DNA Review: The Joy And Heartbreak Of “It’s A Sin”

It's A Sin (Ben Blackall/Channel 4)

Russell T Davies’ latest TV series, It’s A Sin captures both the joys and the heartbreak of life in gay London in the 1980s.

Lead character Ritchie (played by Years And Years singer Ollie Alexander) arrives in London from the Isle Of White to study law. But after meeting Jill (Lydia West), he changes to Drama (to his family’s horror) and hits the gay clubs to explore his newfound sexual freedom.

Ritchie (Ollie Alexander) and Jill (Lydia West) | Photo: Ben Blackall/Channel 4

Davies vividly captures Ritchie’s rite of passage: hitting the gay bars with mates, sharing a glance across a glittering dance floor that inevitably leads to an awkward exchange of numbers the next morning. And repeat.

That’s the joyful part of the story, but there’s a looming sense of darkness as rumours and whispers swirl from across the Atlantic about a mysterious illness killing gay men.

Ritchie and Jill set up house in a Soho flat they name, “The Pink Palace”. One housemate, the sexy Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), provides an early amusing moments in an (almost) sex scene with Ritchie.

Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) | Photo: Ben Blackall/Channel 4

We also meet Roscoe (Omari Douglas), whose family threatens to return to their Nigerian homeland to punish him for being gay. There’s Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a quiet and naïve Welshmen who is drawn to the extroverted, colourful characters and also joins The Pink Palace household, where the parties and sex never seems to end!

It’s A Sin is based Davies’ own experiences of the gay ’80s, and he successfully combines the early hedonism of the decade, as the gay and lesbian scene became bolder and more visible, with some extraordinarily powerful scenes as the AIDS epidemic intensifies.

In one scene, Colin visits co-worker, friend and mentor Henry Coltrane (Neil Patrick Harris), who has been admitted to hospital with a mysterious illness. Colin discovers Henry locked away on a deserted ward where the staff are too afraid to bring his meals into the room.

Colin (Callum Scott Howells) and Roscoe (Omari Douglas) | Photo: Ben Blackall/Channel 4

The series depicts the hostility and inhumanity towards gay men as the disease spread. One character is imprisoned in hospital before legal threats see him released – this actually happened in the UK.

In another scene, a family burns the belongings of their son after he dies of AIDS, seemingly to erase all memory of him.

The character of Jill is pivotal to the series and Davies bases on a real person. In fact, the real Jill (actress Jill Nalder) plays the character’s mother in the show. Jill is not just a friend and housemate to the gay boys, she becomes a powerful advocate in the fight against HIV after educating herself on the disease. This is in stark contrast to Ritchie, who lives in denial that HIV is even real.

Ritchie (Ollie Alexander) and an unconscious Jill (Lydia West) | Photo: Ben Blackall/Channel 4

In the final scenes of the five-part series, Jill’s speech to Ritchie’s mother feels like Davies speaking directly; it feels very like a purging of the emotions of the era, Davies releasing his anger at the trauma inflicted on the gay community during the AIDS epidemic.

It’s A Sin will likely remain with you for many days.

Davies’ previous TV work includes Queer As Folk, Years And Years, Dr Who and Torchwood.

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