TV review: It’s A Sin

It’s 1981 and a group of young people are on their way to embark upon a new life in London in Russell T. Davies’ new five-episode Channel 4 drama.

Escaping a fairly loveless home environment on the Isle of Wight, Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) is soon having the time of his life in the capital. Good-looking and confident, he is free to enjoy the delights of the capital’s thriving gay scene at night while pursuing bit parts as an actor in the likes of Doctor Who during the day. He soon befriends Jill (Lydia West, who appeared in Davies’ previous drama, Years and Years), who is also hoping to tread the boards. Colin (Callum Scott Howells), meanwhile, is gay too, like Ritchie, but a tamer character who has moved from Wales to work at a tailor’s. He is soon being forced to politely resist unwanted sexual overtures from his married male boss. Finally, Roscoe (Omari Douglas), another live wire, has been forced to flee his family home after his family threaten to send him to Nigeria because of his homosexuality.

All of these characters and a number of others soon converge and become friends in London. As the series moves through the next decade, all also see their lives seriously impacted by the spread of AIDS.

This is clearly very serious subject matter indeed and it would be wrong to pretend that watching It’s A Sin isn’t a powerful, hard-hitting, harrowing and overall, very moving experience. At the same time, Davies doesn’t forget to show that at least initially life for these twentysomethings as they go out, get jobs, make friends, live together, go clubbing, get drunk, go on the pull and generally experience adult life for the first time is lots of fun. This is something many of us will be able to relate to regardless of whether we are young or old, gay or straight or can remember the 1980s ourselves or not. The soundtrack is also amazing. Putting 1980s songs in a TV drama is hardly an amazingly original idea but songs such as Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, Freedom by Wham!, REM’s Everybody Hurts and yes! It’s A Sin by the Pet Shop Boys (many although not all of them performed by artists who whether we knew it or not at the time were gay themselves) are deployed very effectively.

It’s easy to forget how far social attitudes have progressed in the thirty or forty years since the show’s 1980s setting. None of the main characters feel able to tell their families they are gay with the end result that when many of them do contract AIDS their families discover that their children are both homosexual and potentially mortally ill almost simultaneously. Initially, there is a terrifying mystery about the disease. One fairly minor character goes to his grave early on, apparently at a complete loss as to why he and his partner seem to have both contracted cancer at the same time. Another is so ashamed by his condition that he won’t tell anyone he has it. Following his death, his family not only cover-up the cause of his demise but attempt to destroy any evidence that he ever existed. Even as liberal and well-intentioned character as Jill is sufficiently worried about her AIDS-infected friend drinking out of one of her mugs that she destroys it afterwards. The information simply wasn’t available then.

The myth that AIDS exclusively affected only the homosexual community persisted for far too long to, hindering progress partly because many authority figures clearly felt many victims to some extent deserved their fate simply because they were that way inclined. In one memorable sequence, talking straight to camera, Ritchie articulates his own reasons for believing the AIDS virus to be a myth dreamed up by a homophobic media. Such conspiracy theories, of course, foreshadow those who persist in claiming in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t exist today. If anything, although we know Ritchie’s argument is no less bogus than they are, Ritchie does present a better argument for his disease not existing than they do.

Ultimately, with an excellent supporting cast including Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry, Tracy Ann Oberman, Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley, It’s A Sin is a worthy companion piece to Russell T. Davies’s earlier series Queer as Folk and Cucumber. January is barely over yet this may well prove to be the best British TV drama of 2021 along with Russell T. Davies’s greatest ever masterpiece.

All episodes of It’s A Sin can be viewed now on All 4. It is also being broadcast n Channel 4 every Friday at 9pm.

DVD review: Cucumber & Banana

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Henry (Vincent Franklin) is forty-six, gay and seemingly happy in a relationship with Lance, his boyfriend of nine years (Cyril Nri). Or so it would seem. For after a date which culminates in an an attempted threesome ends very badly indeed, Vincent soon finds himself out on his ear: homeless, jobless and strongly drawn to a much younger man, the beautiful but arrogant Freddie (Freddie Fox). But with Lance increasingly drawn to the unpredictable and volatile Daniel (James Murray), can the two men survive in the heady atmosphere of the 21st century Manchester gay scene?

With a huge cast of characters, none better than veteran actor Franklin who excels as the increasingly troubled Henry, Cucumber in many ways feels like a return home to Queer As Folk territory for creator Russell T. Davies after his many successful years resurrecting Doctor Who. At times, yes, it might seem silly: the titles of this Cucumber and its two spin off series Banana (which is included here having originally been screened straight after Cucumber’s Channel 4 broadcast on E4) and the internet-based Tofu, all apparently refer to different stages of the male erection. At times, Henry’s obsessions with perving over young men’s bums in supermarkets might seem unbecoming for a man in middle age. The final episode also ends very abruptly, surprisingly so, after everything we’ve been through with the characters.

But don’t be fooled. Episode 6 of this eight part series is a masterpiece, as good as anything on British TV this decade so far. Cleverly linked with the series is Banana, a series of one-offs looking more closely at the minor characters from Cucumber. With a range of writers (Including Sue Perkins) these are less consistent in quality than Cucumber, but are all definitely worth a look (although Tofu isn’t included at all here, for some reason). But, all in all, this is a superb package, well worth taking time to cast your eyes over.

Cucumber & Banana

Release: March 16th 2015

RRP: £16.99

BBC Worldwide

CUCUMBER