It’s hard to think of the 1980s as history – it was only a few years ago, surely? Wasn’t life in the ‘80s just like life now, but with less WiFi, more Rubik’s Cubes and Findus Crispy Pancakes?
It would be easy (honestly, preferable) to think so. But then a show like It’s A Sin comes along and the sheer expanse of time, all 40 years of it, truly hits home.
This devastatingly beautiful five-part series, created by the incredible Russell T Davies, has already broken countless records (and hearts) since it dropped on All 4 on January 22. A coming-of-age story following a group of gay men and their friend Jill throughout the 1980s, it follows the progression of the AIDS epidemic from its arrival – a small cloud on the horizon barely noticed by the characters who are busy drinking, partying, and exploring their sexuality via lots of shagging – to its emergence as a full, destructive thunderstorm of an epidemic that continues to shape British society today.
In short, It’s A Sin is the most important series on TV right now, bringing the history of the AIDS crisis in the UK to a world of people who either haven’t heard the story or haven’t heard enough. It leaves, in its wake, an audience reeling. It also leaves us with the question – why do so many of us know so little about the horrors of the decade so many of us were born or grew up in?
Setting the scene
The series starts with Ritchie trading his conservative upbringing on the Isle of Wight for the freedom of London in 1981 – the year the AIDS epidemic officially began. Little to nothing was known about this mysterious illness then – not by the health establishment and certainly not by a young gay man revelling joyfully in everything, and everyone, London had to offer.
In fact, in 1981 ‘AIDS’ didn’t yet exist. Instead, it was known as ‘gay-related immunodefiency’, or GRID, and acknowledged mostly by American officials. Investigations were carried out after five gay men were treated for an unusual form of pneumonia in LA and again later, when men in California and New York were diagnosed with a cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma.
As reports of this mysterious new illness travelled across the Atlantic, so too did the confusion surrounding it. In It’s A Sin, this strange uncertainty first presents itself in the illness of a secondary character – “They said it’s pneumonia; then they said it’s like something you get from birds, in his lungs”. Later, we see his partner Henry, locked in a hospital ward, his skin marked with the tell-tale signs of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, the fearful staff refusing to bring him his lunch.
It was as early as 1982 when doctors discovered that GRID was also present in women and straight men – particularly haemophiliacs and drug users. The name was changed to ‘acquired immunodeficiency syndrome’, or AIDS, but it was too late to shake the stigma. AIDS had been branded the ‘gay disease’ or even the ‘gay plague’.
It’s A Sin presents a Britain where information on AIDS was next to impossible to come by, leaving those who sought it vulnerable to discrimination. The character Jill – whom Davies based on a real person who herself appears in the show – desperately tries to educate herself on this killer sickness only to be constantly turned away by doctors. She resorts to asking her flatmate Colin to pick up some magazines while on his work trip to New York. He does, and is promptly fired simply for being caught reading them.
Looking back, it’s clear that information was there, that research had been done, but the word wasn’t being spread anywhere near quickly enough. On screen, Davies’ pointedly nods to the misinformation surrounding these early cases, a montage of headlines, rumours and foulplay conspiracy theories feeling hauntingly familiar today.
One of the first known people to die from an AIDS-related illness in the UK was Terrence Higgins, whose partner and friends founded a trust in his name following his death in July 1982. In lieu of government action, it fell on charities and organisations like the Terrence Higgins Trust to provide knowledge and support. And much like Jill in It’s A Sin, it was volunteers who manned phones, spread awareness, and visited patients in hospitals.
It wasn’t until 1986 – a year that saw 38,000 cases of AIDS reported worldwide – that the UK government set up a Cabinet Committee to deal with AIDS. The infamous Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign was launched the next year, with leaflets delivered to every home and a chilling TV advert played memorably into every terrestrial channel dependent home.
Created to scare people into taking sexual health seriously, when combined with the misinformation and scaremongering already spreading throughout society, the campaign only served to fuel the nation’s fear.
Within that context, it’s easier to understand how a photo of Princess Diana opening the first UK’s purpose-built AIDS ward caused such a stir, how the moment became indelibly etched into British history. In It’s A Sin, on hearing that Jill plans to take ‘direct action’, her dad responds, “Princess Di just did a handshake!” In reality, Diana’s decision to shake the hands of the ward’s staff and patients without gloves on likely did more for AIDS awareness than any protest could have.
Diana not only brought the epidemic to the front of minds – and the front of newspapers. She also single-handedly helped disprove rumours that AIDS could be caught through casual touch.
Not acceptable in the ‘80s
With hindsight, the 1980s proved how more information on HIV and AIDS, and gay sexual health generally, was urgently needed. However, in 1988, just one year after the government declared ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’, ministers introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act.
Section 28 crops up in It’s A Sin when teacher Ash is set the task of culling any homosexual references from a school’s library. In late ‘80s Britain, however, this legislation to ‘prohibit the promotion of homosexuality’ in schools went far beyond the destruction of books. It banned staff and teachers from ‘encouraging’ homosexuality, meaning that young LGBT+ people were left uneducated, isolated and shamed.
At a Conservative Party Conference the year before, Margaret Thatcher said: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay” – no wonder Davies has his character Roscoe piss into the PM’s coffee! But while people were quick to protest Section 28 – including a young Sir Ian McKellen, photographed – unbelievably, the legislation wasn’t lifted nationwide until 2003.
In those intervening years, and particularly since the mid-1990s, medical advancements have meant that people who are HIV positive – including the It’s A Sin actor Nathaniel Hall – can live long, happy lives. HIV tests are now freely available, and are routinely carried out as part of sexual health screening for straight and LQBTQ+ individuals alike. Even so, as of 2017, around 101,600 people were living with HIV in the UK.
And that’s why It’s A Sin is such an important watch. Yes, the 1980s were four decades ago. Yes, we’ve come a long way since then. But the history of the AIDS crisis remains hugely relevant today. And as we laugh, cry and rage over its effects on the characters of It’s A Sin, we’d all do well to remember its lessons.
For more information or support on HIV, sexual health, treatment, testing or support, visit the Terrence Higgins Trust.