‘It’s a Sin’ (2021) Exploring Fear of the Unknown

This article contains spoilers for It’s a Sin

It’s not often that a show comes around at the perfect time and mirrors society’s current mentality to an almost eerie extent. In today’s unnerved and anxious world, Russell T Davies’ new show It’s a Sin (Channel 4) does exactly that.

It’s a Sin is a stunning drama by Davies, inspired by his own experiences as a young gay man in 1980s Britain. In classic British television fashion, It’s a Sin explores a heavy subject matter whilst still portraying the lightness and humour of its characters and setting. The show depicts a group of close friends and flatmates in London during the beginning of the AIDS crisis, most closely following aspiring actor Richie (Olly Alexander), innocent Welsh tailor’s apprentice Colin (Callum Scott Howells), and extravagant runaway Roscoe (Omari Douglas). 

It’s apt that the show comes now, at a time when the world is in the midst of another health crisis. On the surface, the show is about the early development of the AIDS epidemic through the eyes of these LGBTQ+ characters. However, It’s a Sin is also an exploration of fear of the unknown and the grey areas of morality and logical thinking that come as a result. 

The story begins with eighteen-year-old Richie moving to London from Isle of Wight. He meets Jill (Lydia West), a straight-talking and fun loving young woman with whom he quickly grows close. They both want to be actors, and spend their days performing together at small pubs and other gigs. Richie has big dreams, and his new surroundings allow him to embrace and explore his sexuality freely and frequently. When whispers of a new “gay disease” appear, Richie is the first to dismiss it. He has plenty of ways to explain it away – it’s only affecting men in America, and if it were real then it would surely be all over the news. Richie is just now able to have fun, and doesn’t want the idea of a surely fake disease to ruin his good time.

In a show that consistently defies our expectations, what happens to Richie is sadly one of the rare events that plays out exactly as we predict. After spotting some suspicious looking skin patches, he realises that his new boyfriend may have AIDS. Suddenly, Richie appears genuinely afraid. Richie, Roscoe, and their friend Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) get tested for HIV, but Richie leaves the clinic before receiving his diagnosis. He doesn’t want to find out – we know he’s already sure of the results. After actively trying to dissuade others from falling victim to the stories, Richie can no longer dismiss the truth now that it’s right in front of him.

Richie doesn’t tell his friends or parents about his suspected diagnosis, and over time this secret and the subsequent fear that comes along with it affect his decision making. We see Richie reject sex with Ash, his on-again-off-again lover. It’s a relieving moment, however this is short-lived when, after being hospitalised, he reveals that he has in fact slept with other men fully knowing he likely has AIDS. Despite now being presented with this significant blemish in Richie’s morality, we can understand where his decision may have come from. Richie is terrified of dying, and is alone in his worry. He wants to be touched and comforted physically, which he accomplishes through sex. It’s not hard to imagine that many scared gay men at this time perhaps experienced this same moral struggle. 

In one of the show’s most well crafted moments, Richie and the gang are in the back of a police van after a protest, and he demands the others not to touch him whilst he’s bleeding. He builds up to telling them something important, although the looks on their faces show that they already know. Instead of confirming this, Richie declares, “I’m gonna live.” The screen cuts to black and the first heavy beats of Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ crash in. It’s a spectacular moment with a big impact. We want to believe that he is going to live, but sadly we know that history tells us how unlikely this is.

The characters of Richie and Lydia stand at a bar surrounded by brightly coloured lights whilst Richie looks thoughtfully ahead.
Image courtesy of Channel 4/Ben Blackall

Jill is the first character to knowingly come into contact with AIDS. When their friend Gregory (David Carlyle) becomes sick, Jill visits daily to bring food and care for him. Jill is a level-headed and intelligent young woman, yet the idea of this unfamiliar and deadly disease brings out a different side. She wears gloves and keeps her distance from Gregory. At the end of each day, she viciously scrubs herself clean in the shower. After Gregory comes over to their flat and drinks a cup of tea, Jill washes the mug again and again. This isn’t enough. She later lays awake tormented in bed before deciding to smash the mug and throw it away.

It’s easy to look at this retrospectively with our current understanding of AIDS and exclaim how over the top Jill’s reaction is. However, a fair few of us can no doubt think back to the peak of the first Coronavirus lockdown last year and remember disinfecting the grocery shopping, afraid to miss even one spot of packaging that might have infectious bacteria. Misinformation and a lack of facts can make even the most sensible people afraid and irrational. Jill still turns up to care for Gregory each day, until he is taken home and eventually passes away. After this, Jill is determined to educate herself, becoming involved with AIDS awareness groups and support networks. At the end of the show, we see Jill visiting a hospital and holding the hand of a dying man who has nobody else. Fear affects her, but doesn’t change her once she makes an effort to understand. 

Fear can make us irrational, but it can also change our character in other ways. Richie’s Mum (Keeley Hawes) is a figure floating in the background, always checking if Richie is okay and trying to keep his Dad (Shaun Dooley) from losing his temper. From what we see, we believe her to be kind and caring. When they turn up at Richie’s hospital, they learn that he is gay, has AIDS, and is dying all at once. In a strange turn it is his Dad that takes action, declaring that they can fix Richie and breaking down in tears, while it’s his Mum that goes on a rampage. When she confronts Jill, she flips between self-destructing questions about whether she should have known, to accusing Jill of lying and getting in the way.

They take Richie back home, preventing the others from coming and visiting for what could be the last time. When she eventually does meet with Jill, it’s too late. Richie had already died the day before. It seems a villainous move, but can we blame her? She is not a malicious person, but a terrified mother. She is afraid of her son dying and afraid of having failed as a parent. Her fear restricts her empathy and takes her back to her most fundamental being, which is a mother who wants to be with and care for her son. 

Lydia and Roscoe nervously stand with a group of their friends at a protest wearing 'AIDS need aid' t-shirts.
Image courtesy of Channel 4/Ben Blackall

It’s undeniable that under the surface, the show is about fear and what it can do to people. However, it would indeed be a sin to not point out that the show is also about joy. The joy and celebration of life. Roscoe is a character that truly lives unabashedly and without fear. He leaves his extremely religious family in order to go and be himself. Colin is another source of optimism, with a hopeful and innocent way about him. He instantly becomes enamoured with the group’s fun and carefree lives. Ash is a character that loves wholeheartedly. When Richie is sick Ash is there with him, non-judgemental and caring. Even in times of fear and pain, there are always people that are able to live and love vicariously, providing a light. 

This is not the first time Davies has written about gay experiences and characters (see Queer as Folk, or Cucumber) but this is his first deep dive into the AIDS epidemic. It is easy to see some of the blurred lines between the fiction and his own experiences. In an article for The Guardian, Davies describes not being able to name some of the men he knew that died as their families to this day still maintain that they died of cancer or other diseases. This is alluded to in It’s a Sin, during a scene at a friend’s funeral. Even Jill is based on one of Davies’ real-life friends. 

We are currently living in an existence that doesn’t feel too distant from the world of It’s a Sin. Granted, we cannot compare Coronavirus to AIDS. We are going through a pandemic in which the whole world is paying attention, quickly and desperately trying to find a solution, and receiving active government attention. At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, many people died needlessly from a disease that was perceived to be their own comeuppance for the gay lifestyle. Still, there are definite similarities. Misinformation and a lack of facts are rife in both instances, and both AIDS and Coronavirus have brought out the worst in many people. Some 40 years ago, people were just as susceptible to fear as we are now.  

As Davies himself wrote in The Guardian, “The hysteria quickly caught fire, because fake news, false facts and conspiracy theories weren’t invented in 2020. They ran riot with AIDS in the 1980s.”

It’s a Sin is a dazzling show, exploring how people react differently to fear and the unknown. We cannot simply stop being afraid – it is in our nature. However, we can make efforts to understand how we react both historically and currently, and use our fear to both live and love furiously in defiance.