classics. Drunk on his newfound freedom, Ritchie embarks on a giddy carousel of one-night stands and threesomes.
Splitting his time between a half-hearted law degree and London’s gay club scene, he meets his future housemates: Roscoe, Colin, Ash, and Jill (Lydia West), a straight young woman and drama student who befriends Ritche on his first day of university.
Roscoe (Omari Douglas) is fearless, a young gay Londoner who leaves his Nigerian family behind in spectacular style, suitcase in hand and heels on his feet.
Welshman Colin (standout Callum Scott Howells), meanwhile, is the wide-eyed innocent, a closeted Savile Row apprentice whom we’re immediately encouraged to feel protective over. His creepy boss “knows how to pick them,” and singles Colin out after hours, forcing him to strip topless – only for Colin to be rescued by another colleague, Henry (Neil Patrick Harris).
Henry is suave, accomplished, and lives with his gay partner in a stylish townhouse, where shy Colin is invited for dinner. Watching the two older men laughingly recall their meet-cute, we can practically see the cogs turn in Colin’s head.
This could me, he thinks. This could be mine.
He has a similar thought when he meets Ritchie, Roscoe, and Jill during the housewarming party for ‘The Pink Palace’, their grubby flatshare. The friends are happy, confident, and utterly at ease with themselves, the evening ending with Ritchie cross-dressing for his assembled admirers. When Colin learns that they’re still looking for someone to join their merry gang, he jumps at the chance.
Of course, this is a series that charts the 1980s AIDS crisis and its impact on three British lads, so we can say from the start that not all of these shining boys are going to survive. In this first episode, AIDS is an unknown, a rumoured “cancer thing in New York”. The moments of sombre foreshadowing are just that: foreshadowing. Would that they could stay that way.
Russell T Davies based It’s A Sin on his own experiences, and those of his friends (the character Jill is based on a real-life person). He’s since explained that he “looked away” from HIV/AIDS for years, before finally putting the virus front-and-centre in one of his shows.
I’ve watched the full five-part series (available to stream on All 4 after episode one airs), and after many tears, and one “No!” shouted at my screen, I can say this at least: it was worth the wait.
It’s A Sin continues Fridays at 9pm on Channel 4, with all five episodes available now on All 4. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide.