TV Review: It’s A Sin

La. It’s A Sin is a triumphant piece of television written by Russell T Davies, a crucial if challenging watch about how HIV/AIDS cut through the gay community in 1980s London

“We’ve got this great big killer disease and it’s happening in silence”

On the face of it, a five-parter on the AIDS crisis in 1980s London isn’t what you’d necessarily pick to schedule in the depths of a Covid-blighted January. But Russell T Davies and Channel 4 have absolutely hit the mark with It’s A Sin, Dipping every couple of years into the lives of a group of friends who find each other in London’s queer corners, this journey from 1981 to 1991 takes place under the ever-growing and ever-threatening shadow of HIV/AIDS.

It’s the kind of script where you can feel that every word has been intimately felt, with characters based on Davies’ own life, At the heart of it lies Olly Alexander’s Ritchie, an 18 year old would-be law student just waiting to explode out of the closet from his Isle of Wight homelife. It being the 80s, he soon finds himself in a chaotic but fab houseshare in which a new queer family develops – Roscoe (Omari Douglas) escaping his Nigerian family’s plan to straighten him out, the dreamy Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) with his douching advice, quiet Welsh boy Colin (a superb Callum Scott Howells) and Jill (an equally excellent Lydia West) who tempts him over onto the drama course and establishes one of the key relationships of the show (reflecting one of Davies’ own and in a neat touch, the real Jill appears as the fictional Jill’s mum).

The entire show is available to stream now via All 4 but is also airing traditionally on a weekly basis so no spoilers will follow, suffice to say that there is more than one heart-rending moment per episode, to say the least (take care in binging the whole thing – you’ll want to be in an emotionally robust place). Davies’ skill though is keep things sharp and funny, even as the tears flow and the abrasiveness stings. I don’t think Keeley Hawes has ever been better than in the final episode here as Ritchie’s mother Valerie, there really isn’t a weak spot in the whole ensemble (although Neil Patrick Harris’ presence does feel a little incongruous, I assume it assured the US sales…?).

The writing is also shot through with a cold white fury which scorches its targets. The Tory grandees who smuggle their male lovers into private clubs whilst signing up to Section 28, the wider hypocrisy of married men treating their gay lovers as dirty little secrets to be fired at a minute’s notice, hell the general homophobia – and racism – of British society at large as memorably evinced by a blistering late cameo from the excellent Ruth Sheen. And of course, going through our own (different) public health crisis forces its own kind of re-evaluation, though the images of isolated hospital beds are starkly haunting whatever the time period. 

Peter Hoar’s direction also works wonders as taking us through the hedonistic highs and heartbreaking lows. Ritchie smashing through the fourth wall to deny the existence of any virus as all the compelling swagger of any Covidiot and we soon learn that any silent panning shot is to be approached with sinking dread. It’s a beautiful piece of television, it’s a beautiful piece of writing too but above all, It’s A Sin is a beautiful testament to the lives lived as well as the lives lost. La.

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