Spoilers ahead for HBO Max’s It’s a Sin
Russell T. Davies is one of the most influential creators of queer content in television history. From Queer as Folk to Cucumber and A Very English Scandal, Davies’ series are household names among gay TV lovers.
His latest project is It’s a Sin, a new HBO Max limited series about a group of friends grappling with the AIDS epidemic in 1980s London. It’s a Sin’s U.K. debut smashed streaming records and earned the show rave reviews. It even had a real-life effect, with HIV tests quadrupling the week after the series premiered.
Davies spoke with NewNowNext about the long journey of writing It’s a Sin, what was left on the cutting-room floor, and if he would ever consider making a spinoff.
I have to say that if I didn’t watch that Queer as Folk VHS bootleg in my bedroom as a teenager, I would not be where I am today. So thank you.
I’m glad to have turned you. Thank you. It was a long time ago now. Bloody hell, I really appreciate that. Thank you very much.
I’m sure that you get that a lot from people, about how they watched it when they were younger or how it helped them come out.
Yes. I do have extraordinary numbers of people come up to me in the street and tell me they’ve masturbated to my work, and they’re not talking Doctor Who. It’s a very strange compliment. There’s genuinely a strange conversation like, “Wow. How do I react to that?” Even though all these years, you think I would have worked out a reply by now — never had quite got around to it. But it’s an honor. To be honest, Doctor Who kind of dwarfed everything. But I do think I’ll go to the grave with Queer as Folk on my tombstone, which is a lovely gay tombstone to have. So I’m delighted when people talk about it, really delighted.
You’re probably getting people saying the same thing now about It’s a Sin. For a lot of young people, it’s like a history lesson.
It’s a shock, to be honest. We expected a big reaction to Queen as Folk because it was so controversial. We expected a big reaction to Doctor Who because it’s created to have a big reaction. To have this reaction to a drama is properly shocking. And I mean all of us, professionally — the channel, everyone backing it, the cast. We all knew we’d made a good piece of work. We were proud of it. And we were kind of prepared to be proud of it in the face of universal silence, which is a skill in cultivating television. So to have this, and not just viewing figures, but we’re on every television station, we’re on every chat show. You cannot turn on the radio without someone talking about it. It’s a proper high-profile buzz, and that’s just delightful.
Did writing It’s a Sin help you process living through the AIDS epidemic?
I’m processing it constantly. My mind is always turning over scenes for dramas. I just do that all day long. It’s not because I’m a writer. That’s why I write, because my brain does that all the time. I just sit there and invent people and invent dialogue between them, all the time. So the dialogue just doesn’t stop in my head. So, yes. First of all, you get people like yourself saying very polite things to me. I’ve got a string of gay and queer characters behind me. And I’ve kind of reached the stage where you think, “Well I have a duty to do this, actually.” If I hadn’t, what would my body of work look like if I fell under a bus tomorrow and I hadn’t written about the biggest gay story of my lifetime? So that grew in my mind, not as a pressure but just as the next door opening. I suppose it was a pressure. I think part of my joyous reaction to the success of the show is a weight lifting. Because imagine if we got this wrong. Imagine if HIV charities and HIV patients, and those who have lost people to AIDS, said we got this wrong. That would have been fucking awful.
When it starts out, it almost felt like a horror movie with the music, like there’s this killer that you know is about to prey on these people.
Is that how it felt living through it?
That’s a good analogy. Yes. I did almost have that kind of supernatural feel of there’s something invisible and intangible, something you can’t quite believe in. It’s funny because also, it’s my job to make this an attractive drama to watch it. You don’t want to push viewers away. It’s a very serious subject matter, so I will use everything. If I have to use horror moments, if there are supernatural moments, there are moments where characters talk to camera. Almost everyone was practically bursting into song. I will do anything, anything. There is a moment in the fourth episode, Ritchie goes back to the Isle of Wight and meets an old school friend. That’s a play in the middle of the whole drama. So it was interesting. Yeah, that’s me throwing everything at it, in order to stick, in order to get an audience to come and watch. That’s my job. I’ll kind of do that with everything I’m doing. But I do believe in being entertaining. I believe in being full-bodied and full-hearted, and I get bored if people just walk into scenes and walk out again. So I’m determined never to be boring with what I write.
Ritchie in It’s a Sin, then Nathan in Queer As Folk, Freddie in Cucumber/Banana — they’re all these young, cocky guys. Are they you? Who are these young men that you write that are all kind of similar?
Yeah, it’s somewhere. So it’s the same man going through the ages. I think you would follow it, if anyone could ever be bothered. And it’s always the young men, actually. If they could be bothered to sit down and watch all my stuff in a very long day, you kind of think you’d follow Stuart. If you followed Ritchie, Ritchie would become Stuart, Stuart would become Henry in Cucumber. They’re actually aging as they go along, which is probably me. I’m glad you said that because people ask, “Are the young Edison Welsh boy Colin in It’s a Sin?” Which is a very good compliment, but I sit there thinking, “If you think I get to the top of this industry by being a little innocent, you’d have to be so fucking stupid.” Of course, I’m more complicated than that. Genuinely.
The scene towards the end of the series when Ritchie talks about having sex with people while knowing he was positive…I don’t think I’ve ever seen a scene like that before.
That’s why it’s there. I’ve also spent the past 20, 30 years watching other pieces of work about HIV and AIDS. Brilliant pieces of work, absolutely. And for me, looking for stuff that hadn’t been done, or stuff I might disagree with, or stuff I’ve got my own insight into it. I am alive and working in the world of gay fiction, of course, I have things to say. That’s why I’m here. And I did think, not just on screen, but actually anecdotally in life, that the people who knew they were HIV positive and continued to have sex with people, were to some extent being demonized. You get some bastard that’s doing that. You get some bastards to this day doing that. It’s interesting, the law deciding whether it’s illegal in many countries now. We’re entering a brand new stage of that, whether that’s a crime. And I completely understand if it is. I’m not saying I’m not agreeing with this behavior. But especially in the ’80s, and I think especially when this was new and still incredible… that I think we have to forgive those people. And they’re boys. Good God, any boy is stupid. Anybody’s horny. Anybody. What boys were in control of themselves? None of them. I haven’t worked out what’s going on at 57, let alone at 21. So I think it’s very deliberately there to just try and start a conversation towards saying, these are not bastards. They’re not murderers, and they’re not monsters. Actually, the whole situation was fucked up. Everyone was trapped into fear and secrecy and shame, and that’s where that behavior comes from. They are products of the system and deserve some sympathy.
I think any gay man watching could have put himself in Ritchie’s place in that hospital bed.
Absolutely. And later, at least he faces it. At least he knows himself and what he’s done, and that’s rare. Maybe that’s the most fictional moment of all, when he comes to terms with it. I’m not sure that’s always the case. I think there’s a grace in his wisdom at the end, I hope.
Was there anything that didn’t make it into the final cut?
A couple of tiny little scenes… There’s a funny bit of dialogue in Episode 5 with Lorraine (Ashley McGuire), the lesbian nurse, where Ritchie says, “You have it easy, you lesbians.” And Lorraine says, “Yeah, we have it easy, doing extra shifts, filling in when straight staff won’t help, doing all the mucky work because of gay boys,” in a nice, hard response there that established the presence of lesbians in here. That had to be cut for time.
Since the streaming numbers and ratings are so huge, would you ever think of returning to the world? Maybe in a spinoff focusing on the other characters?
I hadn’t because I never expected this. I don’t think so. I’d just like to move on. I’ve just got other things to do. And we’ve really had magic in this show. The reaction has been magic. To ever get that again… Imagine sitting down to see Series 2. Crossing your fingers, and then one wrong line, you go, “Oh no, it’s ruined.” No, I don’t think so.
What about a Queer As Folk revival? I would love to see where Stuart and Nathan and Vince are these days.
They’d just be creaking, wouldn’t they? Would you really want to see them looking old?
I guess you have a point.
They are forever young in your head.
It’s a Sin is available now on HBO Max.