Russell T Davies is a writer known for pushing boundaries with his work and in his latest series, It’s A Sin, he’s tackling a subject that’s far too often been associated with secrecy and shame. The drama charts the lives of a group of friends living in London through the ‘80s, showing the gloriously fun moments but also laying bare the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS. It’s broken records for Channel 4, becoming its biggest ever instant box set, but what captivated viewers might not realise is that Jill, the young woman who dedicates herself to raising awareness of AIDS and caring for her friends, is based on a real person.
Davies was inspired by his long-time friend Jill Nalder when writing the drama and in the show, Jill Baxter (played by Lydia West) is a character drawn from the life she’s led.
Jill, now 60, lived in London in the ‘80s in the actual Pink Palace (a key setting in It’s A Sin) and supported many gay men affected by the AIDS crisis.
“Russell’s got it as this big party house,” Jill said of the replica of her former home. “And we did have colossal fun, but it was a bit smaller - it wasn't a huge property like in the show. It had dark pink carpets, an enormously comfortable pink sofa, pink chairs, pink curtains, chandeliers and pink flock wallpaper, so it truly was pink. We had no choice but to call it the Pink Palace.
“We used to say to people: ‘Come around to the Pink Palace’. We had a Christmas there that we still refer to as the Christmas at the Pink Palace. That was just normal conversation but now it's become a hashtag - I love that because we had such a laugh there,” she remembers.
As well as all the joy, It’s A Sin explores the tragedy that truly affected Jill’s life when her friends – many of whom were young, gay men – were diagnosed with AIDS.
“There was a definite stigma, there was definite fear, there was definite horror that you could have it, or that one of your friends could have it, and then they would be stigmatised and have to keep it a secret,” she says.
“The boys that I knew were massively courageous in trying to keep up their jobs, trying to act as if nothing was wrong when they were not feeling good. I had one friend who would go to the hospital, leave to go and do some work then go back to the hospital while he was having treatment. Anything to pretend that you didn't have AIDS, until it reached the point you could pretend no longer."
It took a huge emotional toll on Jill, but she was determined to be a rock for her friends.
“I get a bit emotional now when I think about it so I must have been a wreck at the time. If you’re looking after anybody, you put that front on and you become the person who is doing the caring and the practical things and that's where you really can help,” she says.
Just like her fictional counterpart in It’s A Sin, Jill bought groceries, cooked meals and spent time in hospital; she recalls visits at all hours, sometimes staying until the middle of the night.
“You could watch a bit of telly with someone and just be company. If you're one of very few people [who know about their illness] - and in one case I was the only person that knew for quite a number of months - that is quite a responsibility. You can’t let that person down.”
Another moving fact for viewers of It’s A Sin is that Jill played the mother of Jill Baxter, getting to step back in time and visit the replica set of her old Pink Palace home, which she found completely surreal.
“They were all fantastic,” Jill said of her fellow cast members. “Lydia herself has said she didn’t make her character choices [based on me]. She didn't try to mimic me or anything like that - she made her character choices for her character.”
Nonetheless, Jill did see herself and her friends in the young cast.
“When it’s a group of fun, young people that are having a great laugh, certain things are going to just be the same - Omari [Douglas, who plays Roscoe] being so fabulously camp and Colin [Callum Scott Howells] being so innocent and Richie [Olly Alexander] being so brave and determined to fight. All those boys, and the characters they play, are in the people that I knew, and they so wanted to survive.”
The impact of It’s A Sin is clear in its huge viewing figures and the conversations it’s sparking on social media, and Jill’s so pleased.
“I really think it is making a difference. I think people are actually talking about [AIDS] and they’re talking about it with care,” she says.
“They are realising that these young people were treated so cruelly, not by everybody by any means, but there was a group of people in the world that didn't care, that thought gay men had brought that on themselves by the lifestyle they chose to lead. That there were innocent victims of AIDS and there were guilty victims. Gay men suffered that stigma big time in the ‘80s.”
While Jill knows the stigma still exists, she feels it’s lessening and she hopes more people will learn to be kinder after watching It’s A Sin.
“I hope they'll take away tolerance [from watching the show]. It's got to be better if you can be tolerant and caring, as opposed to stigmatising.
“It’s still hard for people to admit that their son or brother died of AIDS. Let’s lose the stigma and for goodness sake move forward.”
It's A Sin airs Fridays at 9pm on Channel 4 and is available to stream in full on All 4.
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