It’s a Sin review: Russell T Davies’s new Aids drama is a reminder to find joy in the scariest times


Russell T Davies’s new series It’s a Sin (Channel 4) is a five-part period miniseries about a group of young gay men in London at the start of the Aids epidemic. Like Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, another five-parter, it’s highly autobiographical, a look back at its author’s youth that mingles horror with nostalgia. Davies has explored gay culture before, with Queer as Folk and the Cucumber-Banana-Tofu trilogy, but It's a Sin feels especially personal.

Where McQueen’s London was racist, Davies’s characters find themselves up against homophobia as well as the mysterious virus that has just started to kill gay men. Both series pay meticulous attention to the details of clothes and music. Small Axe, especially the “Lovers Rock” episode, was steeped in dancehall and reggae. It’s a Sin, named after the Pet Shop Boys song, has a faultless line-up of Eighties bangers: The Teardrop Explodes, Bronski Beat, Blondie, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Nostalgia for youth is never really nostalgia for the period, but for the person you were back then, who was thin and didn’t have a mortgage. The specificity of the choices instantly lifts the drama. You know this is a real person, thinking about real friends who died.

Which isn’t to say that the characters are fully rounded. Davies assembles a merry bunch of young lads, and most of this first episode is spent establishing them in broad strokes. They’ve all left conservative families to enjoy the heady liberty of being their own men and finding their gang. Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) leaves his parents (Shaun Dooley and Keeley Hawes) on the Isle of Wight to study law in London, where he becomes instant friends with Jill (Lydia West) and wastes no time in finding a host of lovers. Roscoe (Omari Douglas), a construction worker, runs away from his religious Nigerian family just as they are about to send him back to the motherland, where he will be tortured for his sexuality. Then there’s Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a square Welsh lad who finds a mentor in Henry (Neil Patrick Harris, doing his best Terry-Thomas impression, complete with pencil moustache), a suave, openly gay colleague at the tailor’s shop where he works.

By the end of the first episode, the youngsters have moved in with each other, to a house they christen the Pink Palace. Life is one big party, despite the warnings creeping into the newspapers. Knowing what's round the corner makes these happy early days bittersweet.

It's a strong ensemble performance. Alexander is better known as the lead singer in Years & Years (coincidentally the title of Davies’s most recent series), but he stands out as the exuberant but fragile Ritchie. West, as the only girl in the gang, is charming in what could have been a tricky part.

Despite its subject, It’s a Sin hums along, never lingering for long on its downbeats. The opening episode is a happy vision of the consolations of sex and friendship, as well as an evocative recreation of a time and place. For anyone who’s been through the agony of coming out, especially to a hostile family, or who lost loved ones to Aids, I expect it will be moving.

As pure drama, it leans too heavily on its recreation of the period. We wait to discover if any of the characters, who err towards archetypes, will be capable of surprises. In the meantime, it’s enough to be reminded that a terrifying disease is all the more reason to find joy where you can.

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