‘It’s a Sin’: Sex, Adventure and Loss in 1980s London
‘It’s a Sin’: Sex, Adventure and Loss in 1980s London
In 1999, “Queer as Folk” burst into prime time on British television. Overnight, its creator, Russell T. Davies, became his country’s most famous gay writer. The first episode featured a 29-year-old man having sex with a beautiful 15-year-old boy, an image that produced just what Davies wanted: nearly universal outrage.
Writing in this newspaper, Sarah Lyall described “an explosion of graphic language, male nudity and explicit sex guaranteed to offend as many people as it enthralled.” The scandalized ranged from conservatives who thought it glamorized gay sex (it did) to gay activists outraged by its stereotypes: promiscuous, drug-taking young men seducing underage boys — and having the time of their lives. And yet, by its first season finale, the show’s humor and its authenticity had won the hearts of three million viewers.
The British “Queer as Folk” left only one thing out. It started in the 19th year of the AIDS epidemic, but it never mentioned AIDS because Davies didn’t want gay lives to “be defined by disease,” he said. “It was the right thing to do.”
Twenty-two years later, at the age of 57, Davies has finally tackled the epidemic he assiduously avoided. The result is “It’s a Sin,” a highly-autobiographical five-part series arriving Feb. 18 on HBO Max. It follows the lives of four gay men in their 20s — and a crucial girlfriend — who arrive in London at the beginning of the ’80s, just as Davies did, just as rumors of a mysterious new plague began to percolate across the Atlantic.
“You follow their lives as the virus closes in on all of them,” he said.
The series, which premiered last month in Britain, has all the honesty, boisterousness and sexiness of “Queer as Folk.” But “Sin” is also infused with tragedy. If the rapturous reception it received in the British press is a reliable indicator, it could become the most celebrated AIDS drama since “Angels in America.”
AIDS is the crucible living inside every gay writer old enough to remember it. It scratches away at our insides until we figure out how to wrestle with it. We must explain why we survived: mostly by dumb luck. And then do justice to the other half of our generation who did not — all those beautiful men who never made it past 40.
Davies is proud of his motto: “A moment’s imagination is worth a lifetime of experience.” But he actually needed many triumphs and one real tragedy before he could tackle this smoldering history. The current pandemic has provided him with the perfect backdrop, offering so many echoes of an earlier apocalypse.
Last month he spoke to me by phone from his hometown, Swansea, Wales, where he lives in a big house with a view of the sea, when he isn’t being a city boy in Manchester. His aspirations for “It’s a Sin” were “very simple,” he said. “I wanted to create characters that you love so that when they’re gone, you miss them exactly the same way we missed the people that we lost.”
He can still remember exactly when he realized the epidemic was real. He was outdoors in June 1983, walking in the blazing sun, when he spotted this headline in Him Monthly magazine: “AIDS Gay Death-Plot Panic” — the words superimposed on an erotic drawing of naked men boiling to death in a test tube. “It’s a Sin” recreates all of the horror he felt in that moment.
A 6-foot-6-inch Welsh giant, Davies is a prolific screenwriter and showrunner, and a gleeful troublemaker. He suggested that even when he had avoided the subject of AIDS, it had always been a subtext of almost everything he wrote.
“If you look at my work over the last 20 years, I was always telling the story of sex leading to death, which I do think was very profoundly molded into me during the ’80s,” he said. “In ‘Queer as Folk,’ there’s a death after a one-night stand. In ‘Cucumber,’ the entire thing takes six episodes to head towards this disastrous one-night stand where a man is murdered. In ‘Years and Years,’ the set piece is the death of Danny Lyons, played by Russell Tovey.”
“So I think, actually, I’ve been writing it and writing it and writing it,” he added. “And now I’ve put a label on it.”
An American remake of “Queer as Folk” (which Davies didn’t write) was a hit for five seasons on Showtime, and it did deal with the AIDS epidemic. Like its English ancestor, it provided millions of young lesbians and gays with their first notions about how they might become comfortable with, or even celebrate their queerness.
In Britain, one teenage viewer of the original show was Olly Alexander. Now a 30-year-old pop star and the frontman for the band Years & Years, he is the lead actor in “Sin.” Davies said he had Alexander in his head when he started writing Ritchie Tozer, his chief protagonist, who is an aspiring actor. Ritchie is also the closest thing to a stand-in for the author.
“Ritchie is actually the most complex character,” Davies said. “He’s the one who doesn’t necessarily do good things.”
Alexander told me he had been “a bit scared” when he first watched “Queer as Folk” as a 14-year-old. “But it was also groundbreaking to see men figure out relationships and have sex with each other,” he said. “It was really a big moment for me.”
Davies had never met Alexander before casting him in his new show, but as soon as Alexander auditioned for the part of Ritchie, Davies knew he had his star.
The young singer also checked two other boxes Davies considered essential: He already had an enormous young fan base (his band’s first two albums had gone to No. 1 and 3, respectively, in Britain) and he was a proud and out gay man. When his band Years & Years performed at the Glastonbury festival in 2019, Alexander gave an impassioned four-minute speech about gay rights that went viral. Standing in front of a huge sign proclaiming “Queer Is Beautiful,” he noted that he was speaking on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
“And the only reason I’m able to stand up here and talk about my gay self is because of all the people who came before us who fought for the rights of lesbian, gay and transgender people,” he declared. “Everybody here has the chance to change history.”
That side of Alexander was especially appealing to Davies. “What’s lovely about him is that he’s got a proper gay conscience,” Davies told me. “He was genuinely responding to a piece about the AIDS crisis. That was already in his heart, something he wanted to acknowledge and salute and do justice to.”
The admiration is mutual: “He’s our hero,” Alexander said of Davies.
The other element of “It’s a Sin” that is completely autobiographical is the character Jill Baxter, the larger-than-life girlfriend every successful gay gang requires. The role is played exuberantly by Lydia West, a young star who made her debut in Davies’s previous HBO show, “Years and Years” (there is no connection to Alexander’s band, although he and Davies are amused by the coincidence).
The role is particularly important to Davies, although West didn’t learn that until the day before the first script read-through.
“Russell sent me a text saying, ‘Lydia, I don’t mean to alarm you, but Jill is basically loosely based on a very close friend of mine,’” she said. “‘And just something else to add: She’s playing your mother, and you’ll meet her tomorrow.’”
“And I was like, ‘OK Russell, no pressure whatsoever!’”
The real Jill is Jill Nalder, an actress and a close friend of Davies’s since they were teenagers. Her London apartment in the ’80s was the original “Pink Palace,” the name given to the apartment-club house shared by the 20-somethings of “It’s a Sin.”
“She was that woman in London literally holding the hands of the dying,” Davies said. “She’s the real deal.”
For West, “It was just great to have her on set with me and playing my mother,” she said. “It just felt like a massive honor.”
Another thing Davies thought he needed was an American star to convince HBO to put money into the production. His casting director suggested giving Neil Patrick Harris the role of a Henry Coltrane, a gay tailor on Savile Row who’s in a 30-year relationship with a Portuguese steward from Iberia airlines. It turned out that Harris, like Alexander, had been a huge fan of the British “Queer as Folk.”
In a telephone conversation from his Harlem brownstone, Harris told me that “Queer as Folk” had been a “real defining piece of content” for him when he was struggling for examples to make him feel “vital and sexy.”
“There’s something about what Russell does, whether it’s ‘Queer as Folk’ or ‘Years and Years’ or ‘A Very English Scandal,’” he said. “It has a racing heartbeat, and you immediately want to know more about the characters.”
Harris was “incredibly flattered and immediately enthusiastic” when asked to do “It’s a Sin,” he said. “It made me cry, it turned me on. It felt important to a generation that remembered it, but even more so to a generation that has no knowledge of it.”
Davies said if he had sent Harris “a thriller about cocaine, he wouldn’t have been interested.”
“But when you give him a script about AIDS,” Davies continued, “the intelligence kicks in, that social conscience kicks in, and that’s how we got him.”
Davies has applied his own intelligence toward all sorts of series, including one of Britain’s most beloved. His biggest popular triumph came when he engineered the revival of “Doctor Who,” the most important TV show of his childhood and a franchise that occupies a singular place in British popular culture. His version was a giant hit when it premiered on the BBC in 2005, drawing 10.8 million viewers for its first episode. It also gave Davies the platform for his most widely-seen subversive success: the bisexual character Capt. Jack Harkness, who kissed the Doctor on the mouth in the fifth episode.
The most searing event in Davies’s life was also the most personal one: caring for his husband during a terminal illness. Davies met Andrew Smith, a handsome Customs agent, in a Manchester club in 1998, and they fell in love and eventually moved to California. Then in 2011, Andrew learned he had brain cancer.
Davies had never had the slightest interest in marriage, but in 2012, after they moved back to Manchester, they finally made the trip to the registry office “because we thought Andrew was going to die right away. He tricked me into it!” Over the next two years, Andrew’s therapy included seven craniotomies, but by 2014 he had stabilized, Davies said, “and we kind of thought he was going to survive.”
He discovered something he had never suspected: the chance to care for an ailing husband can be a gift. The time of Andrew’s illness was actually “the best eight years of our lives together,” Davies told me in our last conversation. “A lot of people thought we were suffering. Actually, it was a very beautiful time — it was very enormous fun to be in each other’s company. So, weirdly, I wouldn’t have missed it.”
Andrew died in 2018. I asked Davies if the experience affected how he wrote about death.
“Undoubtedly,” he replied. “The fact of missing someone, of losing them — I already knew what that felt like. But yes, in a good way I think it infused it with a sort of truth. There’s an authenticity to it.”