Interview: Russell T. Davies And Olly Alexander Of 'It's A Sin' A new British TV drama looks at the lives of gay men in London at the very start of the AIDS crisis — back when no one wanted to stop the party, and no one thought the virus could touch them.
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'It's A Sin' Brings A Lost Generation Of Gay Men To Life

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'It's A Sin' Brings A Lost Generation Of Gay Men To Life

'It's A Sin' Brings A Lost Generation Of Gay Men To Life

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NOEL KING, HOST:

In the 1980s...

(SOUNDBITE OF BRONSKI BEAT'S "SMALLTOWN BOY")

KING: ...There's a group of young friends in London. And for them, every night is a party - drinking, dancing, lots of sex. And then, the party stops because a mysterious virus starts killing them. That's the plot of a new TV drama called "It's A Sin." The creator, Russell T. Davies, was one of those young men. He based this partly on his life. And he can remember back to 1983 when he first read about the virus.

RUSSELL T DAVIES: When I bought a copy of a magazine called Him, a secret he bought - a lot of students secretly buying his gay magazine, all kind of ashamed and excited all at once, like you do. The sky was so bright, blue. And I read the cover walking home. And it said, AIDS death plot panic. And I literally stopped dead. And I remember thinking, oh, this is real.

KING: The friends on the show, living, sometimes, just barely through the early years of the AIDS epidemic, are based on his friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IT'S A SIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Here we are, the pink palace.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Just so you know, this is not housewarming. We're going to have a party every night.

DAVIES: When I came to write this, I drew from my friends. As then the rumors of this virus became closer, as it became real, as people started falling ill, then, you know, the partying didn't stop, but it became much deeper and richer as lives were at stake. And so these friends of mine ended up being the ones either falling ill or being the ones holding hands, being at the bedside, starting fundraising.

KING: Olly Alexander plays Ritchie, the lead character. Olly, you grew up 20 years after the events depicted in the series. When you were a young man, how much were you taught about the AIDS crisis?

OLLY ALEXANDER: Well, I remember it being on the periphery. It was really at the edges of my awareness. And it wasn't ever spoken about in my secondary school. You know, I was still at school under Section 28, which was, really, I think, a direct response to the AIDS crisis by the conservative government to ban any mention of LGBT people in schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IT'S A SIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) And he said, I thought, perfect job for you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Make him start in here, removing inappropriate material.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Like what? Clause 28.

(JEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We have to remove any books or material that might be promoting a homosexual lifestyle.

ALEXANDER: You know, now that I'm looking back, I realize what a huge impact that had on me as I was coming to terms with my own sexuality. And the word gay and AIDS were used as jokes in the playground. It took me many, many years, really, to begin to uncover what happened in this period of history and what it meant to me now.

KING: Russell, there is a scene where Olly's character, Ritchie, an aspiring actor, is talking to an agent. And Ritchie has just landed a part because someone else has dropped out and gone home.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IT'S A SIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) There's a lot of boys who are going home these days, more and more of them, every month going home. And I don't think we'll ever see them again. Do you? Ritchie, promise me, don't go home.

KING: Explain what Ritchie's agent is saying there, what she's warning him about, what she's talking about.

DAVIES: Yes. It was all so coded back then. That's what happened, is the - all kids go to the big city. Back then, people started falling ill. Either they didn't know why - if they did know why, it was considered to be shameful. It was considered to be awful. Someone wrote me a letter the other day. I mean, I wrote five hours of drama. And this friend of mine summed it up in one line better than I ever could have. She said, we sent our gorgeous friends home to their childhood bedrooms to die while their families tried to hide them from the neighbors.

KING: Oh, wow.

DAVIES: Wow. What a sentence.

ALEXANDER: Wow.

DAVIES: And she was speaking about friends of hers. Isn't that astonishing? And that's what happened. And you're trapped in a cycle of once - it's considered to be shameful because it's considered to be sexually transmitted. You and I know it's more complicated than that. And you and I know it doesn't just affect gay men. But at the time, it was seen as a gay thing that wasn't spoken about, that was considered to be shameful. With the shame comes the silence, comes the ignorance. It's a perfect trap. That virus, in so many ways, was an awful, perfect storm. So boys would go home. And bear in mind, in those days, it's hard to be - it's fascinating to listen to responses of 18-year-olds watching this. They're quite outraged that the world - a very recognizable world was ever like this because there were no mobile phones. There was no Internet. You'd literally write letters to each other (laughter). It's impossible to think.

KING: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: It sounds like Jane Austen. But you'd write letters to each other. And if you didn't write, that was it. You'd vanished. And people...

ALEXANDER: Landlines, home phones (laughter).

DAVIES: Yeah, isn't that strange? I know. And if you're ex-directory, you'd never get hold of - I still have...

ALEXANDER: Gosh.

DAVIES: There are still people I know and I think about to this day, I wonder if they died.

KING: Really?

DAVIES: My friend Eddie (ph).

ALEXANDER: My God.

DAVIES: I don't know where Eddie is. I don't know if he died. And it's very interesting that I've never gone to look him up because part of me doesn't want to know. It's still these blocks in my mind. I think, no, no, no. Leave Eddie where he was. Leave him. Maybe he's happy somewhere. Good old Eddie. Lovely boy.

KING: God, that's really something to think about.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IT'S A SIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Did you see Gloria (ph) last night?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) No. I haven't seen her for ages.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Not like her to miss a party.

KING: I wonder if I could ask you, lastly, you gentlemen are a generation apart. And, Olly, your generation, in many ways, couldn't be what it is without Russell's generation having done some amount of work and having lived through a crisis the likes of which we hope the world will never see again. When you reflect on these differences, what do you think your generation owes Russell's generation?

ALEXANDER: Oh, my goodness. Well...

DAVIES: Be careful. Be careful.

(LAUGHTER)

ALEXANDER: A lot. Everything, really. I mean, you know, one of the things, I think, growing up gay, one of the things that's difficult, is it can be really hard to find your elders, let's say, for want of a better word.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: I am. I'll take it.

ALEXANDER: You know, those - you really have to find those and discover them for yourself. And they can be tricky. But I know, for me, building those bridges has been one of the most profound experiences of my life. And I just feel so lucky to be here and doing what I'm doing now. You know, I wouldn't be able to if it wasn't for people like Russell and for everyone that went through this and went before me, you know. And that's always - you know, you have to acknowledge that.

KING: Olly Alexander plays Ritchie on "It's A Sin." Russell T. Davies is the writer and creator. Gentlemen, it was really a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

DAVIES: Thank you, loved to.

ALEXANDER: Oh, wonderful. Thank you.

DAVIES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A SIN")

PET SHOP BOYS: (Singing) When I look back upon my life, it's always with a sense of shame. I've always been the one to blame.

KING: "It's A Sin" is out now on HBO Max.

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