When Russell T Davies came out as gay to his “lovely, middle-class” mum and dad in his early 20s, he wasn’t exactly delivering a bombshell: “I mean, look at me – a great big six-foot-six nancy, they were hardly surprised. The whole family simply rolled their eyes and said, ‘What’s for tea tonight?’”
I first met Davies in 1997 in a huge shed on the backlot of the old Granada studios in Manchester where he was filming his first ITV drama, The Grand (imagine Downton Abbey in a hotel in the 1920s). It was pouring with rain and the noise of water slapping on the roof nearly overcame the limited capacities of my arthritic tape recorder.
But not even the elements could defeat Davies, with his chandelier-rattling laugh and his big, bold vision as a television writer. I knew even then that here was a man who would always make himself heard, audaciously and loudly, not just in person but as the writer.
He went on to create what would become punchy, classic television – Queer as Folk… Casanova… Bob & Rose… Cucumber… Years and Years… the revival of Doctor Who (of course)… Torchwood… A Very English Scandal and his latest, It’s A Sin, which starts on Channel 4 this Friday. And if he wants to refer to himself as a “nancy” then he jolly well will.
Of all his work, It’s A Sin is probably Davies’s most autobiographical piece, a fiercely angry, poignant, heartbreaking, often outrageously funny, five-part account of the emerging HIV/Aids virus and its effect on a group of young gay men in the early 1980s. It’s something he’s been writing since 2016: “It took a while. People are very kind and say that someone in my
position ‘must get everything you write made’, but it’s not that easy; it’s never easy to convince people to part with money.”
The story starts in 1981 as the lads – quiet trainee tailor Colin; cosseted, closeted Ritchie growing up on the Isle of Wight, desperate to be an actor; and vividly camp Roscoe, rebelling against his fundamentalist religious parents – come to London and become friends, hurling themselves into the pulsing hedonism of the gay scene. Until paragraphs start to appear in newspapers talking about a “gay plague” in America and young men start dying grimly frightening, protracted and often lonely deaths.
“I was 18 in 1981, just like Ritchie, so the bones of this story were always in me, but it took a long time to get there,” says Davies, now 57. “Maybe I had to reach this age first.”
Not that Davies’s teens were anywhere near as wild as those of his characters. “I must have known hundreds of lads like them, but though we all had those mad nights on the town, I was lucky, I escaped HIV. I was rather more well behaved than my characters, that’s why I write them doing what they do. But in the 1980s I kept my head down and worked a lot, I didn’t start going out properly on the gay scene until I was in my 30s, in the 90s.
“Also during the whole decade [the 80s] I was determined to become a writer and everyone told me it was the path to poverty and I’d end up freezing in an attic. So I was saving my money, always with my intention of leaving regular work and becoming a writer.”
Davies, who has two sisters, was born in Swansea. His mum and dad, Vivian and Barbara, were both teachers. They were the first generation of their families to go to university (Swansea, of course) and young Russell’s admission to Oxford University to study English Literature “was a very big deal for us. Huge!”
His first television job was at the BBC in Cardiff, directing kids on the studio floor of the children’s show Why Don’t You..? “For £25 a day. It was a fortune.” He went on to be a storyliner for Coronation Street then to write Granada’s children’s drama Children’s Ward, before he turned to the grown-up stuff.
So Davies sees It’s A Sin as a coming-of-age story that mirrors his own: “leaving home, going to college, growing up, getting my first job… though it’s a coming-of-age story in the shadow of an enormous virus.”
And there it is, that inescapable word, “virus”. Chronology means that any similarities to the current pandemic are, as they say, entirely coincidental. “I think people will watch It’s A Sin with the PPE, the masks, the green hospital gowns and will think I did that on purpose, that it’s a commentary on 2020. But it was written long before COVID-19.” Filming wrapped last January. There are some similarities, though, in the chatter surrounding both illnesses, particularly in the rumour and misinformation about HIV/Aids and now the coronavirus.
“You know, I look back and I don’t know how we got any information in the 1980s about anything. You and I might complain about this internet world but we can lay our hands on information quickly now. In the old days, how did we ever hear about anything?”
Davies, though, remembers the rumours, the falsities and the sheer lack of knowledge about something that was cutting a deadly swathe through a huge part of the world’s population.
There are scenes that echo this uncomprehending fear in It’s A Sin that are shocking, but they are all true, uncovered by Davies’s research – a family burning their son’s bedding and everything he ever touched on a bonfire after his death because they feared contamination, and the ailing young man detained in a locked hospital ward under a court order.
Then there is the sheer shame of boys like Ritchie, who simply can’t tell his nice parents (played by Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley) that he’s gay.
In It’s A Sin we see such fears feeding into the growth of an illness that claims so many victims because a wider society can’t bring itself to acknowledge gay men, never mind gay sex and that phrase, “bodily fluids”. Information about HIV/Aids is scant – just rumours and whispers, and it costs the three boys and their friends dear, says Davies, “relegated to the back streets”, hidden under blankets of shame and fear, where it flourishes.
Though Davies acknowledges his own luck in surviving, he lost many friends. “This is why I wrote It’s A Sin, partly as a tribute to them, to remember them.”
One of It’s A Sin’s major characters is Jill (played by Lydia West), who’s at the heart of the boys’ friendship circle. She’s real, a lifelong friend of Davies’s. “Jill was better than me, she went to the hospital wards and held the hands of men who were dying. I did a bit of that but she did a lot and dedicated her life to it.”
The gay male characters are all played by gay actors, something Davies thinks is massively important. “I’m not being woke about this… but I feel strongly that if I cast someone in a story, I am casting them to act as a lover, or an enemy, or someone on drugs or a criminal or a saint… they are NOT there to ‘act gay’ because ‘acting gay’ is a bunch of codes for a performance. It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020. You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places.”
Though the cast features some unknown young actors, there are two big-time male stars in smaller roles. “These days, whether you like it or not, you have to get stars in to get the money, that’s simply how it works, and we were very lucky that this subject matter attracts people with good hearts.”
Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser and How I Met Your Mother) is in episode one as a quietly “out” man living with his partner. “I never thought he’d be remotely interested,” says Davies, but with this subject… particularly gay actors like him, they will sit up and pay attention and want to be part of it. And bless him, what a laugh, he was absolutely hilarious. We were all very worried (‘He’s an actor from America, we’d better put kale on the menu and have air purifiers…’), but he walked in, drinking and smoking and laughing like the best of them.”
Stephen Fry crops up, too, as a wealthy Conservative MP desperate to make an impression on Margaret Thatcher. Of course, he can’t breathe a word of his dalliances with a very mischievous Roscoe. “We had amazing chats off-stage. We’d sit and have a coffee and talk about the friends we lost, all of the funerals we’d been to, all of the lies that were told, and all of the people who survived.”
In 2018, Davies suffered a profound loss, the death of his husband Andrew Smith. Andrew was diagnosed with a brain tumour and Davies had been nursing him for eight years. Sometimes, says Davies, he will go for a walk and let himself daydream that if he takes a different path, he’ll return home to find Andrew still there.
Such a bereavement has left him bubbling with anger on behalf of relatives separated from dying loved ones by restrictions and regulations during the current pandemic. “Andrew was very ill many times in those eight years and if I hadn’t been able to visit him I don’t know how angry I would be. We haven’t begun to cope with this pandemic – the anger of those households, those many thousands of households, will echo for years.”
For now, Davies is involved in a joyful project, script-editing Sir Lenny Henry’s ITV drama Three Little Birds. “It’s a fictional version of his mother’s story; she emigrated from Jamaica in 1957. It’s delightful and ITV commissioned it on the spot.”
But it’s what Davies describes as his “queer body of work”, including It’s A Sin, that pleases him the most. “I’m more proud of that than anything else. It’s a privilege.”
It’s A Sin starts Friday on Channel 4 at 9pm. If you’re looking for something to watch in the meantime, check out our TV Guide.
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.