It is 1981, the year Britain will have its first reported case of Aids, and in a gentleman’s outfitters on Savile Row, a young Welshman called Colin (Callum Scott Howells) is invited into a backroom by his manager Mr Hart (Nicholas Blane). Having muttered something preposterous about cotton fibres – how they get under the skin! – Mr Hart instructs Colin to give himself a full flannel wash as he looks on. Colin, who has a face like a choirboy and a tie the colour of a rusty Cortina, is somewhat nonplussed by this. But what can he do? He’s new. This man is his boss. Slowly, trepidatiously, he unbuttons his shirt. The frantic soaping only ends when they’re interrupted by Colin’s older, more experienced colleague Henry (Neil Patrick Harris).
Ah, the closet. These days, thank God, it’s more of a wobbly Ikea number, easy to dismantle, than the Victorian tallboy of old. Still, you have to admit its mahogany depths have their uses in storytelling. If Russell T Davies’s new drama, It’s a Sin (22 January, 9pm), makes no bones about the corrosive nature of shame, it nevertheless has a certain amount of fun with the way the closet door is apt, on occasion, suddenly to burst open. The desires of the married, ageing Mr Hart, which crouch inside him unseen as his customers come and go, are both so appalling to him and so uncontainable, they emerge only in the maddest guise: as a seeming compulsion to rid this innocent young man of an invisible enemy.
You could say this scene works as a metaphor, given that It’s a Sin is about Aids, and the hateful prejudices it stoked. But to be honest, I’d rather enjoy it for its own sake. The deployment of the bizarre and the gratuitous is one of the things that separates good drama from bad – and besides, however sad and serious this series is, and however political, Davies has his eye on other stuff, too. To be young is to be young. To be in love is to be in love. Sex is about to start killing people, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t joyful. The first episode is basically a long party punctuated with careful phone calls to oblivious parents and, in one case, a trip home to the Isle of Wight, where student Ritchie (Olly Alexander, the frontman of the band Years & Years) finally admits to his parents that… no, he doesn’t want to be a solicitor after all.
Colin’s new housemates are (more or less) out, while he’s just emerging. Ritchie hopes to be an actor, and in the meantime to sleep with as many gorgeous boys as possible. Roscoe (Omari Douglas) has fled his religious family (“Father, he has fallen into the pit of sodomy!”) and wants to make lots of money in what we now call the night-time economy. All three are adorable. Their youth burns so brightly against the backdrop of dreary early Eighties London, where people still smoke on the top deck of the bus and phone calls are taken in the hall (and only after 6pm, please). It goes without saying that the pandemic makes It’s a Sin, which Davies finished before anyone had even heard of Covid-19, seem painfully resonant (and chastening, for those inclined to compare and contrast). But I must be honest: it’s only thanks to the energy and youthful tenderness of Richie & Co that my heart can bear seeing the nurses in PPE, the gurneys, the sight of Henry in his hospital bed, thin as grass, crying for his lover Juan Pablo (Tatsu Carvalho). I’m dreading what’s coming next.
But you don’t want my weepiness, and perhaps we’ll be lifted up in the end. Davies’s writing, warm and human, is so attentive to the absurd, and his best characters come with an indomitability that always makes me think of Dickens (and Coronation Street). There is, in this sense, hope – in the lachrymosity stakes, I mean. “Of course we haven’t got a fucking parrot!” Henry says to Colin, during a discussion about whether the “flu” that has sent Juan Pablo to hospital might have come from birds. In his irritation is all of his fear, but you can hear courage there, too; a certain indignation. He’s been out half his life. Bravery comes as easily to him at this point as guessing a new customer’s inside leg.
It’s a Sin
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden