Writer Russell T Davies On Mixing Vibrancy And Heartache To Create ‘It’s A Sin’

It’s A Sin (a UK-produced series that just premiered stateside on HBO MAX) begins like a horror film with the killer looming in the shadows. It’s plainly seen by us because we think we have a sense of the toll that the AIDS crisis has wrought over the years, but it’s clearly not seen by the band of 20somethings at the heart of this decade-spanning story that begins in 1981. These characters hear whispers, they read vague items in alt papers, or maybe know someone felled by a mysterious illness. But in general, their lives are too filled with vibrancy and hope to notice the creeping tragedy.

Created and scripted by Russell T Davies (Queer As Folk, Doctor Who, Years And Years), It’s A Sin welds us to these characters in its first episode, pulling strings on our cheeks to make us smile as we see personalities in the kind of full bloom that only comes when you find a community and friends who accept and encourage you. It’s an effort greatly helped by an impressive young ensemble headlined by Nathaniel Curtis, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, and Olly Alexander and Lydia West in star-making turns. You want so badly to see their characters throw a million parties at their flat. You want to see them grasp the dreams that they all layout at the episode’s end all with a twinkle in their eyes and the gargantuan confidence of youth. But you know. We’re screaming at the screen, but we don’t know how to stop what’s coming. We can’t. They couldn’t, for reasons that this show explores in vivid detail, allowing us a better understanding of the actual toll of AIDS in the UK and around the world.

To Davies, there was no better way in, telling us when we spoke recently, “my specific angle on this was to create a bunch of characters who you would love so that you’d then miss them. Because that’s my experience of AIDS. As people I loved and I miss them.” This is a personal story for Davies, but as he contends, all stories require a bit of personal excavation. He enjoys the difficulty of the work and the honor of telling this story in a way that it’s never been seen before. Something he had to stress to commissioners in the UK while trying to get the show made. And now he has, creating something that is, at once, gripping and charming, heartbreaking, and vital. A remembrance of those who died from AIDS and those who lived through it. But also a warning about the ways prejudice and fear can rob us of our good hearts and good sense. Here now is Davies on It’s A Sin.

In hindsight, is there anything that you wish you could have spent more time on?

Oh, wow. I’ve got to say, it was originally… We got commissioned for four episodes. Halfway through we went and begged for a fifth episode, which they gave us really graciously and beautifully, with no fuss. So, I feel like I’ve done what I set out to do. There are a million things. This is a subject that is so complicated. There are a million other things to say, but actually, there are also a lot of other writers saying those things. This is not the only piece of work about AIDS and there are great love stories out there. If you want to see the ultimate love story between two men, go and watch Holding The Man from Australia. That’s the most extraordinary thing. If you want a film about activism, go and watch BPM. There’s a French film called BPM, which is extraordinary!

I’ve seen some of the coverage and it’s also sparking conversations and deeper dives into the subject matter. So it’s clearly a great wellspring of inspiration.

That’s what shocked us is the stories being told. The lives being remembered. And I’m getting messages from people telling me about friends I never knew about and the stories that we’ve never heard. There’s something that’s been very buried, I think, because a lot of people died in shame and in silence and the shame was wrong, obviously. I’m not saying it was a shameful death. I mean, it was considered to be shameful. We didn’t forget those people. We didn’t literally forget them, but I think we parceled them up and put the memory away. And there was a heavy weight put upon that memory. And I think we’ve helped release that. I think a door has been opened. That’s been a story we’re hearing again and again, and again. Bear in mind the drama, I expected it to disappear. A drama about AIDS in the middle of a pandemic. We were not hopeful about this show. We were quietly and determinately pessimistic. So, this reaction has been absolutely overwhelming. But also properly a privilege that people are starting to talk about lives that they lost. Boys that disappeared. Then that’s a really wonderful thing to happen.

In researching this, I know there are some personal elements and some biographical elements that you pulled from. And I know you did a ton of research on this. What’s the process like to go through and excavate your past a little bit and put that into this form?

Well, it’s kind of lovely. It’s why I’m a writer, let’s be honest. I know what you mean, and it is a work of excavation. It’s a work of remembrance. It’s also an honor to be the one writing the drama that gets to remember them. And I know there’s an awful lot of writers… I’m always very aware, a lot of writers would love to be in my position. I know how lucky I am. I absolutely know that. So, maybe it is excavating some trauma. Maybe it’s certainly excavating some pain, but I love that and that’s why I’m here. And also, frankly, I’m good at it. That’s how I got to be in this position. It’s what I do well.

You’re tapping into… Even if you’re writing science fiction. If you’re writing someone running away from the Daleks, you’re still tapping into your own feelings. You’re still remembering that time you were frightened. You still remember, specifically with something like Doctor Who, what frightened you in the dark or the monsters you thought were under the bed. A tap at the window. That’s Doctor Who tapping into very primal things sometimes. So, I think if you write well, you’re always tapping into that. And so, you actually want to go to that dark stuff. I want to find out. I mean, there’s a death in the third episode of a very central character [in It’s A Sin]. Before the death, there are some very tough scenes. There are scenes of dementia. Which are really deliberately tough, but I pushed it there. I pushed it to be that tough. I wanted to show how merciless the virus is, how cruel it is. How helpless people are in the face of it. So, that’s very strong stuff, but that’s actually me doing my job. I’m actually getting the virus right in those moments. So, that’s not particularly painful. That’s me kind of working well, to be honest.

One of the things that I thought was really fascinating about this was the constant focus between the tug of war between families and friends. And the idea of what going home meant. Can you talk a little bit about that as a central point to the story?

Well, it’s absolutely central because the home is the closet. That really is the point of it. And again, all the stories are decided by the virus in a way. That’s a virus that thrives on secrecy and shame and stigma and fear and ignorance. And so, that, in this, the heart of that becomes the family home. I mean, that’s extraordinarily dramatic. That when we say that, you go, “Wow, that’s a drama.” Actually, the place where they were born, where they were loved, creates the conditions in which they can die. And so their adult life, when they move away, they move to a flat, as we all do. Everyone leaves home at some point and you explore and you find yourself coming of age. And these people come out as well as coming of age. So, that’s joy and liberation and yeah, is setting the sex life into motion that terribly brings them down. So, the interconnectedness between home and your own adult life is unmissable. And it has to be a spine. It has to be. It’s what the virus thrives on.

It just decimates you watching how everything that they’ve become after leaving the home just gets stripped away, essentially.

Yes, it strips them of their life. It strips them of their independence and strips them of everything they ever were. That’s it. That’s why it takes place over a decade. Just one year wouldn’t have done. If I’d chosen the story of one person dying of AIDS, to me that would’ve felt like a cancer story. So, yeah, everything is virus-shaped in the end. The way it creeps in at the edges and then becomes central.

One thing that I’ve been very aware of is the way that it portrays the character’s lives and his choices. There’s not a heavy hand or a judgment there, and I think that is so important.

I think it’s vital not to judge your characters. A friend of mine is a frontline worker in AIDS and HIV. He called it sex-positive, which is a phrase I haven’t heard before. But he said, I mean, he complimented me. So, pardon me for passing on compliments. I have no choice. But he was saying that at no point is the sexual act itself seen as shameful in this. It might be the carrier of the virus, but sex itself is not demonized. It’s not shameful. It’s sex-positive. I like that phrase.

The scene with Ritchie talking to the camera in episode two is just so electric. And it’s also jarring because of the aversion to facts. Where did that come from?

I have no better answer for you on the speech to the camera than simply I thought of it. I just thought of it. I had an awful lot of exposition to get across. Part of my reason for writing the whole show was covering stuff that hasn’t been done in other HIV dramas. And one thing I thought had never been covered was the denial and the conspiracy theories and the false facts, which ran for years. There’s still plenty of those around now. So, I had to dramatize there and really, look, come and sit in my seat. Imagine if that had been a conversation in the pub. I don’t find it surprising when Ritchie turns and addresses the camera. I don’t find that brave. I don’t find that unusual. Drama is so flexible now and brilliant. We are truly living in a golden age. I sat and watched the first episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks last night. I thought it would be nonsense and I loved it. I actually sat there thinking, “God, that’s Star Trek as I would write it.” Lots of zombies on board the ship and a magical glue provides the solution. That’s my every episode of Doctor Who! [Laughs]

We are truly in a golden age. And so I think you can now be… you watch I May Destroy You. And you watch I Hate Suzie. You watch those shows, taking the imagination into the outer reaches of human experience. Or to the inner reaches of human experience. They’re going in. They’re digging so deep and finding so many truths. So, I think nothing of someone turning around addressing the camera. We are lucky to have had a million responses to this show. Not one person has said, “How can he address the camera?” We’re literate now. We’re living in a very literate age and it’s great.

It plays so well with his character also. That moment and the ballet moment in the headlights, in particular.

The ballet moment came from watching The Leftovers. I loved The Leftovers. Especially the first two series. Actually, I think I’m the only person who didn’t like the third series. Everyone loved that. I was like, “no, no, no, it’s ruined.” [Laughs].

But I loved the first two seasons. There were all these scenes at night, in car headlights in there actually. And there’s always something ineffable at work in The Leftovers. So, I used to watch it thinking, “I’ve got no idea what these people are thinking, but I absolutely believe that they’re thinking it.” They’ve gone beyond the viewer. They’re beyond reach and yet it’s true. It’s sincere. I used to sit there in absolute awe of it. And I used to sit there, I remember sending texts to my friend, Chris Chibnall, who now runs Doctor Who. Saying, “You’ve got to watch this show because there’s something ineffable and intangible about it that’s very brilliant and intellectual and correct.” And I want to write like that. And it literally led me to think of that ballet scene. It isn’t the same as anything that happens in The Leftovers. I will be in debt to that show because I think that moment’s lovely and I’m very proud of it. You take your inspiration from everywhere.

All episodes of ‘It’s A Sin’ are available to stream now via HBO Max.