Contains huge spoilers for It’s A Sin, episode 3
Within the first few minutes of the landmark Channel 4 series It’s A Sin, the viewers fell in love with the characters instantly. Of them all, there was one lad in particular who struck them: Colin (played by Callum Scott Howells). “Oh lovely Colin,” one person tweeted, while another said: “I would die for Colin”. “Colin must be protected at all costs,” somebody else agreed.
But there is no reasoning with a killer virus. As a brutal reminder of the impact of the HIV and AIDS crisis in the Eighties - and a generation of gay men traumatised by thinking it could be them or any of their friends next - Colin is killed off halfway through the series.
Dubbed “Colin the virgin” by his Pink Palace pals, it's a shock when we discover that he has AIDS, and see him promptly put under arrest as part of a Public Health Order in hospital. What follows are some of the most heart-wrenching scenes of a TV drama in recent history, as under the watchful eye of his lovely, accepting mum and his friends, Jill and Ash, he deteriorates quickly, and dies by the end of the episode.
Colin’s introduction to the gay community
Colin is perhaps the character that the audience most took to heart because of his naive but kindly demeanour. His scenes with Henry (Neil Patrick Harris) are particularly touching, as this square boy from the Valleys is welcomed into London’s vibrant gay scene by his colleague - who also stops him being potentially molested by their creepy boss.
“Another beer for the bender!” Henry shouts across the pub, in a jovial sign that Colin is now part of this community too. He takes him home to meet his partner, Juan Pablo, and the couple explain how life can be beautiful as part of a gay relationship, and they are proof of that. Henry and Juan Pablo show that there’s a whole new life for Colin now he’s in London, and the possibilities are seemingly endless for his future happiness.
But then, the “mysterious disease” hits Henry. Colin, as a considerate friend, goes to visit him in the hospital and is shocked to find him locked up in the ward, alone, and with his food dumped outside the door. Juan Pablo is “gone” - also ill, and taken home by his mother to Portugal. It’s clear that Henry is dying and he is being treated like a leper in his last moments. It’s a shocking scene, but it also gives a premonition of what is to come later on in the series.
After the death of Henry, Colin is given some light relief by way of a work trip to New York. But he’s accompanied by his lecherous boss, Mr Hart, who attempts to molest him again, but stops when he sees headlines about AIDS from the magazines and newspapers Jill has asked Colin to pick up in America. Colin is then promptly fired on his return to London, and opaquely told it’s simply because “his apprenticeship has come to an end”.
By episode three, Colin’s managed to get himself a job in a copy shop - and has even been given the keys to open up by himself. That’s when we discover Colin, convulsing on the floor.
At first, it feels like a red herring, placed by the creator of It’s A Sin, and master storyteller, Russell T Davies. Surely he’s just got epilepsy? But as he’s taken home to Wales by his gentle mum, and while having dinner, apropos of nothing he says: “All the same, you shouldn’t go to France”. He doesn’t know it yet, but it’s the beginnings of dementia, caused by HIV/Aids.
In echoes of Henry’s fate, Colin is also locked in a hospital ward, on his own, while his mum is told that he’s under detention from a court order of a Public Health Act, and she won’t be allowed to sit with him, and that she won’t be able to take him home to care for him.
These scenes might seem unbelievable, but they’re based on a real-life case. Ian Green, CEO of the Terrence Higgins Trust told Esquire: “The story of the main character locked up under the Public Health Act, this was a real life case that the Trust were involved with and did a lot of campaigning work on. With legal help – who you can also see in the series – we fought really hard to have that person released.”
Sadly, things don’t get better for Colin. He’s brought back to the specialist medical care in London, he reveals: “I think he gave it to me... the football shirt” and then starts to masturbate while his mother, Jill and Richie sit around his hospital bed.
“Don’t go looking for a villain,” Jill tells Ash, who speculates how Colin might have caught it. “It’ll just be some bloke”. Which is when the reveal sweeps angrily into the same hospital ward. It might take a minute or two to realise, but the woman who demands to know why her son is in a ward for “filthy dirty queers” is Colin’s landlady, who he lived with when he first arrived in London. And in a flashback, we’re then shown how he caught HIV: from her son, the lad who wore the “football shirt” and who’s shown roughly having sex with Colin, telling him to “shut up, you little bender”. Unlike Henry’s use of the word previously, it’s pejorative, and meant to wound and belittle Colin.
The loveless sex scenes are juxtaposed with a dying Colin in bed, and it’s hard to remember a more harrowing and emotional on-screen death.
But this gut-punch of an episode is vital to explain to viewers just how brutal the virus was back then. There were many Colins in the early days of the AIDS crisis - and many other men who weren’t so lovingly accepted by their families, and who deny to this day what they died of. Men who disappeared from friendships groups by ambiguously “going home” - all of which Russell T Davies used as the basis for the stories in It’s A Sin.
He told The Guardian: “Slowly, the drama took shape, inspired by one story my friend Jill first told me way back in the 90s. A story which had haunted me for decades. A man I knew, too. With a horror story at the heart of it; a man whose parents didn’t know anything until they turned up at the hospital to discover he was gay, he had AIDS, he was dying, all in one moment."
Times have changed since then, he explains, and he ends on the positive thought: “Strange to think. That it might come and go within my lifetime. That a virus can be a moment in history and no more. I wonder. It’s possible that one day, HIV and AIDS might just be a memory. A story. Like some old drama that was once on TV.”
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