January 22, 2021

It’s strange to see a student standing in the pub right now. He’s tousle-haired and twinkly. He’s our hero. And he’s breaking television’s fourth wall by giving a lecture to camera on viral epidemiology.

Should Ritchie Tozer be worried about his health? No, he says, because the information circulating about this virus is bunk. He calls out a list of rum-sounding aetiologies. Some people think it’s caused by sniffing poppers; others that it arrived from outer space on a comet. It could’ve come from God, or the jungle, or a secret laboratory, or Russia. Captions in the chunky Ceefax font fill the screen with the crowning absurdity: “Homosexuals, haemophiliacs, Haitians.” How, asks Ritchie, can anyone believe in the reality of a disease that only affects groups of people that begin with the letter H? And off he goes, careering around the room, kissing every man he passes.

Ritchie is the protagonist of Russell T Davies’s new Channel Four drama, It’s a Sin, which airs tonight at 9pm. The show assembles a rich and sweet assortment of young and optimistic friends in 1980s London, and then subjects them to the ordeals of the AIDS crisis. Being the work of the screenwriter and producer who regenerated Doctor Who, created Queer as Folk, and cast Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant as Norman Scott and Jeremy Thorpe, it is a thing of passion and mischief and wit. Davies is a writer in the tradition of Victoria Wood and Tony Warren, creator of Coronation Street. In 1960, Ena Sharples demanded, “are them fancies fresh?” In 1999, a character in Queer as Folk — played by a Corrie alumnus — reported on the events of the night: “It was as big as a baby’s arm.” Same kind of humour, different object.

Davies’s work also expresses a coherent political view: critical of the state but supportive of liberal institutions. The characters of his recent dystopian drama Years and Years knew that their lives were becoming less dystopian when the populist Prime Minister was packed off to jail and the BBC restored to public ownership. In his 2009 Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood: Children of Earth, aliens arrive and insist that humanity hands over 10% of its children. (Young humans, it transpires, are prized for their narcotic properties: the aliens intend to smoke them like joints, and consider it payback for having saved 25 million people from a virulent strain of flu.) Davies takes us into a cabinet meeting in which ministers and special advisers are discussing how to comply with this demand. They order up the OFSTED reports and decide to sacrifice kids from schools with the poorest exam results: “Those destined to spend a lifetime on benefits, occupying places on the dole queue and, frankly, the prisons.”

It’s a Sin has similar points to make. A powerful subplot focuses on a mother who is forced to take her local authority to court to release her sick son from an isolation ward. It’s based on a real case. But as well as obliging us to recall these little-known injustices, the series also gives two other spurs to measure the distance between the present and the past. And they are related.

The first is all the sex. Russell T Davies is good at sex. It’s a subject from which many of his contemporaries seem surprisingly disengaged. In modern free-to-view drama, morgue scenes outnumber bedroom scenes. I haven’t kept a precise tally, but I think that in the last five years I’ve seen fewer orgasms on television than scenes in which characters demonstrate their sadness by lying very still under the bathwater. This was not true of the small-screen culture that formed Russell T Davies and his peers. In the 1970s and 80s, we watched Sheila White’s Messalina hold a marathon orgy in I, Claudius (1976) and Jack Shepherd and Cheri Lunghi pursuing topless conversations about the future of socialism in Bill Brand (1976). We watched Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective (1985), warding off an unwelcome erection with thoughts of Ludovic Kennedy, and, in a less classifiable human act, Bob Peck’s policeman hero in Edge of Darkness (1985) disbursing a grief-stricken kiss to a vibrator he finds among this daughter’s personal effects. Another thing: we watched these scenes with our parents, and survived.

In Davies’s work, sex is rarely the destination of the story, or a secret that the plot works to expose. It attends the lives of his characters, and accompanies them through the narrative. In Queer as Folk, the hero takes a phone call from the hospital while in bed with a scandalously younger partner: he discovers he’s become a sperm-donor dad just as the teenager reaches his climax. In Years and Years, a breathless and passionate scene occurs in a Portakabin between a housing officer (Russell Tovey) and a Ukrainian refugee (Maxim Baldry), as the other characters are absorbing the news that a nuclear bomb has been detonated in the South China Sea. The two men kiss like there’s no tomorrow, and perhaps there isn’t.

It’s a Sin has another sequence to add to this canon, in which Ritchie (Olly Alexander) has sex with eight men in two minutes as the soundtrack thrums to Hooked on Classics, the gloriously naff Royal Philharmonic disco medley. He experiences something intense and upright with a shock-haired boy in the back room of a pub (to Beethoven’s Ninth); is fellated in his student accommodation (Rossini’s William Tell Overture); fucked against a wall (Marriage of Figaro); has a vigorous threesome by his desk (Fantasy Overture from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet); throws a long-haired drama student down on the bed (Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16); and whoops with his legs over the shoulders of a barman with blue eye shadow (Bizet’s March of the Toreadors). And though we know that this story is about contagion and illness and death, Davies declines to rob his characters of their pleasure. The premise of his title is always resisted.

Davies has been gathering his energies to dramatise the 1980s AIDS crisis for more than a decade. It’s pure coincidence that filming had just concluded when Covid-19 entered our lives. But this unsought resonance is now one of its strongest attractions. There are scenes in which characters maintain their distance to avoid infection; scenes of anxious deep-cleaning. A memorable moment puts a young character in pale green PPE as he visits a friend on an isolation ward. On set he must have looked like a visiting alien. On broadcast he’ll just look like somebody in Sainsbury’s. He wonders why he needs a mask. “It’s to protect me, not you, idiot,” says his friend, anticipating one of the commonest exchanges of the last ten months.

And here’s where the series makes its most electric contact with our own moment. It takes pains to track the progress of good, imperfect and downright false intelligence about the AIDS virus through the information networks of the day. The materials may be pre-digital, but the mixture of evolving research, muddled government messaging, ignorant press commentary and outlandish conspiracy theory will be queasily familiar.

Weird though many of them sound, the mess of theories that makes Ritchie deny the seriousness of the AIDS virus are all lifted straight from the historical record. If TV dramas had footnotes — and these days there’s no reason why they couldn’t — then they would have been easy to supply. Ritchie’s list of H-words loomed in the frame of Killer in the Village, a 1983 edition of the BBC2 science series Horizon — which also featured an earnest Manhattan doctor sorting through bottles of amyl nitrate, and calling out their proprietary names: Locker Room, Bolt, Hardware, Thrust. His mention of a secret laboratory memorialises Operation Infektion, a Kremlin disinformation campaign that sought to spread the idea that AIDS was a bioweapon that escaped from a US military research centre.

And that barmy idea about AIDS arriving from space, like a problem from Quatermass? Detailed on the pages of the Daily Telegraph in December 1986 by the astronomer Fred Hoyle and the biologist Chandra Wickramasinghe. “We think it most likely in each instance primary entry was secured through infected rainwater entering lesions in feet in the mainly barefoot populations of the Third World with subsequent transmissions proceeding through human contact.” Today Professor Wickramasinghe is the head of the Centre for Astrobiology at the privately-run Buckingham University. Any future drama about the Covid years will have its choice of similarly cranky characters and ideas.

Should Davies get credit for this historical accident? I think he should. Some writers create stories that are closed and self-contained. Others make work that lets in the audience and their own experiences. He does the latter. It’s a Sin has a quality in common which much of the best art. A glorious promiscuity.