Russell T Davies: ‘I genuinely thought – who wants to watch a show about Aids?’

It’s a Sin has been voted the Guardian’s best TV show of the year. Russell T Davies reveals why it took him 30 years to write, who the real Colin is – and why he just can’t keep away from Doctor Who

The 50 best TV shows of 2021, No 1: It’s a Sin

Russell T Davies doesn’t hold back. If he’s thrilled, he shouts about it. And sure enough, the 6ft 6in giant of a man is shouting today. “I’m gobsmacked. I’ve never come first in this. Ever,he exclaims, admitting that he has always had his eye on the Guardian’s list of the best TV of the year. “If I’ve had a show on, I spend every December watching that countdown wondering if I’ll be on it – I think A Very English Scandal got to No 2.” He’s right, it did. Three years on, his wonderful Channel 4 mini-series It’s a Sin has been voted the Guardian’s best TV show of the year. “I’m ridiculously thrilled,” says Davies, who is Zooming from his home in Manchester.

It’s 30 years since his first TV series – Dark Season, featuring a 15-year-old Kate Winslet – aired on the BBC. Since then, Davies has created any number of groundbreaking dramas (including Queer as Folk; Cucumber, Banana and Tofu; Years and Years) as well as breathing new life into Doctor Who. But he is particularly pleased to have won for It’s a Sin, the five-part drama about a group of young gay friends living – and dying – through the Aids era of the 80s and early 90s. This is the show he knew he had to write 30 years ago, and spent the intervening decades years putting off, because it was simply too personal and painful.

Davies, who is 58, takes me back to his teens and a West Glamorgan youth theatre he attended. “It was the campest place in the world. Nearly all the older boys went on to become drag queens.” But when Davies went to study English at the University of Oxford, the drag queens went to London to embrace a life of adventure. “They walked into a slaughterhouse. It was extraordinary – so sad, fucking hell. All those boys would be with us now. What great men they would be.”

As in It’s a Sin, his friends lived in a place they called the Pink Palace, and were joined by Jill, the unifying force and beating heart of the show. In the series, Jill is close to all the boys, unites them when they fall out, fights for them when they are attacked, lies for them when they need cover, and emboldens them when they need strength. Most importantly, she is there for them when they fall ill and succumb to the virus.

The real-life Jill is one of Davies’s oldest friends. Jill Nalder is an actor who spent 20 years in the chorus of Les Misérables and is now part of the WestEnders, a group that sing numbers from musicals on cruise ships. As a result of It’s a Sin, Nalder has written a memoir, Love from the Pink Palace, which will be published next year. Davies couldn’t be more proud of the woman who made him realise he had to tell this story.

“It must have been about 1990 when she told me about the mother and father turning up on a hospital ward to discover their son is gay, that he has Aids and is dying, all in one moment. I never asked her what they said because I wanted to imagine it. And I’ve been imagining it for 30 years.”

‘They walked into a slaughter house’ ... Ritchie (Olly Alexander) and Jill (Lydia West) in It’s a Sin.
‘They walked into a slaughterhouse’ ... Ritchie (Olly Alexander) and Jill (Lydia West) in It’s a Sin. Photograph: Channel 4 undefined

Oxford was more sober and safer than London, where young gay men partied hard and perished fast. “I wasn’t at the heart of the hurricane, but I did lose lovely people. I lost the very first person I slept with, whose name I still can’t say because his parents don’t see his death as an Aids death.” Again, this is something we see in the drama – parents in denial, silenced by shame, insisting their boy died of pneumonia or cancer.

Davies soon discovered that this was a common story for many families. But it wasn’t just parents who were in denial. In It’s a Sin we see Ritchie, played by Olly Alexander, denying he is gay, then denying the existence of Aids itself. Ritchie is a classic Davies character – self-absorbed, pigheaded, morally compromised and sympathetic. I ask Davies if there is any of him in Ritchie.

Yes!” he roars. “His selfishness, and the fact that he thinks he’s so clever he can talk his way out of any situation. That’s me. All his worst faults are mine. People often say my lead characters are unlikable, and I think, well, I’m doing that on purpose, because we often are. Likable is very easy to write, isn’t it?” He prefers gay characters who are unlikable – not least because it subverts a trope in TV drama. “There’s often a feeling that the gay character should be the nice character. And I’m like, nobody worries about Tony Soprano, do they? But gay people have to be nice! I love ignoring that.”

Ritchie is convinced HIV is a conspiracy. How can a virus discriminate alphabetically, he asks – how can it target everything beginning with H: homosexuals, haemophiliacs and Haitians. Davies says he was also a denier in the early days. “That was me sitting in the pub, so certain, like any anti-vaxxer now. The blood link was staring us in the face, but people like me thought we were too clever.”

It’s a Sin is personal in another way. Three years ago, Davies lost his husband and partner of 20 years, Andrew Smith, to a brain tumour. In the show, we see Colin, a gentle soul dubbed “Colin the virgin” slowly fade away. Davies says his death scene was inspired by sitting with Andrew as he died.

“There’s that moment of Colin staring into space with his eyes flickering side to side. That was Andrew for his final six to seven days. He was actually asleep, but his eyes just happened to be open, bless him. That haunts me. Sometimes you put those things in the script to exorcise them.” And has it? “No, it never does.”

Davies smiles. “I’m making myself sound tender and heroic, using something heartbreaking in my life, but writers are like vampires. There’s also a glint in my eye as I think: ‘Oooh that’s a good scene.’

Like so many of his characters, Colin was a composite of people he has known. “He’s partly somebody I fancied like mad, who I went out with once or twice, who worked in a gentleman’s outfitters and went to New York to measure lords for shirts. That’s all real. The nice thing is he got in touch after all these years and said: ‘Was that me?’

Colin the virgin (Callum Scott Howells).
‘Colin the virgin’ (Callum Scott Howells). Photograph: Channel 4 undefined

What’s happened to him? “He’s very well and living in Manchester and still very good-looking, frankly … I must say hello to him properly. Hahahahahaaaaa!” cackles Davies with a laugh that could blow down houses. Has the real Colin got a fella? “I don’t think so. I think he’s single. Stop it! He’s far too good-looking for me. He was way out of my league then.”

I ask why he delayed writing It’s a Sin so long. “Imagine if I’d got this wrong, if it had been rubbish,” he says. “Imagine if I’d let down all those people for whom this is a life-defining thing. We all lived with their deaths for so long, and doing it justice was an enormous weight to bear. It took me a lot longer to write the first episode than anything else I’ve ever written. I normally write it in about a month. This took about six months.”

On a practical level, Davies wasn’t sure how to tell the story. Initially, he started writing it as a docudrama, but it lacked his normal spark. So he started again – this time as fiction. As well as the tragedy, he wanted to capture the exhilaration of youth – the laughter, the lust, the dreams. Davies mentions Mark, another friend who died.

“When I look at Mark I don’t think of him on his deathbed and I don’t think of him crying – though we did cry many times. I think of him laughing that time we stayed up all night, that awful man he went out with, and how we stole all his jumpers and ran away with them into the night. It’s a great age to write about. Becoming what you are is a great thing to write about.”

It’s only since It’s a Sin that Davies has realised how little he and his friends have talked about this seminal period in their lives. “Somehow we believed or echoed that straight reaction that dying from Aids was shameful.” He has had so many calls from old friends in the past year, desperate to talk, to acknowledge all they had blocked out.

“A friend phoned me up in tears and said in the late 80s, he’d taken a friend who was dying into his flat to live in the spare room. His family ended up being there, too, as he died. And my friend said: ‘I forgot it happened.’ He didn’t literally forget, but it was part of his past that was so horrible it just got parcelled up and put away in his memory.”

One old friend wrote to him. “She sent me an old-fashioned letter and said in one line what I took five hours to say on TV. She said: ‘We sent our best friends home to die in their childhood bedrooms while their parents hid them from the neighbours.’ Bang! I’m not kidding – five hours I took to say that.”

‘We sent our best friends home to die in their childhood bedrooms while their parents hid them from the neighbours.’
‘We sent our best friends home to die in their childhood bedrooms while their parents hid them from the neighbours.’ Photograph: Ben Blackall/Channel 4/HBO Max/Stan

And there are strangers who have got in touch to tell him they now realise their relative died of Aids. “The children of these families are speaking up. They’re all saying: ‘Oh my God, that was my uncle and he died of Aids, it wasn’t cancer, and I’m proud of him. That’s the point. They’re not ashamed or embarrassed by an Aids death or who he had sex with and they’re piping up.” He looks emotional. Has writing it been cathartic? He nods. “I’m not haunted by it any more,” he says.

Davies is now putting his mind to other matters – a drama about Crossroads legend Noele Gordon, starring Helena Bonham Carter, and Doctor Who, which he has returned to after an 11-year-break. Why can’t he keep away? “Because I love it. It’s the first thing I watched on television.” He points to a cabinet. “In there is every single edition of Doctor Who Magazine.”

He can’t contain his excitement. “I’ve already written some of the episodes. The first will go out in November 2023 – that’s the 60th anniversary of the show.” Give us a scoop then, I beg. He says he can’t. Is Olly Alexander the new Doctor? “Behave! Stop it! We have genuinely not cast anyone yet. We’re just starting auditions.”

I ask how his life has changed since Andrew’s death. “It hasn’t in many ways. I’m in the same house. I sit in the same chair watching television. I still talk to him. I know what would make us both laugh on television.” Do they talk aloud? “Yes. In the first few months after he died, I once said something out loud to him then I knew he wouldn’t have heard me so I repeated it. Hahahahahaaaaa!! Then I thought that’s a bit mad, actually.”

Sometimes he thinks he should sell the house in Manchester, because there are so many memories. Other times, he thinks he should keep the house because there are so many memories. “I Imagine this being stripped and emptied. Brrrrr,” he says as if suddenly feeling a chill in his heart. He points to a corner of the living room. “His bed is over there. Maybe I should get out and buy a flat in town and go dating?” He answers his own question. “Fifty-eight and dating. That’s not a good look.”

Perhaps you should go on Grindr? “At my age? I don’t think there’s much action at my age, do you?” He pauses. “I am on Grindr. I’ve been on there for years because I find it fascinating. Unfortunately, everyone goes: ‘Oh, you’re the man who wrote Doctor Who.’ I’d never meet anyone off Grindr – I’ve got too much fear of being murdered.” You just look? “I write a lot about the modern world, and it’s very helpful. That’s why I read Twitter but don’t belong to it. I go on Grindr, but I don’t Grind. I think it would be mad if I didn’t look at all those modern forms of communication.”

Is he planning to take a break at Christmas? “I’m hoping I get Christmas Day off!” Does he ever stop? “Not really. I’ll probably nip upstairs that afternoon for a couple of hours.” Why should he stop, he says, when he loves it? “When I’m washing up or drawing or lying in bed or walking into town, I imagine dialogue from dramas I’ll never write. My head is constantly turning things over. It’s compulsive. I can even see it laid out on the page.”

Before we leave each other, he returns to It’s a Sin. So many amazing things have come out of it, he says. He tells me about Philip Normal, a fashion designer and the first openly HIV-positive mayor (of Lambeth, south London). Normal made a T-shirt with the It’s a Sin catchphrase “La” on it, thinking he would shift a handful. “He said he’d give the profits to the Terrence Higgins Trust, and six months later he has singlehandedly raised £500,000. Half a million pounds – from a T-shirt and a single catchphrase!”

Davies says the success of It’s a Sin has been the surprise of his life. Even his friends gave him a pitying look when he told them he was making a series about young men dying from Aids. “I’d see their face fall. I thought it was dead in the water. I genuinely thought: ‘Who wants to watch a drama about Aids?’ especially in the middle of the pandemic.” He roars with delight. “Hahahahaaaaaaa! Who could have known?”


Simon Hattenstone

The GuardianTramp

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