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'It's A Sin' Brings A Lost Generation Of Gay Men To Life

Ben Blackall, HBO
Ben Blackall
Olly Alexander as Ritchie Tozer in It's a Sin.

Sporting a smile that lights up the overcast sky, It's a Sin's Ritchie Tozer can barely contain his excitement. He and his father are on board a ferry, leaving their home on the Isle of Wight behind. Ritchie, played by Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander, isn't elated just because he's leaving for college. No — before long, he'll be in London and out of the closet, bathed in strobe lights, soaked in sweat and surrounded by throngs of dancing men in the city's storied Heaven nightclub. It's 1981, and like so many others, Ritchie is finally free. Even as rumors of a "gay cancer" or "gay plague" blow into London from New York, the dancing continues ... and then the dancefloor crowd starts to thin.

Because of years of discrimination, shame and death, the Ritchie Tozers of the world — almost 40 years on — are largely unknown to young queer people today. The new five-episode miniseries It's a Sin conjures their memories and connects them to a new generation.

Creator Russell T. Davies tells Morning Edition's Noel King that for him, the show is deeply personal. "I was the same age as the lead characters," Davies says. "I was 18 in 1981. That's the age I left home. That's the age you become yourself and this is what I've dramatized."

The 57-year-old Welsh creator of 1999's Queer as Folk and former showrunner of 2005's Doctor Who reboot says he doesn't remember exactly when he first heard rumors of the virus we now know to be HIV, but it didn't take long for the Oxford student to realize that virus, and the disease it caused, would change his life forever.

"It only really crystallized for me in 1983 when I bought a copy of a magazine called Him. I secretly bought it as a little student, secretly buying his gay magazine, all kind of ashamed and excited all at once, like you do," Davies said. "It was a bright summer's day. I was in Oxford. I was a student. The sky was so bright blue. And I read the cover walking home and it said, 'AIDS, death plot, panic.' And I literally stopped dead. And I remember thinking, 'oh, this is real.'"

Just as in the show, Davies recalls making the trek from Oxford to London for blowout parties with friends in a flat they dubbed the Pink Palace.

"When I came to write this, I drew from my friends, as then the rumors of this virus became closer, as it became real, as people started falling ill, then, the partying didn't stop, but it became much deeper and richer as lives were at stake. So, these friends of mine ended up being the ones either falling ill or being the ones holding hands, being at the bedsides, starting fundraising."

With It's a Sin, Davies captures the tragic irony of an era where gay men were just starting to enjoy some amount of freedom after hard-fought battles for liberation, only to be ravaged by an unseen viral predator. This almost-memoir is as fast-paced as the neon nightlife of 1980s London, but as the story progresses, the AIDS crisis closes in with horror movie flair, until even the audience is infected with a sense of dread.

HIV/AIDS is far from just a gay man's disease, but as its first victims — predominantly gay men — started filling up ICUs and morgues, a backlash against them ensued. And it reverberated well beyond the turbulent decade It's a Sin portrays.

Olly Alexander, who's 30, has been open about being avictim of anti-gay bullying growing up, says his school experience was definitely influenced by that backlash.

"You know, I was still at school under Section 28, which was really, I think, a direct response to the AIDS crisis by the conservative government to ban any mention of LGBT people in schools," he recalls. "You know, now that I'm looking back, I realize what a huge impact that had on me as I was coming to terms with my own sexuality and the word gay and AIDS were used as jokes in the playground. It took me many, many years to begin to uncover what happened in this period of history."

The character of Ritchie Tozer is similar to Alexander, in that both moved to London at a young age with dreams of stardom — but unlike Alexander, Ritchie is brash and overconfident, and that overconfidence leads him down the path of AIDS denialism.

Though Ritchie might be the fiercest denialist in the series, it's clear that at least at the outset, most of It's a Sin's gay characters can't be bothered to stop the party. Flush with the vibrance of youth, they wave off concerns as conspiracy theory.

Sensing the impending wave of infections, older gay men try, to no avail, to warn their younger counterparts, but their advisory posters are rejected from gay bars and their worries are shunned as simply attempts to deprive a younger generation of their newfound sexual freedom.

The only sympathetic ear these older gay men seem to find is that of the character Jill, played by Lydia West. Jill is a straight woman living in the Pink Palace with her gay friends, and though we don't learn much about her personal story, she does a lot of the show's emotional labor — whether it's phonebanking, protest organizing or holding the hands of the abandoned and dying — and she does it all with little recognition.

Russell T. Davies says that was purposeful.

"I think she is very put upon. I think I wouldn't be doing my job if I wrote gay men as saints all the time and you see great pressure being put on her," he says. "I know a million women like that. This is based on my real life friend Jill. [It's a Sin] is critical of the load gay men put upon her. I think that's very typical. I'm glad you can be critical of them because I think it is clearly meant to be like that."

Davies, though, reserves his most stinging critique for the society that failed these young men. It's a Sin portrays the crisis as it felt at the time — a series of disappearances. Parents would get word their children were sick and they'd whisk them back home, sometimes literally burning all of the artifacts of their gay lives in the process. One day your friends are vibrant and present, and the next they've vanished.

"That's what happened. All kids go to the big city. Back then people started falling ill, either they didn't know why or if they did know why it was considered to be shameful," Davies remembers. "I wrote five hours of drama and this friend of mine summed it up in one line better than I ever could've. She said, 'we sent our gorgeous friends home to their childhood bedrooms to die while their families tried to hide them from the neighbors.'"

Davies says he had friends whose fates still remain a mystery to him.

"There are still people I know and I think about to this day, I wonder if they died. My friend Eddy, I don't know where Eddy is, I don't know if he died, and it's very interesting that I've never gone to look him up because part of me doesn't want to know," he says. "I think 'no, no, no leave Eddy where he was, leave him. Maybe he's happy somewhere. Good old Eddy. Lovely boy.'"

It's clear how Davies feels about that time of his life and his friends from back then, and after watching It's a Sin it's hard not to come away feeling just as connected to his characters. Not just their trauma, but their joy and ultimately their resolve.

Davies says that since the show began airing on the U.K.'s Channel 4, he's seen feedback from younger gay men — living in today's world of advanced preventative HIV medicine and relative freedom — who are outraged "that such a world ever existed." In no insignificant way, the series is filling in the historical gaps for a generation deprived of a full accounting for the era's sins.

Olly Alexander says his generation owes "everything really" to Davies's, and It's a Sin helps crystalize that. "Growing up gay, one of the things that's difficult is it can be really hard to find your elders ... You really have to find [them] ... for yourself and it can be tricky, but I know for me, building those bridges has been one of the most profound experiences of my life.".

It's a Sin is now streaming on HBO Max.

This story was edited for radio by Scott Saloway and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.