I was never taught about HIV and AIDS at school. I can’t recall ever having a frank discussion about HIV and AIDS with my friends or family.
But I thought, despite being a cis-gendered, heterosexual woman, who definitely considers herself an active LGBTQ+ ally, that I knew about HIV and AIDS.
I was wrong.
This review may contain spoilers, so please don’t read on until you’ve watched the series! You can watch It’s A Sin on All4 if you’re based in the UK and will be available for viewers in the US on HBOMax from 18th Feb 2021.
Russell T Davies’ five-part Channel 4 drama serial series was released at the end of January 2021 to huge critical acclaim. The story follows five friends as they live together in London from 1981-1991, right in the midst of the emergence of, and then rapid spread of, HIV and AIDS. Four of the friends are queer men (all leads played by queer actors, a fantastic strike for true representation on the silver screen), one heterosexual female ally, and a supporting cast of their friends, families and colleagues. The majority of the actors are LGBTQ+, and one is ‘out’ as HIV+.
Incredibly currently apt as viewers literally live through a global pandemic of a killer virus, the characters are at first living amongst complete unawareness of the virus before disbelief and scepticism set in. And then, people they know; and those in the friendship group; start dying. Almost cruelly, the narrative documents these 20-somethings as they move out of their parents’ homes for the first time to live amongst others in the LGTBQ+ community – feeling an unprecedented (to them) degree of freedom and acceptance in a society where being gay was a huge taboo and was still actively discriminated against.
While homosexual sex was technically legal when the series begins (consensual, private, sexual relations between two men both over the age of 21 was legalised in the UK in 1967), most of those within the community were not ‘out’ to family and friends; and many never left the closet at all.
What grips you from the off with It’s A Sin is the raring naivety, yet bravery, that shines through in the young characters. Roscoe, running away from a religious family to the streets of London with no plan or safety net and doing so in a mini skirt and crop top; Ritchie, who’s a proud Tory despite the party literally being headed by a woman who criminalises the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality with Section 28; Colin, who appears to be a virgin and moves into a flat with the group knowing next to nothing about them; and Ash, who starts work as a teacher only to abruptly realise that his own life cannot even be discussed with his students or colleagues as to do so would be illegal.
Admittedly, I immediately adopted Colin as my favourite. He went on to break my heart. Men always do.
One of the most brilliant aspects to Russell T Davies’ writing with It’s A Sin is undoubtedly its relatability – whether or not you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community (and arguably, of course, those not in the community are those most in need of education on their history). Its incredibly diverse cast and different lifestyles (because, sorry not sorry homophobes, being gay is not a lifestyle choice) mean that everyone will see something, question something or identify with something in at least one person on screen. The awkward condom-fumbling sex scene is something many will have experienced similar to in their late teens. The biting your lip on an important topic for the sake of not getting sacked from a job is sadly common. The homophobic and discriminatory language use will make most visibly cringe but recognise as something used by someone they know. However much viewers may not want to, they will ‘get’ it.
It’s A Sin being released when it was immediately draws comparisons to the coronavirus pandemic. The deluge of misinformation through ignorance, the sheer terror around the methods of transmission, the comparisons to the flu and the apparent lack of urgency from authorities (who with HIV and AIDS, frankly didn’t seem to care about those dying because they weren’t hetero white families with 2.4 children) are all scarily reflected in the current climate. It certainly prompted me to wonder how those virus-deniers back in the 80s feel about the crisis now; and what could the covid-deniers of today learn from them? Mass hysteria loomed, and it took the better part of a decade to be absolved. Even then, the Conservative government’s Section 28 legislation ensured there was insufficient education and information shared onward to avert a further surge of infections.
The narrative of It’s A Sin is undeniably sad, but also hugely informative. For me it highlighted several facets of the HIV/AIDS crisis I would never have considered (albeit they are common knowledge amongst those who lived through this time period as adults). Many men never told anyone they were infected and went on to die alone with their families and loved ones never informed. Many men just disappeared and never returned – a fact which is gut-wrenchingly revealed by Jill Nalder, the real person who the character Jill Baxter is based on. She recalls it as a startlingly common occurrence in interviews reflecting on the time.
It’s A Sin is a period piece but one in which most viewers will still have access to those who lived through the era. With this in mind, along with the hugely educational storyline and the underpinning threads of humanity, kindness, friendship and love, it is truly something I believe every adult should watch. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn something – and hopefully, it’ll incite you to learn more about, support and actively ally with the LGBTQ+ community. Fingers crossed, anyway.
The header image on this blog has full copyright assigned to Channel 4, the RED Production Company and STUDIOCANAL.