Rebellion, joy, sex, and panic define the days and ways of a group of young gay men in 1980s London in Russell T. Davies’ powerful British miniseries “It’s a Sin,” which debuted to some of the best reviews yet for HBO Max back in February. Gilded by a top-to-toe flawless ensemble, the five-episode drama opens a compassionate window onto lives touched and destroyed by the AIDS epidemic of the period, as its characters try to live freely out of the closet. For Davies, creator of the original groundbreaking British series “Queer as Folk,” “It’s a Sin” was about delicately treading the line between reminding a new generation of the horrors of AIDS, while also taking a nonjudgmental approach to sexual promiscuity and celebrating the joyousness of sexual freedom.
“It was a difficult line to tread but it’s exactly the line I wanted to be on,” Davies told IndieWire from London in a Zoom interview. “You’re talking about something that is seen as a sexually transmitted disease — it’s far more than that in real life — but nonetheless it’s seen as a sexually transmitted disease in the show in which you want to show sex being joyous. That’s a challenge, but that’s why I sit at this desk all day long. I love being in a difficult area.”
“It’s a Sin” centers on a flamboyant, out-and-proud group of close-knit friends in London, led by an ensemble of familiar faces and newcomers including Olly Alexander (as showbiz-aspiring Ritchie), Lydia West (his BFF and stage partner), Nathaniel Curtis (Ritchie’s onetime lover), Omari Douglas (a dandy Nigerian immigrant), and Callum Scott Howells (the tweed-wearing introvert of the group, and one of the first to fall victim to HIV). What makes “It’s a Sin” stand out in terms of its male ensemble is that the cast is comprised of entirely queer actors, which was by design.
“We made a decision at the beginning of the production, a decision I’d been heading toward for a couple years, to cast gay as gay entirely, or as entirely as we possibly could, which turned out to be entirely,” Davies said. “That’s an interesting decision because, obviously, you’re not allowed to ask whether an actor is gay or not. That’s a very good employment law…that stops the head of a supermarket banning lesbians from being on the tills. But what it creates is a circumstance where we could just be open and say, ‘We’re gay. This is gay. Come join us.'”
Davies said that the dogma in terms of working with casting director Andy Pryor was to say: “The doors are open if you want to come to share experiences, and tell us about your lives.”
Indeed, most of the cast members are millennials or Gen Zers: Olly Alexander is 30, Lydia West is 28, and Callum Scott Howells is 22, to name a few. And so the group hadn’t necessarily lived the HIV/AIDS epidemic firsthand. But Davies said he wanted the series to serve as a reminder for new generations, or at least to bring the crisis back into the conversation at a time where, globally, it’s well-managed by comparison to the ’80s onset when HIV/AIDS was a death sentence.
“I’ve got friends of your age, gay and queer people who are younger, and I was kind of aware that it was slipping out of the conversation,” said Davies, who is 58. “Amongst my generation it was slipping out of the conversation. I know it’s more than a gay male experience, but [AIDS] within the lens of this series is a gay male experience.”
Davies said “it makes a good point to say, ‘Why now?’ We should always salute those lives, celebrate those people, so it felt like a good time. I’m gonna say it’s always a good time [to discuss AIDS].”
“It’s a Sin,” written entirely by Davies and directed with a confidently loose energy by Peter Hoar, contrasts what was an obviously celebratory period in gay men’s lives (even under the eye of Margaret Thatcher) against the forces conspiring against it. In other words, “It’s a Sin” highlights a slice of the population for whom outside the closet doors came a terrible, unexpected abyss.
The series doesn’t shy away from the physical and physiological particulars of the hell wrought by AIDS on the human body — lesions, delirium, and all. But despite the tall order of the series’ darker elements, Davies said he encountered little in the way of homophobia or resistance in getting the series mounted. (The series premiered in the UK on Channel 4 before heading to HBO Max.)
“Twenty-one years ago, I wrote ‘Queer as Folk,’ so if I’m in the room, you’re not going to be very homophobic are you? I create my own atmosphere in that sense. No one is going to turn around to me and say take these gay characters out of the script,” Davies said. “What I can’t see is the people who won’t have me in the room in the first place, but they’re rare. We’re talking about television people, who are as liberal and soft as the best of us. There was no homophobia.”
The only resistance Davies said he encountered along the way was in coming off gay-male-oriented series “Cucumber” in 2015, and even his 2019 miniseries “Years and Years,” which featured a gay couple at its center. “I suspect there were people quite rightly at Channel 4 going, ‘Another gay male experience? Shouldn’t we be looking at lesbian stories? Transgender stories? Genderfluid, neutral, binary stories? That’s a very good impulse. That makes sense… We just had to be patient to wait for the right commissioner to fall into the right office at the right time. It didn’t make me angry.”
Still, as Davies said he likes to work in difficult areas, those queries didn’t faze him, and instead allowed him to turn out one of the most singularly visionary series of the year. “I’m used to a bit of a slog in getting things made. I’m not sitting here creating detectives and vampires,” he said.
All episodes of “It’s a Sin” are currently streaming on HBO Max.