Introducing a new feature on Lust Zine: The Watch List. Each month I pick a series or movie that I’ve been watching and loving recently, and tell you why you should be watching it. This month, 'It’s a Sin'.
'It's a Sin' is a British five-part mini series written and created by Russell T Davies. It’s set in the 80s and is a coming of age story of five 18 year old people who all live in a flat (The Pink Palace) together in London. The five episodes span ten years during the time that the AIDS epidemic hit the UK. In each episode you see how HIV starts to creep into the lives of these teenagers and their friends just as they’re growing up, leaving home and having fun in London. It’s a heartbreaking, funny, poignant, and, beyond anything else, important account of the emerging HIV crisis and how it was criminally handled over the course of a decade.
The cast features gay actors playing gay characters and includes singer Olly Alexander from the band Years & Years, Stephen Fry, and Neil Patrick Harris from How I Met Your Mother. The script and characters are based on the real life experiences of Russell T Davies, who was also an 18 year old gay man living in London in 1981.
But this series isn’t just about the AIDS epidemic, it’s also about love and friendship complete with wild parties, drunken behaviour and sex, lot’s of sex. Watching this series was an emotional rollercoaster that was just as tear inducing as it was laughter inducing. I urge everyone to watch it and I guarantee you will learn something new about that era.
Here are just some of the reasons I loved it…
'It's a Sin'. Photo credit: Channel 4
Russell T Davies is an amazing queer storyteller and has elevated LGBTQ representation in television since making Queer As Folk in the 90s. So his decision to use a gay director and to cast queer actors for queer roles, including HIV positive actors, may not come as a surprise but it’s something that is still not common place in the entertainment industry. We must continue fighting for representation to let people tell their own stories. And it’s not just about letting gay people play gay characters, it’s also about fighting years of straight washing where we let heterosexual people “play gay”.
Davies explained his decision, “I feel strongly that if I cast someone in a story, I am casting them to act as a lover, or an enemy, or someone on drugs or a criminal or a saint… they are NOT there to ‘act gay’ because ‘acting gay’ is a bunch of codes for a performance. It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020. You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places.”
Another important part of Russell’s representation is that he showed gay men living in lots of different ways - each character has a different background and comes from a different walk of life. Some are loud and proud, others are shy and introverted; he shows us time and again that there is not one cookie cutter way to “be gay”.
There are sex scenes a plenty in the series and they don’t shy away from showing a realistic version of what sex looks like (look out for the first sex scene in particular that’s cringe worthy but very realistic)… So to make sure everyone on set was comfortable they had an on set Intimacy Coordinator to choreograph the sex scenes just like you would a dance routine. They went through the sex scene like a dance and told them what to do when, which angles to face.
Intimacy Coordinators are becoming more common on mainstream sets nowadays and I love to see it. It’s a position I always try to ensure I have filled when I’m shooting to take care of the performers I’m working with and to ensure they feel looked after and safe to explore their sexualitty in a comfortable way. They are typically present during the conversation between the performers before the sex scene and are generally there to discuss any concerns the performer may have throughout the day.
Allies, in both the LGBTQ and other underrepresented communities, play an important role in our lives and 'It’s a Sin' shows this perfectly with the loveable character of Jill. She shows us that the most important thing an ally can do is listen to the community and take action.
The character was also inspired by Russell T Davies’ own friend Jill who was very active in the response to AIDS and who he lived with in their own Pink Palace in London. He said that she was such an inspiration that he couldn’t even change her name, he also cast her as the fictional Jill’s on screen mother.
'It's a Sin'. Photo credit: Channel 4
The art direction across the series is amazing. Set in the 80s in London, there’s a lot to get stuck into, but it feels real because it’s not too over the top. The director, Peter Hoar, explains their decision to be careful with the set design,
“In many ways, I think that being too nostalgic in drama is a curse. Because it risks becoming a bit of a veneer over things and I don't think you get into the heart of the drama […] What's important to me is the story, the actors, the characters, all of those things. Sometimes design can get in the way of those things, can hold you back from believing in the world because you're constantly checking it.”
They also show what you can do with a creative crew by filming the New York scenes in Liverpool, and most of the London scenes in Manchester.
I think a lot of people will learn a lot from the series, especially about a subject that hasn’t been taught in history lessons at school. Some people are still unaware of this specific moment of history and how people were treated yet it’s a really important part of history and the legacy still remains today.
The series will teach you about the horrendous Section 28 brought in by Thatcher that made it illegal for schools to "promote homosexuality" which then meant if a student was being bullied for being gay there was nothing a teacher could do; the stigma and shame around HIV & AIDS that we still feel the effects of today; the horrendous government response to the crisis; and how Big Pharma withheld life saving drugs.
The series really shows the importance of joy and happiness in the face of tragedy. It’s very different to many other representations of the AIDS epidemic because at the same time as being heartbreaking it’s also optimistic, fun, and hilarious. Despite living during a terrible disease, it was also a fun time for people having a great time and a great life, and the series shows this.
'It’s a Sin' a good place to start to understand more about what happened during this era, and to see it from a British perspective too which we haven’t seen depicted in the media very much. You can watch all of the episodes for free on Channel 4 if you’re in the UK or with a HBO subscription.
Have something you want to recommend for the Watch List? Tell me about it in the comments!