‘It’s A Sin’ star Tracy-Ann Oberman on the AIDS epidemic: 'I remember the fear'

Tracy Ann Oberman as Carol in It's A Sin (C4)
Tracy-Ann Oberman as Carol in It's A Sin (C4)

The must-watch show of the moment, It’s A Sin by Russell T Davis tells the story of the start of the AIDS epidemic in ‘80s London.

Told from the point of view of a group of mates, it shows the realities of being gay in an era of fear. One person who really understood what that fear was like is Tracy-Ann Oberman, who plays acting agent Carol Carter in the show.

Speaking on White Wine Question Time, the former EastEnders star revealed that being in the hit show has really resonated with her as she remembers those times all too well.

“I remember being a drama student, having a lot of gay friends. I remember that absolute fear... and the absolute stigma of being gay and just the fear,” she told podcast host Kate Thornton.

Listen: Tracy-Ann Oberman talks about working with Russell T Davies on It’s A Sin

She continued: “We had one friend that came to stay — who was openly gay — at a friend's house. We had like a weekend and we caught the parents burning all the sheets and burying the cutlery in the garden after he left because they were so frightened.”

First clinically reported in 1981 in the US, the first person to die of AIDS in the UK was reported in December of that year. By 1987, it had become a worldwide epidemic and since then millions of people have died from AIDS-related illnesses. Those diagnosed with HIV today though can expect to have a normal life expectancy, thanks to advances in medicine.

Read more: Tracy-Ann Oberman on fighting anti-Semitism

Davies sent Oberman the script very early on in the whole creative process, and despite being in a play during filming, she was determined to be part of it.

Tracy-Ann Overman, currently appearing in It's A Sin, says she remembers the stigma attached to AIDS (Image: Getty Images)
Tracy-Ann Overman, currently appearing in It's A Sin, says she remembers the stigma attached to AIDS (Image: Getty Images)

“I was getting off stage at 11 and getting into a taxi driving through the night up to Manchester and then getting on set, but when I read those scripts…” she sighed.

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“I think Russell has captured how difficult it was. As the mothers and the fathers of those children — of those boys die out — those stories have will be forgotten, and I think he wanted to make sure people remembered the joy as well as the pain. And I think he did that.”

The show has been a huge hit with viewers, whacking up a huge 6.5 million views on All 4 since its release last month, with the first episode becoming the streaming service’s most popular drama launch on record. The drama features a host of new actors alongside established names such as Oberman, Stephen Fry and Neil Patrick Harris.

Oberman, who feels privileged to have been a part of the show, says the feedback she’s received has been amazing.

“There was so much cruelty in the eighties and early nineties about around it [AIDs] and that's why it's a brilliant series,” she told Thornton.

“There was so much shame around being gay — it was like, here's a plague that has come along that is dirty and dangerous and it sort of tapped into everybody's shame and fear of their own sexuality.

Read more: It’s a Sin and the iconic ‘La’ has already raised tens of thousands for HIV charities

“The feedback, even for me, has been phenomenal. People wanting to talk about their memories and how they feel about it.”

It's A Sin S1 (Channel 4)
It's A Sin S1 (Channel 4)

The star, who previously worked with Davies on Doctor Who back in 2006, said watching it has “profoundly affected” her, but she hopes people can see that love and acceptance can get anyone through the darkest of times.

Read more: Tracy-Ann Oberman says she was prepared to throw her career away for her fight against anti-Semitism

“I'd seen it originally, when it was first done, and then I saw it again on television and it just devastated me,” she admitted.

“It profoundly affected me; it really, really broke me. In some ways, it's hung over me, but what I think that people loved about it as well, was that sense of community of the Pink Palace, that sense of a group of friends that will love and accept and cherish each other.”

As a playwright, Oberman herself has tackled the taboo of AIDS in a radio play for the BBC. Entitled Rock and Doris and Elizabeth, it focused on the moment that pin-up Rock Hudson came out on Doris Day’s TV show. He was dying of AIDS, and while many in Hollywood turned away from him, Elizabeth Taylor was his one ally.

Elizabeth Taylor supported Rock Hudson throughout his failing health (Photo by Tom Wargacki/WireImage)
Elizabeth Taylor supported Rock Hudson throughout his failing health (Photo by Tom Wargacki/WireImage)

The research Oberman did for the show made her realise what a hero Taylor was to the gay community back in 1985, when the pandemic was first making negative headlines.

“She was campaigning for a long time,” she said about Taylor.

“In the play that I wrote, I had her sort of saying to him, ‘If you're going to do this Rock, you've got to make it count, because you're going to give a face to AIDS.’

“The last 20, 30 years of her life, she literally started the AIDS movement. She was incredible. She got Ronald Reagan on board. She was an incredible woman. She saved millions of lives.”

Hear Tracy-Ann Oberman talk about life after EastEnders and why she’ll always stand up for abuse on social media in the latest episode of White Wine Question Time. Listen now on iTunes and Spotify.

Watch: Creator Russell T Davies talks about It’s A Sin