Words: Jamie Tabberer; pictures: Channel 4
"I just want to be happy!" declares bright-eyed and bushy-tailed baby gay Ritchie in It's A Sin episode one; a statement akin to Drew Barrymore enquiring "Who's there?!" in Scream.
That’s not to say Russell T Davies’ new Channel 4 drama is predictable.
Olly Alexander as Ritchie in It's A Sin
Granted, queers on TV have historically been forced to suffer in order to shine. But that tired old trope is thankfully long behind us, thanks in part to Davies himself after his seminal 1999 show Queer As Folk depicted gay life in Manchester as riotous, irresistible fun.
Times have changed again since then, with LGBTQ TV representation at an all-time high in 2019 and the problems faced by the queer kids of Sex Education and Love, Victor seldom a matter of life and death.
That, to be clear, is a relief. But so too is It’s A Sin: a serious show that asks deeply profound questions of its characters and makes no bones about its heavy subject matter: the onslaught of the HIV/AIDS crisis on gay men in early 80s London.
Lydia West as Jill
Ritchie’s “happy” line is a beautiful, painful moment, not least because of actor Olly Alexander’s expressive delivery. In fact, the Years and Years singer is gloriously, ridiculously expressive throughout this fast-moving five-parter: all darting eyebrows, messy hair and big, silly grin. It’s a performance you’ll either love or hate, or love and hate, and find impossible to ignore regardless. But he really excels in his quieter moments, recalling his compelling, vulnerable work in the 2013 Skins specials.
The urge to reach out and protect and/or shake him is unbearable, but the suffering has already begun. By the episode’s end, we’ve already said goodbye to one incredible, fully-realised character.
Callum Scott Howells as Colin
No episode is untouched by tragedy, but It’s A Sin is not one thing, tonally. Unlike the similarly-themed six-and-a-half-hour play The Inheritance - itself a sublime experience – IAS does not deserve a reputation for unbearable intensity. Much of it fizzes with passion and energy; particularly the first 55 minutes of ep one, as Ritchie and his tribe discover wild sex and unbreakable friendship in the sticky dive bars and pumping discotheques of the English capital.
Indeed, this perfect blend of larger-than-life LGBTQs prove every bit as fun and effervescent as Sex Education’s. For this writer, Callum Scott Howells is the standout as taciturn Welshie Colin, a shy and slightly odd virgin whose sweet essence overflows through full-hearted giggles and longing looks. (Although one wishes he talked more, as his accent is delicious.)
Omari Douglas as Roscoe
Meanwhile, Omari Douglas is a fierce presence with the funniest lines and Drag Race-worthy looks as Roscoe; Nathanial Curtis, although slightly underused, smoulders as Ritchie’s love interest Ash. None are two-dimensional, morally perfect stereotypes: that Ritchie, Roscoe and Ash pull some Mean Gay BS on weak link Colin, for instance, is hard to watch but feels depressingly true to life. And through his actions late in the series, the character of Ritchie becomes especially daring and challenging.
One character who does prove angelic, however, is Jill, played superbly by Lydia West. She brings perfect harmony to the core group, and their hideously dreary, but still somehow cool London home, the ‘Pink Palace’.
Nathanial Curtis as Ash
Among a sea of unforgettable gay men played by gay men - among them Stephen Fry in a scene-stealing supporting role - Jill is no accessory or afterthought, but the show’s vital, tender heart. She’s also fabulously funny.
Elsewhere, Keeley Hawes is amazing as Ritchie's mum: a complicated, fascinating mix of well-meaning maternal affection and damaging emotional repression, with one particular scene - the kind actors’ dreams are made of - a virtuoso turn.
Overall, it's hard to find fault. This is a powerful, emotional, entertaining and educational ride, boasting committed performances, impeccable casting, flawless writing and cross-generational appeal, all underscored by glossy, cinematic direction from Peter Hoar. It's quite simply one of the best gay TV shows ever made.
With HIV/AIDS diagnoses at their lowest in two decades, and elimination of the virus a real possibility by 2030, this is exactly the kind of cultural reset, antidote to complacency and foot on the accelerator we need. It’s A Sin? More like it's a virtue.
It’s a Sin premiere this Friday 22 January at 9pm on Channel 4. All episodes will be available to watch as a boxset on All4 immediately afterwards.
The Attitude 101 February issue featuring 101 LGBTQ trailblazers is out now.