By a strange coincidence Russell T Davies’ latest arrives in the midst of global pandemic and it’s undercurrent of fear and ignorance plays even more strongly in the world of 2021. Yet when Aids arrived in the early 1980s we were definitely not all in it together. The attitudes that caused the condition to spread and different reactions towards that spread are essayed in a drama that can be both rousing and subdued, happy and then sad. The first episode is as low key as someone like Russell T Davies can be but the drama builds as matters progress and there are some powerful moments along the way. Though I think the narrative is even handed, some may find the subject matter too unsettling or the presentation too biased one way or the other.
There are major Spoilers in this review after this point
To be honest that first episode didn’t captivate me as much as the first episodes of either Years and Years or Cucumber despite the actors’ best efforts and RTD’s breezy storytelling. Even after watching the whole thing I still feel Ritchie’s story at the start seems slim with little to distinguish him from anybody else which may be the point but he comes over as somewhat vapid and self- obsessed with no sense as to why he wants to become an actor. The awkward conversation he has with his family over changing his Uni course isn’t enough to tell the viewer much at all about him. Yet as matters progress we learn that this is very much him; he actually is the “dreamer” his father accuses him of being and this will have consequences.
The behavioral opposite is buttoned up Colin who seems to come from an old fashioned part of Wales and ends up working in a tailor’s shop on Saville Row, a staid, wood paneled place filled with suppressed characters who seem as if they are from the 1950s! In fact till he ends up in the same pub as the other main characters I was wondering if this was some sort of flashback. Meanwhile we enter Roscoe’s storyline when it has already started in one of the better scenes of the episode as his Nigerian family react to his very Out behaviour with some sort of séance. I’d have preferred to have joined this much more interesting story earlier but he gets less screen time than the other two. Before you know it all three are inhabiting the Pink Palace a large house full of debauched dancing students. What I didn’t know at that point was how important it was going to turn out that this episode was largely frivolous.
The shadow of the illness looms in the
background with occasional mentions until we witness the sad demise of Colin’s
work associate Henry Coltrane in solitary confinement on an otherwise empty hospital
ward. He is an odd character whose cohabiting with another man in a terraced
street since the Seventies is shown here as being accepted by the neighbours
though this would surely be the exception to a harsher normality? Happenstance
means the sight of PPE and much wiping of surfaces is rather more familiar now
than it was a year ago but the comparison between these scenes and those at the
house is the episode’s best aspect. Is this fate what is to come for the fun loving
Upping the ante, Episode 2 sizzles as the impending threat prizes apart lives on the periphery. People vanish or “go home” never to be seen again. This episode is about separation from family, from friends and society. There’s a long monologue from Richie listing the many myths of the cause of Aids (with a cheeky visual hat tip to the series Survivors when he mentions it was developed in a lab) which neatly sums up the state of denial amongst the gay community at this time.
The episode then tracks the fate of Gregory Finch aka Gloria, an older guy (well, he’s thirty!) whom Jill discovers is suffering from Aids. This proves to turn Jill from carefree spirit to worrier- one scene involving the washing of a cup is surprisingly tense and thus presents the exact opposite view to that expressed by Richie earlier. Her sudden meeting with Gloria’s parents is another great to watch scene. The drama starts to work its magic by declining to present any neat reunions (Roscoe remain excluded from his family even at his sister’s wedding) or last minute confessions (Gloria dies off screen and we see his stuff being burned).
With all great perils comes hypocrisy and we see Colin after a trip to New York (looking rather too much like Liverpool lol) being let go after his seedy boss had noticed some gay literature in the hotel room yet at the end of the episode we see that same boss being escorted from a public toilet George Michael style. All through it feels like the disease is advancing unchecked – if you think we’ve been ill served with facts about Covid 19 its shocking how the ignorance that the famous advert warned about is spreading even faster than the illness. In that respect `Don’t Die of Ignorance` was a genius slogan because that is what was happening.
Part 3 is where it starts to become a more emotional drama with turns you never expect. The unexpected illness that strikes Colin threads through the episode like a sharp knife, presented with delicate dignity. It is more shocking because we’ve just seen his excitement over something as mundane as getting a set of keys to the print shop he now works at! Most striking of all is the performance of Andrea Doherty as his mother. It is actually rarer than we think for a tv drama (as opposed to a soap) to portray someone who is completely ordinary in such a lifelike way that she becomes extraordinary. A mother battling for her sick son whatever the circumstances is a powerful thing to watch and Andrea Doherty does it magnificently, making the most of some great scenes written for her. There’s also a moment to make everyone applaud when a lawyer demolishes the legal and health reasons why Colin is being isolated, based apparently on a real case.
Colin’s unexpected early departure from the series is done with grace. As someone with experience of a family member who seems to change their personality due to illness I know how those other characters- and especially his mother- were feeling and its put across really well. Equally heart rending are Colin’s child -like pleas to his mother to save him.
What is striking too about the episode is what is not said- Ritchie’s stilted phone call to his mum where he doesn’t really say what he wants to and the way we find out Colin’s secret in flashback. In fact each time the group gather there are so many unsaid things that you keep thinking might be said but they are not. They all talk so much but never about what matters.
Two key scenes stand out in episode four. The first comes after a lengthy sequence involving Ritchie back home following his Aids diagnosis meeting an old school friend he once fancied. Their talk takes in reminiscences and even when he tells Martin some very intimate details of the way he felt about him, the latter doesn’t respond in any of the ways you expect. It offers a little beacon of hope perhaps that not everyone’s mind was closed even back in the 1980s. Later when Ritchie gets out of Martin’s car, he stands in the headlights and pulls some ballet poses. He- and we – know it is his last performance. This simple moment makes quite an impact.
The second moment is when Ritchie appears out of nowhere, turning up for an Aids action demo and leaping into the fray with a triumphant flourish. We shouldn’t really celebrate a policeman being attacked but having just seen Jill hit by another the viewer is in the fray of this battle and we know the tactics they are using. It is good too that when Ritchie finally reveals his situation to the others it is done with a defiant flourish- “I’m going to live” he declares though really everyone else knows he isn’t.
Lately, I keep seeing Keely Hawes being brilliant in things; when they repeated The Durrells last year I caught an episode out of curiosity and stuck with it because of her performance. In episode five she takes centre stage in the harrowingly abrasive final episode as the mother whose reaction to Ritchie’s predicament takes in a myriad of often conflicting contradictory emotions. It is a tour de force accompanied by much urgent walking from one ward to another, absolutely refusing to accept what is going on yet confused by it, looking for someone to blame who is not her son. Having watched so many scenarios where a grieving parent cannot come to terms with what has happened, is bewildered, angry and unable to properly express themselves I can say this is one of the most honest, open sequences I’ve ever witnessed. It works because Valerie is of her time yet her response is the timeless agony of a bereaved mother. The cruel twist that RTD includes in a scene where Jill meets her to go and see Ritchie and she tells her that actually he died yesterday is brutal to watch because the viewers want that reunion too.
Jill is of course the heroine of this story. As the boys fall away one by one she carries on loving them, supporting them, fighting for them. Even at the end we see her continuing her volunteering work at the hospital comforting a dying man she doesn’t even know. Yet she is not saintly and we know enough about her to realise what she is doing is, for the time, brave beyond measure. She is the loveliest character I think I’ve ever seen in a tv drama and I really hope there were people like her around then and that there still are now. Lydia West is fabulous in the role.
It would be wrong to say Ritchie is the hero of this story though, in fact his behaviour is reckless even when he thinks he might be infected. He chooses to try odd remedies and continue sleeping with people. That he ultimately has Aids despite denying it even to himself is not the surprise of this story but it means we have a main character who is deeply flawed- dodging the Aids test, lying about it even to his family, his friends. Can we still empathise with him now? I think we can because in the end isn’t that how most people would react? Isn’t he as much a victim of the times because of how being gay was still something many many people saw as shameful long before Aids. So Ritchie comes alive as a character once he thinks he may be dying, ironically enough. Even at the end he still talks of how much fun he had. We might judge such behaviour harshly from a 2021 perspective but part of the essence of this drama is reflecting the ignorance about Aids that existed back then in an atmosphere of rumour and innuendo. It helps too that Olly Alexander's performance wins us round every time we may doubt if we really want to follow Ritchie.
So the balance that RTD achieves with this drama is enviable. His characters encompass differing responses to the crisis while we also see the authorities reactions as well. This is more or less the same as Ritchie’s and others- fear, denial, actions that now would be seen as irresponsible. There was apparently supposed to be a sixth episode focussing on Jill twenty years later though I do wonder whether additional running time before the final episode might have been to the series’ benefit. I still think we needed a bit more about each of the man group before they met, especially Ash who gets sort of pushed to one side a lot of the time.
Accidentally this series goes out as we all find ourselves in the midst of something similar only worse. Aids was almost entirely spread by sex or blood transfusions. Covid 19 can be spread by talking. Yet it perhaps opens a window of understanding that would otherwise be absent even if I always feel a show like this is preaching to the converted. Bigots and deniers are not really going to watch a tv drama and change their minds.
It’s a Sin can be enjoyed without taking on the heavy lifting of blame and societal attitudes. It is a powerful drama especially episodes 3 and 4, hard to watch at times yet rewarding in it’s mixture of truth, energy, warmth and sorrow.