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8th February 2021

It’s a Sin: Youth, freedom and AIDS in 1980s London

Channel 4’s newest series, It’s a Sin, is a compelling portrait of 1980s gay youth, sexual freedom and the beginnings of HIV epidemic
It’s a Sin: Youth, freedom and AIDS in 1980s London
Photo: Roger Wollstadt @ Wikimedia Commons

It’s A Sin, set in the 1980s, is about a group of young gay men who move to London in hopes of finding themselves.

In a time of great change, they are caught in a decade of denial, destruction, and hostility. With the rise of HIV and AIDS, Ritchie (played by Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and Colin (Callum Scott Howles) are subjected to dramatic loss and forced to face up to the severity of the epidemic. With only each other for support, the group relies on their effervescent, yet compassionate friend Jill (Lydia West) who is compelled to find out about this mysterious illness. The series draws upon the sexual freedom and isolation the group encounter. 

The three leads are electrifying to watch – A diverse set of backgrounds, ethics, and lifestyles, spanning from a devoutly religious Nigerian family in London to a sleepy village on the Isle of Wight. The residents of the ‘Pink Palace’ are always a joy to watch. Screen icons Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry also offer entertaining but largely superficial roles, as Colin’s suit-selling boss and an avaricious Tory MP, respectively. Regardless of Harris’s ropey English accent, they serve as a diligent reminder of the legendary gay performers that preceded the newcomers; something Davies was keen to address. 

Jill undoubtedly remains the driving force of the show. West provides an expertly crafted performance that proves profound and multifaceted. She goes from being the joyous spark of the group to the ever-concerned mum. This leads to a gut-wrenching final confrontation with Ritchie’s mum (a phenomenal performance from Keeley Hawes), providing one of the most compelling dynamics in the show. 

Borrowing the title of the well-known Pet Shop Boys single, the show is driven by a pulsating 80s soundtrack. From raving in a sweaty club to goodbyes at a hospital bed, the music guides the audience through the show’s shifting emotions. The soundtrack includes a wide range of hits from the likes of Queen to Soft Cell, providing an irresistible aesthetic of nostalgia. 

The show’s camerawork and cinematography are further merits to its success. David Katznelson (Downton Abbey of all things) utilises a deep vibrant colour palette when executing the club scenes, creating contrast with the domestic setting where he favours a paler environment. The show also employs significant use of tracking shots, whether it’s watching Ritchie break the fourth wall and flirt his way around the bar or a horrifying sequence of events following a terminal diagnosis. The show’s technical aspects sustain the balance of youthful celebration with life-long trauma that runs throughout the show’s 5 episodes. 

Before penning It’s A Sin, Russel T. Davies burst onto the scene with his Manchester-set Queer as Folk (1999). This crucially paved the way for more LGBTQ+ stories in the new millennium. Davies creates characters with depth and relatability, who are ultimately flawed. This is present in his earlier work and It’s A Sin, reminiscent of the New Queer Cinema movement of the 90s. By presenting these men as promiscuous and borderline arrogant, he creates human characters, and therefore ones an audience can empathise with. From the iconic revival of Doctor Who in 2005 to the extremely successful Years and Years and A Very English Scandal, Davies has had his fingerprints on the seismic shift in British telly, with no sign of slowing down. 

While the show relishes in its 80s backdrop, the prevalence of AIDS is, unfortunately, stark –  75.7 million people becoming infected with HIV and 32.7 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic in 1981.

We have included a link to the Manchester-based charity George House Trust helping people struggling with this disease. Please consider donating.

To read more about AIDS and to seek medical advice, click:



It’s a Sin was released on Channel 4 on the 22nd of January.

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