‘It’s a Sin’: An insight into the AIDS outbreak of the 80s
* This article contains spoilers of It's a Sin
It’s a Sin (2021) is a 5-episode British series on Channel 4 that takes viewers on a journey of what life was like for the LGBTQ+ community when AIDS first broke out in the 1980s. Russell T. Davies does an outstanding job of effectively depicting how the epidemic changed the lives of the community. At the start of the 80s, Davies himself was 18 years old and this is reflected in the way he brings It’s a Sin to life. The series is a full circle experience: it breaks your heart and leaves you feeling empty, yet at the same time, it fills you with joy and makes your heart feel whole again. In honour of LGBTQ+ History Month, I am reviewing this masterpiece with the hope that you will all fall in love with it as I have.
How the story unfolds
It’s a Sin follows the lives of three young gay men who arrive to London in 1981 in search of a life of acceptance and excitment. The first is Ritchie (Olly Alexander), who left a loving home in the Isle of Wight to study Drama at university. Then there's Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who fled from a deeply conservative, religious home in the most fashionably defiant manner after his family attempted to 'purge' the homosexuality out of him (even if that meant sending him to Nigeria). Finally, you have Colin (Callum Scott Howells), who is from the Welsh Valleys, is the quietest of the three, and absolutely loves his new job at a tailor’s shop. There is also Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), another gay man in the group, and Jill (Lydia West), Ritchie’s best friend at uni. They become each other’s family away from home, living together in a shitty house they name the 'Pink Palace'. They commit themselves to enjoying every freedom London has to offer and in the first episodes, the scenes are filled with sex, music and laughter.
However, as the series progresses, things start to become a little less joyful. In 1981, the first reports of a new, unknown disease were circulating around the UK. Initially, Jill, being the mother of the group, was the first one to become increasingly concerned about the disease that was making headlines, whilst Ritchie continuously denied it's existence.
The series then becomes focused on how the disease was believed to affect only gay men, hence why it was coined the ‘gay plague’. The group of friends start to hear more and more about gay men who have ‘gone back home’ and have never been seen again. When these men began falling ill, no one really knew what they were suffering from. Was it cancer? Pneumonia? Diabetes? Not even doctors knew at first, and if they did, they treated it as a taboo subject.
What can we learn from It's a Sin
There are some key elements of the series that stood out to me. Firstly, as AIDS was a new disease, there was a significant lack of information about what it was and what its side effects were. As a result, there was a cloud of uncertainty that loomed over the lives of the young men and Jill. For example, Colin goes to New York on a business trip and Jill asks him to bring back any books and newspapers he could find that mentioned HIV and/or AIDS as people were better informed about them in the US than in the UK. The lack of knowledge about AIDS led many families to destroy their sons' belongings, thinking they too could catch AIDS if they touched anything of theirs. It also led patients being unlawfully confined to their rooms, as though they were prisoners. with food being left outside their rooms until a loved one carried it in.
It may be difficult to imagine how this could have been possible given that there is an overwhelming amount of information available to us all today. Yet, think back to the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. In a similar way, that was, strangely enough, history repeating itself again. Although with COVID-19 everyone was targeted across the world, the same principle remains: in an epidemic, the absence of reliable, scientific information leads to mass hysteria in society, and fear of those affected. Today, post-pandemic, we can empathise a little more with the feeling of widespread uncertainty and irrational responses to the emergence of a new, prolific crisis from many in society. We are also all too familiar with the feeling of an epidemic bringing the joys in your life to an abrupt and painful halt, just as AIDS did to the young men in It's a Sin.
Secondly, the sentiments of loneliness and isolation that radiated from the series was unequivocal. For the men that didn’t have families to take them home, they were left to die alone in hospital, with the shame of being gay and the shame of contracting AIDS. For those with families, they were usually hidden away and died secret deaths. Many families had to bury their sons with the shame that came from the social stigma of having homosexual children. One of the scenes that stuck with me the most was when, towards the end, Jill sat beside people’s beds to comfort them, when their families and friends failed to do so. She stepped up with unconditional love because she wasn’t ashamed or scared of them; she felt empathy for she too lost some of those closest to her to the same disease. Jill showed that love has no boundaries, depsite whether she knew these people or not. Her comforting them in their last hours was a really beautiful moment. As a whole, the gay community was met with a lot of cruelty and ignorance, even though they were the most devastated by this disease.
Lastly, the realism that Davies was able to convey in his series is unmatched. As you are watching the series unfold, in a way, you feel like the characters are also your friends, that you are also experiencing everything they do, and feel everything they feel. These are people that lived large, so when their deaths comes it makes the story feel even more emotional. You can connect deeply with these characters, especially in hindsight of COVID. The characters represent people who actually lived through these experiences. Whilst watching it, you can only think about the thousands of individuals that went through what the group of friends experienced.
Personally, Colin was my favourite character. He pulled at my heart strings and made me fall in love with his Welsh accent and innocence. His close-knit relationship with his mother played on my mind because there were many who weren’t fortunate to have a mother like Colin did. Yet, Davies presents this juxtaposition of happiness and joy at the start of the series with a painful and gut-wrenching end that I’m sure hit home for many.
All in all, I couldn’t recommend It’s a Sin enough. It’s a series that will leave you sobbing, yet feeling wholesome all at once. Of course, the series naturally gets progressively darker but in the midst of all the hurt and pain, it never loses its wittiness. The title itself is extremly fitting: some say that it’s a 'sin' to be gay, but the real tragedy is having your life stripped away from you, with barely any knowledge of how and why it is ending. It's a Sin narrates the story of a beautiful tragedy. A tragedy that is bright and colourful and inclusive, full of celebration, youth, love and friendship. At this point, all I can say is watch it, it would be a sin not to.
Andreia is our Society & Politics Editor and a Civil Servant at the Ministry of Justice. She is pursuing a career in government and policy and is interested in foreign languages and cultures, travelling and politics. Her Instagram handle is @_.adcb._.