Metro Weekly

Russell T Davies drew on his own life experience for “It’s a Sin”

The HBO Max drama tells the story of a British generation lost to AIDS

It's a Sin
Cast of It’s a Sin — Photo: Jay Brooks/Channel 4/HBO Max

Getting a new TV series on the air, let alone a sexy but weepy dramedy about the ’80s-era HIV/AIDS crisis, is no mean feat. But the much-reported uphill battle to realize the powerful, London-set saga It’s a Sin has been over-dramatized, Russell T Davies insists.

“Every show is hard to get on air,” says Davies, the award-winning creator of Queer as Folk, on a lively Zoom chat from his home in Manchester, England. “Because you’re essentially turning up at someone’s office saying, ‘Give me six million dollars,’ which no one wants to do. So it doesn’t matter if it was this or a chase or a cop show — it’s always hard. This took about five years to get made, but there are people out there who have had stuff for 20 years trying to get made.”

Davies had enjoyed tremendous commercial success with his post-millennial reboot of the venerable sci-fi serial Doctor Who. Nurturing the show’s modern sensibilities, Davies, in the admiring prose of one journalist, “turned into a global cash cow a series that had come to be ridiculed by many for cheap and creaking representations of planets and aliens.” While his two inter-related 2015 queer-themed mini-series Cucumber and Banana (and companion documentary series Tofu), didn’t register the same success, their insights into gay men’s sex lives led Davies directly to It’s a Sin.

“The truth is I sat and wrote [Cucumber], and it’s about a man dealing with his own sense of shame and mortification, his own lack of physicality, the problems he has in the bedroom, the problem he has addressing his own sexuality,” says Davies. “I finished the last episode of that and I literally sat here and went, ‘Right. Now I have to write about AIDS.'”

The story of It’s a Sin, reflecting Davies’ own experiences as a twentysomething gay man living in the shadow of an epidemic, “was kind of rising up on me as I got older,” he says. “I could see it creeping into my own work. Its absence is very deliberate in Queer As Folk, it rises up through Cucumber, and it was telling me itself that it was center stage.”

People needed to be reminded, he believed, of the many who’d been lost, men like his late friend Derek. “One of the men this whole drama was based on,” Davies reveals. “His whole family for years said he died of cancer, and they got in touch. The parents have passed away which is very sad, but they were the key holders of that story, and now the brother is left and [Derek’s] children. Now for the first time, he can say his brother died of AIDS and his children can say he died of AIDS, and they got in touch to say they’re proud. They’re proud to be able to say it now after all these years. The family history is literally being rewritten and the truth is coming out.”

Audiences are also seeing the light. Since its U.K. premiere in January, It’s a Sin has been nothing short of a sensation — no doubt aided by the buzzworthy casting of Years & Years singer Olly Alexander as series lead Ritchie, as well as the decision to release all five episodes in one bingeable bunch. For the show’s stateside debut, HBO Max is sticking with the all-in format, much to Davies’ delight.

“This is the first series I’ve ever had drop as one,” he says. “And I’ve got to say it was hugely successful. We will never know what it would have been like if we’d dropped it week by week in [the U.K.], but with the whole country in lockdown, that weekend went mad. Genuinely, the show over here has been nuts, it’s been the size of one of those great, big Stranger Things-type hits where everyone is talking about it. But it’s a drama about HIV and it hasn’t got monsters in it. We never expected this.”

He also didn’t necessarily expect some viewers’ to respond as passionately as they have, but he’s not complaining. “We’re getting very strong reports of especially a younger, queer generation being absolutely furious watching this because they’re not taught it, it’s not on the syllabus, it’s not on television, it’s not visible anywhere.

“Of course, in this country, it is visible in stuff like Pose. I’m very well aware there are other gay dramas telling other HIV stories. But somehow things look like a different land when you’re in New York in the 1980s. That’s removed. So to see it happening in a British world, with estate agents and on buses and bus conductors and ordinary life has been a shock for people. Far more than we ever realized. That’s been one of the joys of the program. I’m sorry that that has to happen, but I do get a certain amount of joy at that happening as well, because it’s got to be good for people to know the truth.”

Russell T. Davies

METRO WEEKLY: Starting where It’s A Sin begins, in September of 1981, where were you and what were you doing?

RUSSELL T DAVIES: I was leaving home. I was going to Oxford University. I went from a big Welsh comprehensive school, that’s a state school, a huge school of 2,400 people. Enormous, that school. So I was packing my bags and heading off to Oxford for three years to study English literature.

MW: And at what point did the HIV/AIDS crisis begin to intrude on your existence?

DAVIES: Well, I fail to remember the very first time. I can’t remember a first time I heard it being mentioned. It must have been just a paragraph in the newspaper or murmur in the pub or something. But it was very low level, until — and I can pinpoint it precisely — June 1983, when I was still a student in Oxford. I remember buying a magazine called Him, and I bought it with the daily paper, and probably a pint of milk and probably a packet of cigarettes. Because you wouldn’t look at a magazine like that in the shop. You’d just very quickly shove it inside the newspaper and hide it and then walk down the street. So I looked at it as I was walking, because I remember what a sunny day it was. It was such bright blue sky, and the cover of that magazine says, “AIDS Death Brought Panic.” And that was the first time I took it seriously. That stopped me in the street and the panic was true. The cover was extraordinary. It’s a drawing of men boiling a test tube naked, it’s kind of erotic but terrifying at the same time. That sums up sex.

You see this cover briefly in It’s A Sin in episode two. Jill goes through some gay papers and she picked up this magazine. I think it’s a reproduction we used, but I’ve got a copy of the actual magazine in this house somewhere.

MW: That’s a strange tableau for that story.

DAVIES: Yeah, but actually very powerful, I’ve got to say. It works. In fairness, you look at that and you go, “Wow.” This is 40 years later and I’m remembering it. And I based a drama around it. So well done, that magazine. It literally made me take it seriously for the first time.

MW: When you got started writing you could not have anticipated that the show might land in the midst of another viral pandemic.

DAVIES: Oh, I knew. I knew. I planned it all. [Laughs.] No, I didn’t.

MW: What’s your take on the timing?

DAVIES: It’s bizarre. We all thought the timing would come against us. If you’d spoken to me last December, we were all thinking we were mad launching a show about a virus in the middle of a virus because it’s on the news all day long. And weirdly, I think it’s kind of helped. I think it’s put us in the right platform. We’re all suffering with a virus at the moment and I think that’s how people key into it.

What I wanted to do, my job sitting here as a writer, was to create people you would love so that you’d miss them when they’re gone. And genuinely that’s the structure or the shape or the impetus that I wanted. And I don’t just mean when characters die you miss them, but when the series ends, I want you to miss the people who survive in the series. I wanted to mimic that feeling of missing people, to bring alive the sense that I have of those people we’ve lost. And weirdly we’ve now transmitted that in the middle of a time when we’re all missing someone. I mean, it’s a complete lockdown over here. I don’t know what it’s like in Washington, but just now, today, there might be an announcement on the news that you can see your friend outdoors for a coffee. Maybe in three weeks time. Can you imagine? That’s how mad things are. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it, when you put it like that?

So we’re in that time when we’re missing people and we’re missing contact and we’re being maybe a bit more introspective, maybe looking back a bit more. It’s pure chance. And also it’s very interesting to see governments on all sides of the world bumbling their handling of a virus, everyone getting it wrong, just like they did in the 1980s. So that strikes a chord somehow.

MW: Here we had all these sort of incredulous headlines of “How can the government ignore people dying in a pandemic?” And you have all these HIV/AIDS survivors and people with any kind of conscience saying, “Well, it’s happened and it still happens.” Were you seeing that in the U.K. too?

DAVIES: Yes. We’ve got a very high death rate here. I think we’ve certainly got the highest in Europe, but I think per capita we might have the highest in the world. Which is pathetic and disgraceful and there’s a long reckoning to come. Everything is just so busy and changeable every day that no one is actually investigating this properly. They will. I think public inquiries will come and there will be shame, and I hope there will be votes that bring the government down. That’s the plan.

But it is amazing to see the same things happening that happened in the 1980s, the neglect. If you were gay in the ’80s you were neglected. Now if you’re poor, you get neglected. They just find ways to marginalize people every time. And when you think about all those extraordinary theories about HIV coming from comets or coming from God, but then you get Trump standing there saying you should inject disinfectant into yourself or bleach into yourself. It’s no less mad now. And now madness gets weaponized and turned into QAnon, and next thing you know people are storming the capital. So I think it’s almost worse now.

But I also think maybe it is better now, because we can have day-long discussions about the coronavirus, and it’s on every news program and it’s on every daytime show and it’s in every conversation, it’s every hello we ever have. And the deadly thing about AIDS surely was the silence and the stigma and the shame and the fear that all feed off each other in a loop, so it just gets worse and worse and worse. That’s so different to today.

It's a Sin
Lydia West and Nathaniel Curtis in “It’s a Sin” — Photo: Ben Blackall / HBO Max

MW: Your story deals with how the crisis affected people on a local level, but that story winds up making points about how we were facing it globally. I’m sure there were people in New York having to deal with the exact same discrimination.

DAVIES: Absolutely. And on a very domestic level as well. It’s like they go on one riot, this bunch, bless them. They rise to activism eventually, but they are essentially an ordinary bunch of people. They’re slow to rise, as most people are. I think it’s very interesting that when the history of these things are written, history is either written by the activists, which is absolutely their right because they’re the ones who did the fighting, or historians, who turn towards the records that the activists have, because people doing nothing don’t leave any records behind.

So I think sometimes the history of HIV activism can almost seem too strong. And I’m praising to the skies those people who were there doing the early work. But sometimes I think there’s a danger of it looking like that early work was everyone, was the whole gay community rising up as one, and it absolutely wasn’t. I was there, it absolutely wasn’t. We still don’t get the whole gay community rising up as one, ever. Brilliant work was done, but this is deliberately looking at the slower path, the people who don’t rise to activism immediately, which is the majority, and how deadly that turned out to be. Activists were well ahead of the game, and thank God. It’s those people who got all the protocols into place and worked out the rules of safer sex and tried to publicize them while an awful lot of people were just dancing.

MW: That part of the story comes across really well through Jill, who is seeing and sensing things that everybody else could process, but they’re ignoring because they want to stay on the merry-go-round. One critical question about Jill — and I adore the character and really adore Lydia West’s performance — where was her sex life? What was Jill doing those years?

DAVIES: That’s one specific Jill. I mean, we won’t ask about her sex life and say that represents all women. That’s the story. Literally, the mother turns around to her at the end and says “Nevermind him having a boyfriend, where the hell is yours?” That’s exactly what she’s doing. This isn’t an absence, this is a story. Actually, part of the plot is that she is coerced by Gloria in the second episode into helping. It’s like she’s kind of trapped into that role. It’s not necessarily a nice story. She gets trapped into it with no option and forced into secrecy, but nonetheless awakens her activism and maybe she does spend too much time. There’s a deleted scene we’re going to release onto the Instagram page where someone asked about a date and she’s so busy with gay switchboard that she doesn’t. She’s so busy visiting Colin in hospital that she doesn’t go on the date and loses him. Which was to show that, “Nevermind their boyfriends, where the hell is yours?” So that’s a deliberate story, that’s an actual story.

Also, it’s like every scene in every episode relates to HIV. Every single scene. I don’t know how her and a boyfriend would do that. Or girlfriend, even if she woke up with a girlfriend one morning. That’s what this drama is, it’s about HIV and AIDS. Every scene leads to that subject directly, so I left out the Falklands War, I left out the miner’s strike, I left out the marriage of Charles and Diana, the biggest cultural event of the entire ’80s. There’s an awful lot in there when you reduce a decade into three and three-quarter hours, which is the total running length. Of course you’re going to miss things out.

In terms of a story, you see her parents, you see her fantastic relationship with her parents, you see her being coerced into helping gay men and then turning that on its head and triumphing, only to meet greater object while holding down a job which then becomes a full-time job which she balances with working on the switchboard. And then she has to go into war against the mother of her best friend, while still balancing her whole life and caring for her other friends. Are you saying she’s short of a story? What the hell is going on? She’s short of character? [Laughs.]

MW: I love your vigorous defense.

DAVIES: You want her to wake up with someone called Peter one morning? I don’t give a fuck. [Laughs.]

MW: I had to throw that out there. Now, about Ritchie, I talked to Olly Alexander.

DAVIES: Ah, you talked to Olly. Isn’t he amazing?

MW: He was great and I really enjoyed the character. What about Ritchie did you see in Olly?

DAVIES: Simply a great actor, that’s all. Literally someone who can do anything. I think he’s kind of limitless. In any actor, in any lead role the only thing you’re after is limitless. The great thing about limitless actors is they don’t beg for sympathy. I can’t bear actors who beg for sympathy. It’s like, what’s the point? And here’s a man who will happily take all the tough aspects of Ritchie — the selfishness, the danger of the man, the ignorance of him — and will happily play those with no apology, no regret, no compromise. As well, it comes through, all the joy, all the beauty, all the sexiness, all the hope, all the lost ambition of that boy.

Olly’s just got everything, he can do everything. He’s quite well known over here because he’s been number one. So I’ve been watching him for years doing stuff. I’ve been watching him dance, he’s been on dance shows doing stuff. He gave a speech at the Glastonbury Festival, it’s one of the most powerful, moving speeches you ever heard in your life about being young and gay and queer and other. So he’s a firebrand, he’s just a star waiting to happen. Well, he’s already a star.

Scene from It's a Sin
Lydia West and Olly Alexander — Photo: Ben Blackall / HBO Max

MW: I asked him about one aspect of the character that I thought was really important, the period that Ritchie goes through of denying the dangers of the disease. I appreciated that being in there, and think it needed to be.

DAVIES: Thank you, absolutely, because that’s what it was like. That’s what happened and those boys shouldn’t be written out of the fiction. They shouldn’t be written out of the history. And I also think they shouldn’t be demonized, because they were boys. It doesn’t matter what age they were, they were still a boy. In a society that has closeted them and repressed them, we expect them to act decently? How can we do that when we haven’t treated them decently? So of course he’s caught in his own denial, he’s caught in his own temper, he’s caught in his own fury, he’s caught in his own pain. Of course you act badly.

People act badly, anyway, let alone when they’ve got a virus inside of them. That’s second nature. But I wanted to understand those boys who did that. If a boy knew he had HIV, or if he suspected HIV but he carried on having sex, then that’s my job is to look into those corners. Actually, they’re not corners. That presumes it’s a dark little corner of experience. It’s like these things were happening out loud. I’ve talked to people who have done that since, and they tend to analyze their lives with hindsight and explain why they did it and they’ve all been to therapy. The ones who are lucky to have survived have come to terms with themselves and can rationalize why.

I only ever met a person like that at the time once. It must have been about 1993. I met someone who, fortunately, I was completely safe with. But he was furious, he was so furious. I’ve never forgotten him. He was young and he was beautiful and he was lovely and he was furious. And actually spoke about not caring if he infected someone. And I just had an immense amount of sympathy for him, even at the time. It was only a one-night stand, but I kind of thought how lucky I was that that was just a fleeting night, a fleeting glimpse into one person’s soul. But he’s kind of fascinated me ever since, that boy. I wonder what happened to him. I don’t know what happened to him. I can’t even remember his name, to be honest with you.

So I met these people. I’m always, always interested in trying to make sense of their lives, so that’s why I wrote that.

MW: I suspect you don’t want to play favorites, so I will play favorites for you by saying I absolutely loved Callum Scott Howells’ performance as Colin. It’s really hard to do sincere naïveté and have it be endearing and not annoying. I thought it was lovely as written, lovely as played. How did you find Callum?

DAVIES: That’s our casting director. You write “lovely, shy, Welsh boy” and out goes our casting director, Andy Pryor, who I’ve worked with for years. He did all of Doctor Who with me — he’s cast all the modern Doctor Who — and he’s a very powerful force for inclusive casting and expanding the diversity of casting. I learn a lot off him. I think he’s wonderful, him and his staff, they’re all brilliant.

Also, I’m Welsh, and I’m on a mission to put Welsh people on screen. We’ve all got our tribes, we’ve all got our causes. And, genuinely, talk about the underrepresented. You could watch a million hours of television over here, you could watch five million hours of television in America, and not see a Welsh person, couldn’t you? It’s like we just don’t exist anywhere. So that was a big passion project. And then, of course, everyone else loved him, it was the best audition in the world.

So yeah, I love him. One of the great delights of my life, casting that boy. And he’s untapped as well. It’s like he’s far more than Colin is. He’s far wilder and punkier and funnier in real life. He’s hilarious in real life. He’s one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet, so I’m dying to work with him again. He’s got a great future ahead of him.

MW: Another really important aspect of the show is that they all have really active sex lives. The message was sex-positive, even in the midst of all of the loss and disease. Why was it important for you to do that?

DAVIES: Well, it’s a very very difficult area for you to enter into. I knew I was sitting here to write a series about a virus that is sexually transmitted primarily, in my focus, in the gay male adult population. So the challenge was always from the start to make it sex-positive. And to not be judgmental about sex and to not make it like the sex was to blame, but that the virus was to blame and not to judge them. So if you think it’s sex-positive, I’m absolutely delighted. I grinned when you said that then.

I notice some people not seeing [it] that way. I know it’s an area in which it’s not only contentious, it’s an area of great fury, HIV and AIDS, because of the mistreatment by governments, because of the slowness of medication, because of the stigma. So sometimes I think fury can get in the way of a viewing. Sometimes the fury is absolutely justified. You can feel whatever you want. It’s made, I’m done, your reaction comes next and that’s, you know, off you go. But to get that very large reaction of people saying it’s sex-positive is a great joy to me because I think that’s the important thing. That’s how I want to remember those men. And the great times that they had. I don’t want it to become a guilt trip, I don’t want a guilt-fest. Because you start blaming the sex, you start blaming them, you start blaming those people for getting ill in the first place and you’re just a step away from becoming that homophobe that says, “Well it’s their behavior that makes them die.”

MW: Personally, I think you have done a tremendous amount for gay rights and culture through your work, the stories you’ve told, also the careers that you’ve helped. I think it’s real and I appreciate it.

DAVIES: That’s wonderful, thank you. Thanks.

MW: Taking it all in, what is your humble — or not-so-humble — perspective on your contribution to the culture?

DAVIES: Ah, I can’t answer that! [Laughs.] The final question is a killer. I can’t be the judge of that. I’m very, very proud of what I’ve done. I know that I can stand up for everything I’ve written and I can defend it to the hilt. There’s plenty of people who don’t like my version of the gay world.

Actually, I don’t know if there are plenty of people. I think I’m a quite popular writer. The fact that I’ve done stuff like Doctor Who — the ratings for Doctor Who were as high, in Britain, as the Super Bowl ratings. That was an enormous success, and they had great, big, bisexual, buccaneering characters on primetime TV being loved on Christmas Day by the whole family, so I am immensely proud of that.

I’m proud of it — and I don’t think it’s particularly world-changing. I think other people change the world in much better ways. I think it’s the people actually chaining themselves to lampposts who do change the world and who lobby in Parliament and get the laws changed and stuff like that. But if I can be a little part of that, I’m very happy.

It’s a Sin is available for streaming on HBO Max. Visit www.hbo.com.

Cucumber and Banana are available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Visit www.amazon.com.

Read More:

Olly Alexander on bringing ’80s London to life – and death – in ‘It’s a Sin’

‘It’s a Sin’ review: Brilliant, haunting drama about 1980s AIDS crisis

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