Met with near-universal acclaim when it premiered on Friday night, Channel 4’s latest drama It’s A Sin (created in partnership with HBO Max) takes us inside the HIV crisis and into the lives of a dynamic circle of Londoners during this time: Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), Colin (Callum Scott Howells), Jill (Lydia) and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). From the euphoria of the queer scene to the first worried whispers of a new, fatal virus it deftly captures the spirit of 1980s London, no doubt due to Russell T Davies’ touching, though at times humorous, script.
The man at the helm of the BBC revival of Doctor Who as well as cult classic Queer As Folk, Russell is a veritable titan of British television — and HUNGER was lucky enough to catch up with him to celebrate It’s A Sin’s release. Below, Russell discusses the lingering stigma around HIV, mourning the losses of his generation and the main issues facing the queer community today.
Let’s start somewhat at the beginning. How did you pick the series’ name?
Well it was initially called The Boys which was always something of a placeholder, I never liked that title. Then The Boys on Amazon came out, have you seen that superhero show? It was a comic strip, now it’s become very successful and obviously you can’t have two shows come along called The Boys. This was done as a co-production with HBO Max and they were the ones that emailed us basically saying: “You can’t do this, stop it! You’ve got to come up with a new name.” At that point, I’d already put [the song by Pet Shop Boys] “It’s A Sin” in the soundtrack. Then it just clicked in my head; “Think up another title — oh, It’s A Sin!” I’m delighted, I can’t believe we called it anything else.
Did you do a lot of the soundtrack? I didn’t know you were involved with that.
It’s half and half. I’m a producer on the show as well and I think half the songs are listed in the script and the other half were put in by the director and editor in post-production particularly the end title songs. It’s not just the Pet Shop Boys song “It’s A Sin” there’s an old song from the 1930s called “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie” that my Aunty Maureen used to sing. She was marvellous Aunty Maureen, very classy Welsh woman. When she died, at her funeral the vicar just patted the coffin and went; “Well done Maureen, well done.” The greatest testament to a life well-lived. So that was in my head as well, I always loved that song. No short answers here.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that It’s A Sin draws on some of your own experiences of living through the HIV crisis. Why did it take you so long to make a project about this period in your life?
I suppose it took a while because I was busy. I spent ten years making Dr Who so it wasn’t for that I’d be sitting here in 2008 discussing this project probably. Even recently I was on course to make this and then someone was like do you want to write A Very English Scandal, which is about Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Josiffe so suddenly two years of my life were gone as I was dying to write that, it had to be written immediately as a book about it had just been published. So you don’t plan these things to some extent but nonetheless I’m glad I took a while to do it because it kind of gives me a chance to get some perspective on things.
What do you think that perspective gives the work?
What I would have written 20 years ago would have been much angrier which is fine, because it’s a subject about which you can get very angry, but there are other pieces of work that are very angry, that have taken that territory. Specifically, The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, is a brilliant piece of work. It’s furious. That play was made into a film recently by Ryan Murphy and it’s coming back this year to the National Theatre. That allows me to be not so furious and to find other ways into it, it’s slightly more contemplative and also more fun. I got there in the end.
How do you think the series dialogues with the current moment?
People won’t believe that we shot this before the pandemic. With PPE being rolled out, people isolating, false facts, paranoia and fear, everything we’re going through. Sometimes I worry, that it’s synchronised in a bad way. I’m not sure that people put up with the virus all day long and then want to switch to Channel 4 and watch a drama about a virus. I hope it works. But it just goes to show in the end that it’s down to how you deal with a crisis medically and how you deal with it morally. It all turns on Westminster and you can guarantee they will let us down generation after generation after generation. Particularly the Conservatives. They did it in the 1980s, they’re doing it now. There’s no surprise in what we’re seeing here. This level of incompetence, this lack of compassion is Tory to its heart.
Do you think there’s still as much stigma around being HIV Positive as there once was?
Well, there’s not unless you’re the person being stigmatised, then it’s there 100%. A friend of mine was recently trying to adopt children and his HIV status was brought up in court three times. That’s illegal and the social workers brought it up, despite them being told it’s irrelevant. Just recently Gareth Thomas was practically blackmailed by tabloid journalists, they door-stepped his parents and told them he was HIV Positive. That’s now, that’s today it’s happened. There’s less fear and there’s less stigma but I wouldn’t particularly like to tell that to someone who’s been diagnosed today.
What would you say are the main issues that the queer community is facing now?
The biggest thing is the row over trans rights, it’s almost taken us back to square one. That’s an important issue, paralleled with the fact that these arguments are online, meaning that everyone’s opinion is amplified to be more hostile and furious, where the death threat has become a normal way of communicating. While we argue amongst ourselves about trans rights the male, hard right that runs this country is laughing — it’s exactly what they want.
Do you think there are parallels between how HIV Positive people were treated in the 80s and 90s and how trans people are treated now?
Yes, it’s the story of the Other. The heartbreaking thing about the arguments about trans people is that the numbers are so vanishingly small. And if you know any trans people you cannot recognise this portrait of them as predatory and violent and self-seeking or self-serving. It’s heartbreaking to see this get out of control.
With the HIV epidemic and its negative impact on queer culture, essentially robbing the community of a generation of talent, how do you feel as a cultural creator responding to that time now?
I have to be blunt and say it’s very typical for the younger generation to say they were robbed of an entire generation. It wasn’t an entire generation, a lot of activists very quickly rose to the challenge and educated people about safe sex. An entire generation was not lost. I’m still here. There are thousands of [queer] people my age who are still alive, we were not wiped out. We suffered terrible losses but the speed at which we learned and fought and practised safe sex is a testament to our survival. It’s always tempting to say, when we’re talking about lost generations, that we’ve lost doctors who could have found the cure for cancer. But I don’t care about whether the dead people had a great legacy or not. It’s like, their lives were important if they just had a nice cup of tea and a pizza with their mates on a Friday night. That’s still a life well-lived and those people are still beautiful and valuable. That life is still missing. The losses take many shapes and forms.
It’s A Sin airs weekly on Channel 4 at 9pm and will be available to stream as a boxset on All 4.