Russell T Davies tells TV Drama about his latest series, It’s a Sin, charting the lives of a group of friends as they grapple with the AIDS crisis in 1980s London.
Russell T Davies has many gifts. Writing breakthrough, stereotype-busting storylines and whip-smart dialogue. Crafting scenes that will make you weep and then laugh out loud. Creating characters you fall in love with within minutes of meeting them and whose lives you find yourself fully invested in—even if it is for just a few hours. All are on display in his stand-out new drama It’s a Sin, produced by RED Production Company for Channel 4, with HBO Max as a co-producer, and distributed globally by All3Media International.
The five-parter, which has notched up sales across the globe, arrives on HBO Max on February 18 after having already launched in the U.K. Spanning a decade, it chronicles the lives of a group of friends living in London in the 1980s as they come to grips with the AIDS crisis. The key cast includes Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Lydia West and Nathaniel Curtis, with Keeley Hawes, Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry among those in supporting roles.
Davies tells TV Drama Weekly about why he wanted to tell this story now, the approach to finding his leads, life in lockdown and the storytelling opportunities in the scripted space today.
TV DRAMA: Why did you want to revisit this time in history? And why now?
DAVIES: I felt that the British version was untold. Not completely untold; it’s popped up in soap operas and detective thrillers and stage plays. But not as a big, blockbuster piece. Also, it’s a generational thing; there are 18-year-olds now who don’t know this happened. I don’t blame them for that. I don’t blame a generation for not looking back; you’re not born to look back. But every so often you need to remind people of what happened in history; that’s a good thing to do. And also my age—at 57, I’ve been writing and telling these gay stories for a very long time, and in some ways, I haven’t told the biggest one. I think I was waiting. I’m glad I waited. I have a lot more experience and hopefully a lot more skill. I hope I’ve told it well. It was just time.
TV DRAMA: When we spoke about Years and Years, I recall you said you had the final scene in your head well before it was written. How much of It’s a Sin has been brewing, and for how long?
DAVIES: When you get to episode five, there are certain showdowns between characters, face-offs, in which terrible things are said, righteous things are said, and they’ve been building in my head for a very long time. If I was a forensic detective, I could take almost every single line of it and trace it back to a conversation I once had in the ’80s or ’90s, someone I knew, that boy we lost, those two boys we lost. All of [the scripts] are shuddering, are resonant, with people I’ve known.
TV DRAMA: There was a scene with Jill watching with fear as a friend who has this new, mysterious disease is drinking tea in their flat. It reminded me of the paranoia I felt as COVID-19 was blazing through New York City early last year. The diseases are very different, but are there any parallels between these two eras?
DAVIES: There are strange, accidental parallels. It’s hard telling people that we wrote and shot this before the pandemic. We had scenes of PPE and distancing and rubber gloves. The way [Jill] scrubs her skin when she’s scared of being infected. And there’s a bigger theme at work there: looking back at how much we were all in the dark and how little we knew in the ’80s. Still, try asking people [today] the difference between a virus and a bacteria and a germ! There’s that thing of, in the ’80s, people being scared to drink from the same cup as someone who might be HIV positive. And in dramas, those scenes are usually given to the evil homophobe. I wanted to balance that out with a gay-friendly person. She’s in the dark; she doesn’t know how the virus works, she’s not mad, she’s not completely irresponsible. She does not know how it works because of the lack of information. I wanted to swing that scene around and make it more fair.
TV DRAMA: Tell me about the approach to casting. They are all brilliant. Did you have any actors in your head as you were writing?
DAVIES: I never do, otherwise then you limit yourself. But once the script existed, it was very important to target Olly Alexander. There aren’t many famous, brilliant, out, leading gay men. In fact, there’s him, that’s it, in Britain. If he’d chosen to take his pop band and tour Japan, we would have been very sad! But we did audition him properly. We couldn’t assume he could act well, so we brought him for an audition and that was a delight. The whole production clicked into place.
TV DRAMA: I know you finished filming pre-pandemic. How was it managing postproduction amid the lockdown?
DAVIES: It was all right! It’s sitting in a Zoom and you get stuff delivered to your computer. It’s a shame because editing is a sensitive thing. We want to be in the room talking about shots and who you’re favoring, speaking in the rhythm of it. Nonetheless, we’re all very experienced and we coped. And look at the end result; it survived very well. It just made [the process] slightly longer, but we had slightly longer to do it. Compared to teachers and nurses, whose lives are in disarray, what can we complain about?
TV DRAMA: How has the lockdown period been for you as a writer?
DAVIES: I was fine. I wasn’t actually writing; I decided to take a bit of a break. I had just edited this and spent a lot of time on the music. I’m very lucky; I can afford to have a lockdown. I know how much people have suffered out there.
TV DRAMA: Five episodes for me felt like it wasn’t enough—I wanted more time with them! When crafting a story, how do you determine how it gets drawn out and how many episodes you need?
DAVIES: That’s my job, that’s my skill. I think about it for a long time. There are problems; good problems. I like problems—they define how you tell things. The tough thing about telling an AIDS story is that it’s an opportunistic infection that can take many shapes and forms. Everyone dies of a different form of illness and at different speeds. It’s hard to span that out over a decade. Sometimes you can die very quickly. Most times, there’s quite a while to die. And not everyone did die. The biggest challenge was that there are [multiple] deaths; I had to make each one different. That pushes you, but I’m glad to be pushed in that area; it’s where I want to be, where it’s difficult.
TV DRAMA: You also intersperse those tough scenes with moments of lightness and joy and love.
DAVIES: That’s what life was like. I wanted to remember those people we lost with joy and fun and laughter because that’s what it was like at the time, even in the hospital wards.
TV DRAMA: As a writer working in this super-competitive drama landscape today, with the global streamers spending so much money on the genre, are you finding more opportunities to tell different types of stories?
DAVIES: It’s a good time. More drama means higher standards for all of us. The battle in drama is enormous now because the work out there is ferociously good. I’m not an expert in [producing for the SVODs] because I’m 57 and kind of an old-fashioned terrestrial broadcaster. This is the first thing I’ve done that’s been dropped with all five episodes available. It still has a terrestrial transmission of one a week [on Channel 4]. I think this drama benefits from being watched [in one sitting] because it doesn’t depend on plot twists, there are no great reveals, you don’t find out who the murderer is, it’s just life being lived.
You look at the dramas that went out last year, like I May Destroy You and I Hate Suzie and Succession—the intelligence level of drama is rapidly accelerating. Those shows were as bright and bristling and clever as you could possibly imagine. That’s good for all of us. There’s not a writer in the land thinking, I’ll just take it easy and write a quick murder mystery. Stories and writers are getting more varied and more true and honest and insightful. That’s brilliant. It’s great news.
TV DRAMA: It’s a Sin sees you working with Nicola Shindler again as executive producer. Tell us about that creative partnership.
DAVIES: This is our tenth show! I only wander away from her when someone else owns the rights, like Doctor Who, then I come straight back. I love her. I don’t tell her anything in advance, but when she gets a script, then I tell her everything. When she gets the script, she has no idea what’s going to happen in it. She reacts like a first-time audience to it. And it’s a marvelous system. I respect her so much that I’m still terrified of her! Handing in a bad script to her? Awful. Imagine doing something like that? That makes me work hard; it keeps me at the top of my game. I’d dread to let her down; that would be a terrible feeling.
TV DRAMA: You mentioned taking a break from writing. What else are you working on?
DAVIES: Sir Lenny Henry got in touch with me, out of the blue, in mid-lockdown. He said, I like your writing, will you mentor me? I thought, how delightful! And lo and behold, the thing I mentored him on has been commissioned. He now thinks I have magic powers! It hasn’t been commissioned because of me; it’s because it is such a good script. That’s being made over the next two years, it’s called Three Little Birds, [inspired by] his mother’s experiences emigrating from Jamaica in 1957. It’s not her story; it’s an imagined version of women like her, and I will be a script editor. I’m very excited! I’m not writing a word, it’s all him, and I’m enjoying being that mentor. Someone else I mentor, who’s never had a script made before, has just had a commission from ITV as well. That’s a joy. I’m clearly going through my grandfather phase!
TV DRAMA: Do you think you’ll ever return to sci-fi/fantasy?
DAVIES: The trouble is, I did the best. I do get offered sci-fi projects, and I’ll never say never because if the right one comes along and I fancy it, I’ll do it. But Doctor Who was the best, maddest, most fun science-fiction you’ll ever make in your life, so it’s very hard for me to imagine something better. Nothing has tempted me or touched my imagination that way since. Also, there’s a lot of [sci-fi] out there! I get offered stuff and think, do you need this? With all these Netflix shows and Amazon shows, do you need this? We could do with a good cull!
TV DRAMA: I read somewhere that It’s a Sin is your most personal show yet. Does it get easier to reveal yourself in your scripts as you get older?
DAVIES: It’s never easy, but then that’s the job, I suppose. You keep digging deeper and deeper. You don’t have to do that—you can tell funny adventures about murders and medics if you want to. [Being personal] works for me, so I’ll keep doing it. It’s constructive.
TV DRAMA: You mentioned the music earlier. What was the approach there?
DAVIES: I think I put about half of [the songs] in the script, and the director [Peter Hoar] put in the other half. It was enormous fun. I was very careful not to just put cool songs into it. We weren’t cool at the time. We’re never cool! Who’s cool? There are great, big, pop classic bangers in there; songs that, at the time, some 18-year-olds would go, No, that’s terrible, let’s go listen to David Bowie. It’s the songs we were dancing along to on the radio. It’s amazing; as time passes, they become cool.
TV DRAMA: How much of a role do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will play in dramas that come out over the next few years?
DAVIES: For generations now, we’ll have stories where, if characters are missing, they died in 2020. It will find its way into the drama in interesting ways. It will be fascinating to chart that. The missing person in the family, the thing that happened in 2020.