Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies really applied the "write what you know" trope to his new series It's a Sin. Based on his own life and his friends' lives as young adults in London in the '80s, It's a Sin explores the freedom many young gay men felt leaving home and finally getting to express their true selves. That's juxtaposed with the horror of what we all know is coming: the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The series starts in 1981, when the United States was dealing with the crisis, but it hadn't quite made its way to the UK yet. As a result, you get to see these young men living their lives like they have hundreds of tomorrows. "That's how I remember those people," Davies told The Hollywood Reporter. "I think many of those lives that ended too soon have been remembered with a lot of stigma, a lot of shame and embarrassment, and with a respectful silence over them. But I just wanted to show them living their lives and having a great time."
But as the series progresses deeper into the '80s and early '90s, the group of five friends featured in the series is forced to reckon with HIV/AIDS, and it affects them all in different ways. That alone would make the series heart wrenching, but It's A Sin is even more affecting due to Davies' personal touches. He told The Guardian that it was cathartic to create the series because it allowed him to process his own trauma of losing some of his own friends at the time. "I didn't go to their funerals, I didn't write to their mums. I didn't do anything … you're young and stupid. You just carry on. When I look back now, I'm ashamed about that. I wonder why I did that," he said. "That's why I need to write this … [to] find out why I did what I did."
He added in an interview with the New York Times that he wanted to illustrate the devastation of the era to viewers by creating characters that they would love. "So that when they're gone, you miss them exactly the same way we missed the people that we lost," he said.
The characters are one of the biggest ways that Davies infused his personal history into the story. Ritchie (Olly Alexander) kind of serves as a fictionalised version of the writer himself. "Episode one starts in 1981 with an 18-year-old boy leaving home. That's me," Davies said in an interview with Radio Times.
Both Davies and Ritchie were initially HIV/AIDS deniers, in those early days when there was so much misinformation about how the disease was transmitted and who was most at risk. "My battle with it was I simply did not believe it [at the time], because it seemed so perfectly designed as a virus to attack gay men through their sex and kill them while they were young. If you were writing a thriller you would invent that virus," Davies told Radio Times.
Soon, they were both forced to reckon with the reality that the virus was all too real. In his actual life, Davies got through it with his best friend Jill Nalder by his side. In It's a Sin, he based the character of Jill Baxter (Lydia West) on Nalder. Jill is the only woman living with the guys at their "Pink Palace" apartment, which also existed in real life. "It was fantastic," Nalder told the BBC. "Most of it was pink. Pink curtains, a big pink dralon sofa and even a massive pink drain." But as decadent as their apartment may have been, the lives of the people living in it would soon be turned upside down. During the HIV/AIDS crisis, Nalder did what she could to comfort her sick and dying friends — much like Jill does in the series. "She was that woman in London literally holding the hands of the dying," Davies said to the NYT. "She's the real deal." In the series, Nalder appears the fictional Jill's mum.
Another nod to real life comes when aspiring actor Ritchie lands a role in a Doctor Who TV show called Regression of the Daleks. It's based on Remembrance of the Daleks which starred Dursley McLinden, an actor who eventually died of AIDS-related complications in 1995.
What further helps the series feel real isn't just the characters based on real people, but also that the actors playing these gay men are in the LGBTQ+ community themselves — one of Davies' requirements. "There's genuine queer energy rising off this show. It's in the liminal spaces between them. It's written into the flair of colour rising off the screen. It's very tangibly there. And I'm immensely proud of it," Davies told The Hollywood Reporter.
For one actor, the subject matter hit home even more. Nathaniel J. Hall, who played Donald Bassett, contracted HIV at age 16. He told Sky News that he initially hid his diagnosis from his friends and family out of shame. But as he got older and managing HIV became easier, he finally opened up about it. "Now I'm in a relationship with somebody who's HIV negative and he takes PrEP, I take my medication," Hall said. "If I think back to my younger adult years, I can't even imagine this being the case. It's a revelation."
Hall is now an advocate for increased HIV testing, which the series as a whole reportedly had a big impact on. It's a Sin's January and February run on Channel 4 coincided with the first week of February being National HIV Testing Week. The number of HIV tests taken was three times higher than in previous years, and sexual health charities have credited part of that rise to It's a Sin and the actors promoting increased testing.
Davies sought to make a show that would honour those lost to the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the '80s and '90s, but what he also accomplished was helping people in our current generation seek to take better care of themselves as well. That's quite a legacy for a little five-episode show.