Words: Alastair James; pictures: Channel 4 and Markus Bidaux
There aren’t many TV shows whose success you can measure in terms of the real-life impact they’ve had. But It’s a Sin is definitely one of them.
Russell T Davies’ drama, which tells the story of a group of friends through the joy and heartbreak of the ’80s and the Aids crisis, has potentially saved lives and is truly deserving of the Inspiration Award at the 2021 Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards, powered by Jaguar.
Coinciding with February’s National HIV Testing Week, the show, which has become the most viewed on Channel 4’s All 4 service, inspired a huge interest in testing, with more than 17,000 tests ordered during the week – double the amount for the previous year, according to the HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust.
The Trust also saw a 30 per cent increase in calls following the show’s debut as well as a flood of traffic to its website, including to pages regarding transmission and treatment.
‘La’ T-shirts have become ubiquitous: more than 35,000 have been sold, raising in excess of £500,000 for the Terrence Higgins Trust, allowing it to carry on its vital work.
The charity’s campaigns director, Richard Angell, describes the series as an “awakening” for himself and his peers. The show, he says, forced a reckoning with the Aids crisis for the whole LGBTQ+ community, especially helping a generation to come to terms with what happened.
It’s raised the issue of HIV policy at government level, too.
“I think it’s leaving a long tail at a time when the HIV sector is saying to the [UK] government ‘we can reach an end to HIV [transmission] by 2030. The HIV Commission has given you the blueprint, they’re drafting an action plan and now we need the money to get opt-out testing and more in our hospitals.’”
The media pickup, Richard says, has amplified the impact, with more people spreading messages regarding PrEP, U=U, and around testing. The show has emboldened people to have conversations about HIV/Aids and challenge stigma as well.
Garry Brough agrees. Diagnosed with HIV in 1991, aged 23, he was given only five years to live and was then told he had Aids in 1995. He counts himself lucky to survive and has made a career out of offering support to others in his role at the HIV charity, Positively UK.
It’s a Sin hit close to home for him.
“It was largely my story. It so reflected my experiences of the ’80s, being diagnosed, and the challenges after that. Its impact on me was one of immediate recognition and gratitude for telling that story.” The show allowed Garry to reconnect with his past, which he’s glad of.
“There were emotions I hadn’t dealt with, and it was good to be brought back to that place and reconnect with my younger self.”
Speaking to Attitude about the show receiving the Inspiration Award, Russell T Davies shares that the ripples of his latest work have continued to this day.
“Just recently, someone told me their colleague shared his HIV status at work, after 20 years of hiding it, because of the show,” the Queer as Folk creator tells the Attitude Awards issue - out now to download and to order globally.
Reflecting on It’s a Sin’s recent win at the National Television Awards, Davies paid tribute to all the activists and researchers, adding, “For an Aids drama to win a public vote on the biggest commercial channel takes my breath away.
"Maybe things are getting better. Maybe.”
Thankfully, the picture around HIV and Aids these days is much more positive. With PrEP helping to prevent many from catching HIV in the first place and effective treatments available for those with the virus, it’s no longer the death sentence it once was.
But as important as it is to celebrate where we are now, it’s crucial to remember what’s come before, especially as we mark 40 years since the very first diagnosis of the virus. Shows such as It’s a Sin remind us of that and those we have lost.
The Attitude Awards issue is out now.