Culture Trips

Aids on screen: the forgotten stories of the other pandemic

This episode is recalled to me by writer Russell T Davies over Zoom from his flat in Cardiff, Wales. As one might expect of the dramatist behind some of Britain’s most acclaimed television series– the eerily prescient Years & Years, the Bafta-nominated A Very English Scandal, the Bafta-winning resurrection of Doctor Who – he paints a vivid image. It’s this moment from his own youth that was the spiritual root of his latest series, It’s a Sin. “I stood there and thought, ‘oh, it’s real’,” Davies recalls. “But here I am, right, almost 40 years later, writing this entire drama actually about that moment in the street.”

The show centres on a commune of five young people, four gay guys and a girl, living together in the ‘Pink Palace’, a grotty London party house with sticky carpets and flaking wallpaper. It begins in the early 1980s. Having escaped their small-town enclaves for the Big Smoke, they party every night like they’ve nothing to lose, the sex as copious as the booze. However looming on the horizon unbeknown to them, but all too obvious to us, is a medical catastrophe: Aids.

The lineage of Aids fiction

Aids fiction has a long and illustrious lineage, with the greatest abundance of, and certainly the most internationally-recognised, works, having emerged from the United States, the epicentre of the virus in the 1980s. However few dramatists have wrestled with it in a British context – and fewer, if any, so extensively as Davies does in It’s a Sin. The resonances the series shares with its US screen predecessors, nonetheless, is ever-apparent. Like Norman Rene’s 1989 film Longtime Companion or, more recently, Yen Tan’s 2018 drama 1985, Davies’s series weighs heavily with tragic inevitability. We watch the ensemble live, make mistakes, and indulge the hedonistic desires of their early 20s, as characters in any other youth drama – only with death hanging over them as an ever-present threat. The clock ticks. The virus has no rhyme or reason: someone perishes after sex with a single partnerr, while others are flabbergasted by negative test results, having exhausted their sexual options in the bars. Every time Ritchie (a spellbinding Olly Alexander) takes a boy home, it’s a roll of the dice.

One early montage, in which Ritchie rattles off a list of the then-debated causes of the virus, echoes the great monologue in Larry Kramer’s seminal Aids play The Normal Heart, in which the character Mickey, an activist and public health worker, laments the endless theories about the virus’s origins (“I’ve written about every single one of them,” he exasperatedly says).

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