"It's hitting young viewers hard" – Russell T Davies discusses the shattering conclusion to It's A Sin
The writer reveals the key moment that inspired his Channel 4 series and says it's vital to remember the good times with lost friends and tell their stories.
**Warning: this article contains spoilers for It's A Sin: episode five**
It’s A Sin, Russell T Davies’s brilliant, searing drama about the 1980s Aids crisis, has concluded on Channel 4 – with many of its characters dead or finding their lives changed for ever.
An important drama destined to be a TV classic, it’s been a massive hit on Channel 4 and All 4, striking a chord with millions of viewers and, by co-incidence, offering many parallels with the pandemic we’re facing now.
Usually, programme-makers only have the chance to discuss their work before transmission, but now that all five episodes have aired on Channel 4 and viewers are digesting their impact, we’ve invited Russell to talk in detail about It’s A Sin.
Radio Times’ Patrick Mulkern: It’s A Sin begins in 1981. It’s astonishing to realise that is now 40 years ago. Russell, you and I are the same generation – children of the '60s who were making our way in the world as young men in the '80s, just as the Aids epidemic took hold. It was a very scary time to live through and its shadow remains with me. I met two of my best friends for the first time out in London’s clubland on Bonfire Night, 1987. I imagined we’d grow old together. I didn’t know then but one of them had contracted the virus in 1983 (before it was even called HIV) and, by some miracle, he is still with us. Our other friend Gary wasn’t so lucky. He died in the Middlesex Hospital in 1996, just before combination antiretroviral therapy became available and saved so many lives. That’s 25 years ago and I still miss him and often wonder what he’d make of everything that’s happened in the world. What impact did the Aids crisis have on your life back in the '80s and across the decades since? And how does It’s A Sin draw specifically on your own experiences?
Russell T Davies: Well, I was 18 in 1981, just like the It’s A Sin characters. So I’ve lived that life and seen these things – and also I’ve listened to my friends and absorbed their stories, too. For me, the best thing about the response to the show has been exactly what you’ve said there – remembering your lost friends, telling stories about them, even down to the detail of Bonfire Night, I love that. You and I have known each other for years, and never swapped stories like this. So it’s wonderful to bring these stories back to life. We’re bringing the men back to life too. Would we have, otherwise?
I wasn’t expecting this reaction, I must say. For two reasons: firstly, because people like you and I will be regular attendees, if not organisers, of HIV events. The HIV charity has become a way of life for us. A year won’t go by without a dinner or a fundraiser, or a vigil. So we remember those we’ve lost… but I wonder if the memory got swamped in the politics, in the fund-raising, in the medicine. The boys themselves got slightly sidelined. Maybe it’s been too long since we said, “Remember Jim? Remember Steve? Remember Gary?” and told funny stories about them. Because that’s what we’re getting now, both from strangers and friends, the stories of the boys’ lives, not just the stories of their death. And secondly, I think I hadn’t realised the extent to which the straight world hasn’t considered this. I mean, at every HIV event, we’ll wish that more people were paying attention. But I hadn’t grasped the extent to which this has been ignored.
And there’s been an outpouring from people of my age who didn’t know how bad it was, who had no idea of the scale of events, or the neglect. It’s been a real eye-opener for them to realise that this happened, here, in the UK, right in front of them, and they didn’t see. It’s been amazing and heart-breaking, and very humbling too.
PM: British drama series have tackled HIV/Aids before – the earliest being Alma Cullen’s Intimate Contact (ITV, 1987; directed by Waris Hussein). Then there was Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (BBC One, 2006), and EastEnders dealt with it well in the '90s with Mark Fowler. You were criticised for not addressing it in Queer as Folk (Channel 4, 1999) but touched upon it in Cucumber (Channel 4, 2015). I sense the issue has long been bubbling away. Why is now the right time for Aids to surface in your writing?
RTD: Yes, one of the earliest and greatest Aids dramas was An Early Frost by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, the writers who brought the US version of Queer as Folk to the screen. A lovely connection between us. But the virus is there in all my work, as a straight line arrowing towards this show. Its absence from Queer as Folk is the biggest statement that it’s possible to make about HIV: that it doesn’t define gay life, it doesn’t limit us, it doesn’t own us. It’s still there, ticking away in every QAF episode – a charity night, a dead friend. But I refused to let it rule. The perfect decision in 1998.
As for Cucumber, it’s there in everything Henry – brilliantly played by Vincent Franklin – says and does. Cucumber only really reveals what it’s about in the very last line – a cheeky move, in an eight-hour drama, I took a risk there! But once Henry’s said it, everything clicks into place, and you can follow his final thought backwards through the drama – his shame, his obstinacy, his fear of physicality which then becomes his fear of intimacy. Poor Henry! And it emerges in episode four, the halfway point, at 2am in a deserted Manchester burger bar with a complete stranger, when Henry finally mentions the icebergs [from the 1986 government health warning]. That precise image, hiding away, with its depths hidden, exactly like an iceberg, if that isn’t stretching the metaphor. I’m not saying HIV and Aids created the notion of gay shame – it existed long before and long after – but for a middle-aged man like Henry, it’s ticking away, right in the heart of him.
Then in episode six of Cucumber, we discover that Lance's first lover died of Aids. And that’s had a crucial effect on Lance’s character, it’s made him compromise and expect less, which leads him into that terrible night in Daniel’s flat. It’s a tough story, because everything that happens to him – and what a performance from Cyril Nri! – stems from the trauma of that virus at a young age. And very simply, once I’d written that, the story itself told me: right, time to lift Aids out of the subtext and into the text. And here we are.
PM: The tailor Henry (Neil Patrick Harris), bus conductor Gloria (David Carlyle), gauche young Colin (Callum Scott Howells) and ultimately Ritchie (Olly Alexander)… they all succumb to Aids-related illnesses across the five episodes. You show them near death or dead but allow them the dignity of dying off-screen. What led to that decision and, even in a drama about Aids, how upsetting is it to let characters die that you’ve created and loved?
RTD: Well, you’ve got it, that’s the whole point. I wanted to create characters we love, who we then miss after their deaths, exactly like the real-life experience of looking back on the '80s. To love them, and to miss them. I wanted a precise fictional version of that experience. And much to my surprise, it seems to have worked! You can plan all you like but dramas have a life of their own and work or don’t work for a million mysterious reasons. But this time, it clicked.
As I said above, lives are being remembered and celebrated. Like we’re singing old songs again, classics that we loved. And of course, the shock of those deaths is hitting young viewers hard. We’re getting thousands of stories about teenagers and young people being astonished and outraged. This seems like a recognisable world to them – OK, the cars are different, but it’s got young characters in bars hooking up and having fun, it’s essentially today, it’s not as removed as, say, Bridgerton. So to see a familiar world in which men die, in secret, in shame, and no one does anything to help, is horrifying. I’m being told stories of people’s children in an absolute fury! And they’re shocked that this isn’t on the syllabus, it isn’t even in our anecdotes. It feels like an awful secret being uncovered.
And I’m glad you said that about the actual deaths. It’s a cruel virus. It’s vile. And while I didn’t want to hide the truth of the illness, I think the screen can fetishise death, the camera can linger too much, it can almost become lurid. So I wanted to pull back. It’s still unflinching, I hope, it’s a bold stare. But it’s done with care.
I think Colin’s death has been the biggest shock for most viewers – I realise now how many people simply think of Aids as a wasting disease. But of course, once the immune system is under attack, you can be prone to any infection. And infections run riot. So patents can have epilepsy, dementia, pneumonia, blindness, a hundred different things. I need to show that, but because this really happened to so many people, men and women, I think a certain amount of discretion is only fair. As you say, dignity.
PM: The boys’ best friend Jill (Lydia West) is one of the first to take Aids seriously and support the sick and dying. She’s named after one of your friends in real life. How closely is she based on her? And did the real Jill ever have an encounter like fictional Jill has with Ritchie’s mum Valerie (Keeley Hawes) in episode five?
RTD: Jill is like Real Jill... but not like her. I took the essence of my friend, but then created Jill on the page so she could fit my stories and my attitude. I’ve got a story to tell, I’m not writing a biography. And that character is lots of people, there were so many women on those wards. And in fairness, so many straight men helping out, too. They tend to be the forgotten story, but of course, many brothers, friends and fathers were absolutely wonderful and compassionate and did everything they could. So they’re all compressed into Jill. Or rather they’re all visible through the lens that Jill offers us. That’s how drama works, you don’t need an exact avatar on screen in order to feel empathy.
As for that ending… I think every one of us wishes we could be that articulate with someone we hate! Oh, if only. That’s the power of that scene, that fictional Jill can rise above her circumstances to see the bigger picture, to see how the world around her works. That’s why they’re on the seafront, where the horizon is simply a straight line, because I used to say about that scene, Jill can see the world here. The whole world. That’s why I write fiction, maybe that’s why everyone writes fiction, so we can say things and have insights and find truths that we never reach in life. Not every scene can operate at that pitch. But when it’s the climax of an entire five-hour drama, then I think we’ve earned it.
It’s true in a bigger sense, though. The story of parents arriving on an Aids ward to discover that their son is gay, that he has HIV, that he has Aids, that he’s dying, happened many times over. A shocking number of times. That’s the key moment that inspired the whole show. I was first told a story about parents arriving like that back in… oh, it’s hard to say, but 1988, 1989? I’ve heard good versions of that, where the parents were wonderful, and bad versions, where they were not. I gathered that story for a long time before writing my own version.
PM: You brilliantly capture the joie de vivre that gay men still had in those dark days. Despite the spectre of death, you end two episodes on a note of optimism. The first has Ritchie picturing a bright future: “I just wanna be happy.” In episode four he reveals he’s HIV-positive but is defiant: “I’ve got news for you all – I’m gonna live!” Then in the final episode, almost his last words are: “That’s what people forget – that it was so much fun.” That really chimes with me. When I think of my friend who died in 1996, I forget the horror and remember the fun we had, the hysterics, the sound of his laughter. How important is it to weigh the anxiety and despair alongside the joy and optimism of those bright young people we lost?
RTD: That’s it, that’s what I’ve been saying. There was so much shame, fear, silence and ignorance around those deaths, that it became a self-perpetuating system. First of all, some people saw the illness as shameful. Then with the passing of time, that reaction was seen as shameful in itself… See what I mean? It’s shame upon shame. The shame never ends. So our memories are caught up in that too. Anyone remembering Ritchie would think, what a shame how he died, what a shame how his mum reacted, what a shame he never saw Jill… And that becomes the primary emotion. It dominates. It rules.
So I want to break that spell and remember the good times. For men of all ages, and the women, and the children, and those caught up in blood transfusion scandals – just take the virus away and look at the lives they led. Remember the laughter, remember the fun, remember a hangover on a Sunday morning when you’re laughing with your mates like you never will again. That’s why It’s A Sin is so full of energy and colour and comedy. It’s to bring those men back to life in every detail. Taking the power away from the virus and letting them live.
PM: There’s also such joy in the period detail, the pop soundtrack, the hedonism and activism, the politics... You have Roscoe (Omari Douglas) flabbergasting a Tory MP (Stephen Fry) by peeing in Mrs Thatcher’s coffee. How much fun did you have writing the series?
RTD: Well, as above, I had great fun, and that’s why. They had to have their joys and victories. The series covers a whole decade, it’s important to make you feel that a lot has happened, that the inhabitants of the Pink Palace have really seen life. Mind you, writing fun isn’t always fun in itself. Roscoe’s adventure with Mrs Thatcher is a farce, and farces require tight plotting and speed. It’s like when I was writing Doctor Who, there is nothing more exhausting than writing a chase!
I’ve got to say, I get a lot of credit for re-creating the past. But that’s the wonderful production team, hard at work. I can just type, “Ritchie walks into a room,” that’s easy, but then a whole design team has to get that room right, the props have to be correct, and the clothes and Ritchie’s hair, and the extras, all with the right song playing in the background. All these people make me look good!
PM: Ritchie’s agent Carol (Tracy-Ann Oberman) reminds me a little of Hazel in Cucumber (Denise Black’s character, who returned briefly from Queer as Folk). They’re both like a guardian angel figure. But whereas Hazel lamented all the young gay men who’d drowned in the canal and warned Lance to “go home”, in It’s A Sin, Carol speaks in code of “a lot of boys who are going home” – presumably to die. She warns Ritchie, “Promise me, don’t go home.” What’s the significance of these wise women who see more clearly than most and the recurrent notion of “going home”, even if the consequence alters from sanctuary to dead-end?
RTD: I don’t think there’s a huge significance, but I do think there’s need. Both Cucumber and It’s A Sin are male-focused dramas, so I think it’s my duty to then balance that with as many good parts for women as possible. Simple balance, that’s all. And I can see, yes, with the men in both series making mistakes and feeling horny and getting into trouble, then the balance automatically means that the women come across as wise. Although even as I’m typing this, I’m thinking: daft men, wise women? Sounds like life to me!
And the phrase about going home feels like it originated here, in the '80s, when boys would disappear. With no mobiles and no internet, if you left the big city and went home, back then, you could vanish. So I suppose the phrase has always resonated for me. And proves my theory that Cucumber was always leading to It’s A Sin.
PM: Culpability is a strong theme throughout It’s A Sin. Many of the parents are bigoted, at best naive or wilfully blinkered. In the final episode, Valerie transforms from gentle and unseeing into a tigress, striding ferociously down hospital corridors, demanding answers, but then endures that scalding cameo from Ruth Sheen as another mother who asks her: “What the hell were you looking at? If you didn’t know he was gay all those years, what did you see?” As he’s dying, Ritchie atones for having sex with so many men, regardless of his HIV status. It’s an extraordinary admission of guilt. Finally, Jill pins the blame on Valerie: “All of this is your fault. The wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They all die because of you.” What moved you to spotlight these various shades of culpability?
RTD: Ritchie doesn’t atone at all. That’s the point. No apology, no regrets. At the very end, he loves his life. And in that is all the love and joy he needs. It’s sad that his mother can’t give him that, but his ultimate independence and coming-of-age is to find joy for himself. He has no guilt. He’s expressed guilt earlier, in the hospital, with his friends, but at the end, in his childhood bedroom, with his last words, he’s free.
And I think it moves beyond culpability. Because shame itself is to blame, and everyone carries that. Jill, on the seafront, blames Valerie for Ritchie’s death, and then, in her most supreme moment, for all deaths. Meaning Valerie and everyone like her. The whole system. The whole world. That’s what I mean, how Jill can see everything, standing there. It’s her All My Sons moment.
And if you listen closely, you can hear how trapped Valerie is, how she’s carried shame all her life. She says men are randy, she says boys like having secrets. Where’s she got that from? Well, in her last scene with her son, she asks Ritchie if he remembers his grandad, her father. Yes, says Ritchie. And she then says, simply, “He was a terrible man.” And never mentions him again. And I think she’ll go to the grave without saying what that means. But we can guess. It’s very clear. Jill guesses, she says, “I don’t know what happened in that house to make you so loveless.” She’s halfway there by sheer intuition. Valerie is carrying her own burden, which she visits upon her son. But Ritchie, at the end, refuses to carry that forward, and is happy.
That’s part of my theory, that the homophobic house is a house which has something else wrong with it. You don’t disown your son because of his sexuality, you disown him because sexuality is triggering terrible things buried in your own mind. So that’s Valerie. Not to blame. As trapped as anyone. Filled with her own shame. Jill walks away to break that cycle. The stage directions say, “She will never see Valerie Tozer again.” Because Jill is better than that. She goes back home to love and laughter with her friends, and then she goes to hold the hand of a man dying alone. The shame ends.
The man in the hospital bed, fact fans, is Richard Cant, son of Brian! Phil Collinson and I last worked with him when he popped up to deliver a letter in Blink [Doctor Who, 2007]!
PM: Finally, how magnificent is Keeley Hawes?
RTD: Hah! Astonishing! But all of them. The joy of the past few weeks has been seeing that young cast lifted shoulder-high. Beautiful people all of them, I couldn’t be happier.[The main photograph of Russell T Davies is from an exclusive Radio Times photoshoot by Richard Ansett in December 2020]
- Russell T Davies talks to Radio Times.com about Cucumber
- Russell T Davies talks to Radio Times.com about Years and Years
This article is dedicated to the memory of Gary Sellars, dancer, model and bon viveur (1959–1996) – and to every other lost friend.