Russell T Davies puts the AIDS crisis front and centre in his new drama, It’s A Sin, something he says he was unable to manage until now.
The producer and screenwriter made his name in bombastic fashion with the seminal 1999 drama Queer as Folk.
Across two series and 10 episodes, it focused on gay characters with fully fleshed-out lives – a first for television – and taught a generation of adolescent gay men the wonders of rimming.
One aspect of gay life that was notably excluded from the series was the HIV/AIDS crisis that had at that point killed millions in the community and caused fear, stigma and discrimination that extends to this day.
Davies reflected on the exclusion in a new essay for the Guardian, explaining that “the words HIV and AIDS were said… not once”.
What’s more, “the gay press were especially furious because we had no condoms, no warnings, no messages on screen”.
“Well, yes, tough,” he continued. “Because by that stage, in 1999, I refused to let our lives be defined by disease. So I excluded it on purpose. The omission of AIDS was a statement in itself, and it was the right thing to do.”
Davies reflected on his own experience of the crisis, and how for the most part he “couldn’t quite look at it” due to fear.
Though he marched and donated money, he found it impossible at times to attend funerals of good friends lost to the virus – a quandary that was far from unique to him – and remained quiet when at work, a colleague posted an advert for a charity raffle that included a vile joke about dead gay men.
Eventually, though, he “looked down” and started to write gay characters in soaps he was working on, as well as a 15-year-old teenager living with HIV for a children’s show, all leading to his seminal work, Queer as Folk.
Davies said that “in truth, the virus does tick away in the background” of that series.
Though the words HIV and AIDS “were said not once”, the show makes mention of charity nights, of a dead friend, and in one episode, a of character who dies – ostensibly of an overdose – following a one night stand with a man named Harvey.
Davies explained: “I said to the producer, Nicola Shindler, ‘Harvey? D’you get it? Har-vee, like HIV’.
“She said, ‘Don’t be so pretentious. Never tell anyone that’.”
HIV “crept closer to the surface” in 2015’s Cucumber, a spiritual sequel to Queer as Folk about a middle-aged gay man afraid of anal sex. But it’s his newest work, It’s A Sin, where the topic finally sees the full light of day.
Set in the 1980s, the series tells the intertwining stories of three gay men who leave home and move to London aged 18 as the crisis begins – drawing from Davies’ own experiences.
“Year by year, episode by episode, their lives change, as the mystery of a new virus starts as a rumour, then a threat, then a terror, and then something that binds them together in the fight,” reads a Channel 4 blurb.
Davies has previously said he wants the story to serve as a belated eulogy to those who lost their lives and “disappeared” in the eyes of society.
Olly Alexander, who plays a lead role as wannabe actor Ritchie, echoed this sentiment, saying that for his generation, “the AIDS crisis is a murky shadow that sits somewhere in our past”.
“But the impact of it is so huge, and obviously it continues now,” he added.