Russell T Davies: 'If I'd got It's A Sin wrong, that would have been an awful thing'
The winner of our TV 100 list for 2022 on being "blindsided" by the success of his Channel 4 AIDS drama, returning to Doctor Who and why he briefly thought his career was over.
"It's a funny old business, this," says Russell T Davies, who tops this year's RadioTimes.com's TV 100 list, a rundown of the most exciting, influential names working in television today compiled by figureheads of the creative industries. "Christmas 2017, I got a phone call... Years and Years had been turned down, and then I got a phone call saying It's A Sin had been turned down. It was a real feeling of 'Oh, this is the downward slope' – look at my downward slope now! But genuinely, it was Christmas – the irony of it! I was like the Little Match Girl, there was probably a jaunty carol playing in the background, with me going, 'Oh my God, I'm properly out of work.'
"It just goes to show that you can be in this job as long as you like, it's still a freelance job. People always say to me 'Oh, you must get everything made!' – oh no, you don't!"
Davies' It's A Sin – depicting the lives of young gay men, their friends and their families throughout the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s – was rejected by both the BBC and ITV before Channel 4 finally green-lit a five-part series. "It had been looming in my head for years, almost with a sense of dread," he admits. "Because if I got it wrong, I would have gone to the grave mortified. It doesn't matter if I get Doctor Who wrong. It doesn't matter if I get Years and Years wrong. it doesn't matter if I get Jeremy Thorpe wrong. Who cares? Move on, next drama. If I'd got this wrong – and by wrong I mean if I'd upset people, or just struck the wrong tone, or let down the people we'd lost – that would have been an awful thing. It's very unusual to approach a project with that heaviness, that sense of dread."
Launched in January 2021, the series won widespread critical acclaim – including being named RadioTimes.com's no.1 TV show of 2021 – and broke records for Channel 4, with the first episode becoming its most-watched drama launch ever. Davies was "completely blindsided" by the success, having approached transmission "hoping for an audience, hoping that anyone would watch it at all".
"The night before transmission, Alex Mahon – who's the head of Channel 4 – sent me a lovely e-mail saying, 'It doesn't matter how many viewers we get tomorrow, we're really proud of it,' which was like a kiss of death. I thought, 'Oh my God, they're actually expecting zero viewers, right at the very top.' so the fact that those numbers were so high was thrilling.
"I mean, you only do these things for viewers, you're just lying if you say you don't. You do them so that millions of people will come and watch. I mean Cucumber [Davies' 2015 Channel 4 drama exploring 21st century gay life] was getting audiences of about 1 million. Some episodes got less. So I was kind of resigned to that in my head."
Released in its entirety on All 4, It's A Sin also became the most binge-watched show to ever stream on the platform after receiving 18.9 million views. Though there'd been "doubts" about whether all five episodes should be released as a box-set, Davies himself was excited by the idea, having never launched one of his shows in this manner. "I'm watching The Tourist at the moment and I'm pacing that out weekly because I like the cliffhangers, I like the waiting. But It's A Sin is not a thriller, there are no cliffhangers, it's just the story of life, so actually it works very well as a four-and-a-half hour movie."
Davies had originally pitched the series as eight episodes, with Channel 4 eventually commissioning five. "I love the final form," he says. "But actually, yes, it would have been wonderful if it had been eight episodes. There are things not in there. There's no episodes with no deaths, for example. If you'd done eight episodes, around about episode five or six, there would have been important moments saying that, actually, life goes on and the problems of HIV and AIDS are not only the problems of death – living with it is a problem. I think it's a shame that there's no episode that does that."
A longer run would also have meant more scenes featuring Andria Doherty as Eileen, mother to Colin (Callum Scott Howells), as she embraced activism following her son's death, as well as a scene revealing that Juan Pablo (Tatsu Carvalho), who it's assumed dies off-screen in the final series, was still alive following the passing of his partner Henry (Neil Patrick Harris). "But you sound like a pretty rubbish writer if you sit here complaining about the things you didn't get to write when people would die to have five hours on Channel Four," says Davies. "So I'm very grateful for what I got."
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Whatever shape It's A Sin ended up taking, Davies "always knew" how it would end, with Jill (Lydia West) visiting hospital to support a lonely man dying from AIDS, before flashing back to show Ritchie (Olly Alexander) and his friends enjoying life together, before the pandemic hit.
"I wasn't exactly sure what would happen in the story, but I knew that whatever happened, the story would end with her going back onto a ward to sit with a stranger, and we'd flash back to see that gang at their happiest and their funniest, just laughing on a park bench like you do when you're young. Literally the moment I sat at my desk to type page one, scene one, episode one, I knew that's where it was heading. It's the getting there that's hard work!"
The impact of It's A Sin extended beyond just record-breaking viewing figures, with a commemorative t-shirt featuring the slogan "La!" – a catchphrase repeated by the show's young characters – raising half a million pounds for HIV and sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, something Davies calls "astonishing". "I find that amazing," he says. "I'd never predicted any of that at all."
He believes the show ended up forming part of a "movement" that is helping to destigmatize living with HIV and AIDS – as the episodes aired, he heard stories of families who'd previously insisted a son or brother or uncle or father had died of cancer or of pneumonia now finally telling the truth about their diagnosis. "I think it's one of the things that's changing – not just thanks to It's A Sin, but thanks to all the work that the charities and the activists do, is persuading people to stop referring to an AIDS death as a terrible, shameful thing, but simply as a cause of death, with no guilt, no shame, and no stigma attached. To be part of that was extraordinary."
So mainstream did the series end up being that the cast reunited for a celebrity edition of Channel 4's The Great British Bake Off, a highlight of the broadcaster's Christmas 2021 schedule. "That's how mad that show was," Davies says. "It's a drama about AIDS... it should have been worthy and tiny and raised 100 pounds for charity and then put on a nice shelf ready for gay retrospectives." Davies himself did not step inside the Bake Off tent, though he's got his eye on making an appearance on a different entertainment programme. "I'm dying to go on [BBC One game show] The Wheel. Oh my God. My entire family is obsessed with The Wheel. [It's A Sin executive producer] Nicola Shindler is obsessed with The Wheel. I love The Wheel. I could go on that and be the Doctor Who expert, couldn't I?"
Along with Davies, multiple cast members from It's A Sin appear in this year's RadioTimes.com TV list, including Lydia West, Callum Scott Howells and Olly Alexander, who takes the no. 2 spot. The actor/musician was, Davies says, "the only person ever approached" for the show's lead role of Ritchie Tozer. "Casting well-known people is part of the name of the game – we discovered an awful lot of new talent in that show, people who are now just on fire and I'm so proud of them, but it's partly why we've got Keeley Hawes and Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry in there, it was partly to raise money. So he [Alexander] is one of the only out gay names we could possibly have turned to. I do remember thinking, 'If this audition doesn't work, or if he doesn't like us and doesn't want to do it, I'm not quite sure who we'd turn to.'
"But then he came in to audition... we were in some little room in the StudioCanal offices with a little video camera and he came in and I read with him, those opening scenes of him being at home and, honestly, within about 10 seconds, I was like, 'Oh that's it'. You're not allowed to tell them they've got the job on the spot, because you have to go and talk to the heads of Channel 4and the finance people... but I literally wanted to run down the corridor after him, 'You've got the part! You've got the part!' – it was so instant. I knew he was brilliant. I just knew."
Leaving It's A Sin behind, Davies' next project has landed at ITV – Nolly will see Helen Bonham Carter play Noele 'Nolly' Gordon, who rose to fame for her role as flame-haired widow Meg Richardson in the long-running soap opera Crossroads. "I can't believe I'm making this!" Davies laughs. "Honestly, I've said to people, 'I'm making a drama about Noelle Gordon' and people have said, 'Who's he?' – shocking! Shocking!
"It's actually a really great story. If you like your soaps, or if you just like television, actually, I think it'll really work for you. Because it's about that – it's about the mechanics of TV and the whims of TV and the cruelty of it, but in the end the love of it. I'm very, very proud of it. and it's got Helena Bonham Carter! Exciting!"
The three-part drama – executive produced by Davies' long-time collaborator Nicola Shindler at Quay Street Productions – will explore the circumstances of Gordon's departure from Crossroads, with the star abruptly dropped from the series in 1981. "She was literally one of the most famous people in Britain. She was hugely famous and she was suddenly mercilessly axed overnight – they didn't even take her out to lunch to discuss it.
"It's very much a story of how women are treated by the industry, but it's not a Me Too story, that's what I liked about it. We're fortunate in this day and age that Me Too stories are coming out and are being said, but I think they only scratch the surface. The problems that women have with men are not only sexual problems – men have power and authority and tempers and whims on a level that goes far beyond the sexual."
Then, of course, there is Doctor Who – in September 2021, it was announced that Davies would return to the BBC sci-fi series he'd previously revamped and relaunched to enormous success 16 years prior. To mark the show's 60th anniversary, he'll once again take up the showrunner post in what is a rare return to previously-trodden ground. "The truth of it is that everyone lies when they leave Doctor Who and says they've moved on," he suggests. "I mean, I've been thinking about it since I was three, so there's no way you stop thinking about it."
Though he's reluctant to discuss his plans too much while his friend, current series boss Chris Chibnall, remains in post, Davies does hint that fans should expect the series to regenerate dramatically in 2023.
"The reason I've worked on 34 programmes in my life is because I don't normally like continuing series. That's why It's A Sin came to an end and I just moved on. I like looking at a new set of challenges every time and a blank page – but Doctor Who is always a blank page.
"There are things coming up that are brand new ways of telling the stories that have never been done before, so it just feels new. I wouldn't go back if it wasn't feeling new. But that's the thing about Doctor Who – every episode is new. Every single episode. I'm sitting here now, 10 pages away from a climax thinking, 'God, I've never written in this territory before – this is strange and new' – so it's always new. It's a self-renewing show."
Thirty-four years on from his first screen credit as a writer, Davies continues to surprise and subvert, entertaining audiences while also tackling important stories with the kinds of themes, humour and characters that feel distinctly him. It's a good time to be Russell T Davies – but also, he suggests, simply a good time to be a writer in television, with broadcasters now more willing to break away from genre favourites to tell more personal stories.
"When I was 21 or 22 years old, us writers – me, Paul Abbott, Kay Mellor, Sally Wainwright – would sit in the bar at Granada and we'd all be thinking of our detective show. If you wanted to get on the telly, if you wanted to have a career, if you wanted to get on the ladder, you had to think of your detective show. Or think of your hospital drama. That was the shape of television drama and it's radically the opposite now.
"Now you can be like Kayleigh Llewellyn and write [BBC Three comedy-drama] in My Skin, which is literally the story of her and her mother translated onto the screen. Now young writers are looking at Michaela Coel and Phoebe Waller-Bridge and all those other writers and they're thinking, 'I can put my story on screen' – Black writers, diverse writers, all sorts of writers, they're thinking 'Something happened to me and that's a six-part drama'.
"That's a fundamental shift in what drama is. There's still great big thrillers like The Tourist and there's still hospital shows but 20 / 30 years ago, it wasn't even possible to have that conversation. Now you can genuinely aim yourself... not just at Channel 4, but at BBC One. and ITV. BBC One put out I May Destroy You. ITV just put out Anne, the Hillsborough story. It's a lot of personal stuff getting on screen now, and that is brilliant."
It's A Sin is available to stream on All4. Visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.