It's a Sin review – Russell T Davies has created a masterpiece of poignancy

Humour and humanity are at the heart of this sublime series about London’s gay community in the 1980s, from the creator of Queer as Folk

Russell T Davies’s new drama, It’s a Sin (Channel 4), is something of a companion piece, 20 years on, to his groundbreaking masterpiece Queer as Folk. The latter was the riotous celebration of gay urban life as led by three friends broadly representing different stages of exploration as they embraced life as hot single men. In essence it was a gorgeous fantasy, designed to counteract both the historic worthiness and prejudice surrounding such depictions.

What it did not do was look much at the darkness out of which such freedom had emerged and which still shadowed the lives of its Canal Street party people. It didn’t, in short, deal with the effects of Aids on the gay community.

It’s a Sin does. Without losing any of Davies’s gusto, irreverence, joy or subtlety, it follows the lives of three young gay men, Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas) and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) who move to London. They evolve into – in Armistead Maupin’s lovely phrase – each other’s logical family (along with Ritchie’s university best friend Jill, played by Lydia West) as they commit themselves to the enjoyment of every freedom the city has to offer.

But the group arrive in 1981, just as the first reports of a new disease are making their way across the Atlantic. The shadows are starting to gather by the end of the first episode, which is mostly devoted to establishing the characters and their relationships in full measure. It is Davies’s great gift to be able to create real, flawed, entirely credible bundles of humanity and make it clear, without even momentary preachiness, how much they have to lose.

The most hedonistic are Ritchie – who has left a loving, unthinkingly homophobic home in the Isle of Wight to study at university – and Roscoe, who had to flee (in fantastically defiant fashion) a deeply religious household set on driving the homosexuality out of him even if they had to return to their native Nigeria. Colin, from the Welsh valleys, is quieter, thrilled by his new job at a tailor’s and befriended by an older colleague, Henry (Neil Patrick Harris), a sweet, gentle man who has been living with his partner, Pablo, for 30 years.

Henry and Pablo both fall ill at the same time with … cancer? Tuberculosis? Pneumonia? No one really knows, but Pablo’s mother forces him home to Portugal and Henry is left brutally isolated in a hospital ward. At one point, the doctors think it might be psittacosis, a lung disease contracted from, among other birds, parrots. “You haven’t got a parrot though, have you?” says Colin. “Of course I haven’t got a fucking parrot,” replies his friend.

This all takes on a special resonance, of course, in the time of Covid. We can empathise that bit more with the fear, uncertainty and responses rational and irrational to the emergence of a new disease. Ritchie favours denial. Jill, her slight distance from what was seen by many as “the gay plague” giving her a different perspective, begins to arm herself with knowledge. We can also identify with endless, mindless joys coming to a painful halt, the jostling within oneself of reason and unreason – and perhaps in episodes to come, the wrestling with woefully inadequate and incompetent government responses to a proliferating crisis.

As the series moves through the decade, the subject matter naturally darkens but never loses its funniness or fleetness. It’s possible some will complain that Davies does not treat the subject as sombrely as it deserves. This is nonsense. Fleetness and funniness are the essence of life, and only by making them as central to characters, as Davies does, can you convey the depth of the tragedy about to unfold. It’s a Sin looks set not just to be to Queer as Folk’s companion piece but its companion masterpiece.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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