Saintly Sinner

Elton John confronted Russell T. Davies over ‘It’s a Sin.’ Now, Davies tell us what he had to say…

Russell T. Davies

Russell T. Davies has the UK in tears, and he’s damn proud of it.

His next stop: the United States, where his much-acclaimed new series It’s a Sin is about to debut on February 18.

Davies, of course, climbed his way up the showbiz ladder on an unusual trajectory. He started his career as a writer of children’s television, working on the UK shows Why Don’t You? and ChuckleVision. From there, he made an abrupt left turn: he created the groundbreaking series Queer as Folk, which launched him into the world of adult television, and established him as one of the most important queer writer/producers in television history. He followed up with the controversial sci-fi miniseries The Second Coming about the second coming of Jesus, before landing a spot as showrunner on the sci-fi staple Doctor Who. Since then, he’s gone on to create the series Torchwood, Cucumber and Years and Years.

It’s a Sin finds Davies mining his own life history, chronicling the lives of young gay men in the early 1980s at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. In the UK, the series has drawn record-breaking ratings and rave reviews for its portrayal of the near-annihilation of gay men due to a deadly pandemic, public indifference, and institutionalized homophobia. The show also features gay men in all the leading roles, including Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry, who star alongside leading actress Lydia West.

We snagged time to chat with Davies ahead of the US premiere of the series. It’s a Sin debuts on HBO Max on February 18.

You are riding high at the moment. It’s A Sin is Channel 4’s most binged show ever. How do you feel?

I’m reeling, to be honest. They haven’t even counted all the binges yet: those figures don’t include the top two streaming services. The figures aren’t even half of what they’re going to be yet. We’re astonished. Let’s be fair: at Christmas we were sitting here going we’re about to launch a drama about AIDS in the middle of a pandemic. It wasn’t looking good. This is a very difficult subject matter.

Olly Alexander & Lydia West

Absolutely.

These are difficult times. We were not guaranteed success with a cast of new, leading actors nobody has seen before. So where we are is astonishing. I got phoned up by Elton John. I have to go to a Zoom with Parliament to talk about HIV. We can’t turn on the television or radio without someone talking about it. And it’s lovely. It’s what you dream of with every show, and for once it’s happened. And I didn’t expect it with this one.

That’s wonderful.

And it’s genuinely humbling. You know, a friend asked me how I was feeling the other day. And I said, “It’s going to be a long email.” It’s simultaneously hard to celebrate something that’s about so many real deaths. I have people walking up to me on the street—I don’t even know how they recognize me, I’m a writer—but they come up to me every day, more than once, telling me stories about their friends or people they lost. What a shock.

That’s an interesting point. It’s kind of bizarre that a show about AIDS would hit during a pandemic and become so huge a hit.

Apparently it worked in our favor. Maybe it clicked. I certainly think people are home binging television at the moment. There are people at Channel 4 whose job it is to monitor the Tweets. By the time we got to 83 million tweets, they were going this is something big. I wish I had a penny for every one of those.

[Laughter]

And you haven’t even hit here in the states yet. I know there’s a lot of buildup around it with people I talk to.

I hope so. I’m so proud of the cast. That my favorite thing—this cast is wonderful.

Now, before we drift too far, what did Elton John say when he rang you up?

He was entirely lovely, I’ve got to say. And this is someone who has raised half a billion pounds for HIV research. God bless him, he said it was perfect. He was there—he wasn’t rich then. He was just a man trying to cope with life. He lost friends. What an honor to talk to such a great man.

It’s so funny, because there was a time when AIDS was kind of the last thing anybody wanted to talk about when it comes to gay men in particular.

Yes.

Omari Douglas

At the same time, in the past few years, I’ve heard some very high-profile figures say that gay men have never had it rough, that white gay people don’t know bigotry or discrimination.

That’s interesting.

This series refutes that.

That’s certainly the reaction we’ve been getting from a younger audience. You know, the reports say that the testimony we’re getting—texts, emails, DMs—of people watching with kids, and they’re astonished. It’s a very recognizable world; it’s not like they’re watching Bridgerton. This is bars, and sex and hooking up and cigarettes. That’s a very recognizable world in which boys get sick and die and disappear. And nobody cares. People say they’re outraged—which is so good to see. It’s amazing that anyone would say gay men have had it easy. You need only to watch an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race to see. Any good episode has someone breaking down in tears over how they’ve been treated or ignored or shamed by their parents.

True.

And the contestants get younger and younger. These kids are 21 on the catwalk. So it’s still out there. It’s a grave mistake to think all those problems are gone.

I also don’t think it should be a competition to see who has had it worse. You mention—the early scenes in the show have a lot of very frank sex. I have to ask—how accurate was that to the time? I was too young to experience it. Was sex really that flowing?

Oh yes. I’m the age of the characters. I was 18 in 1981. I was also one of the world’s greatest lovers.

[Laughter]

Why is that so funny, David Reddish? Why are you laughing?

I wasn’t expecting you to say that. I would love to hear some testimonials if you can provide them…

That could take a while.

[Laughter]

But yes, that’s part of the reason to show it. There’s also a more profound reason: this is a drama about a virus that is sexually transmitted. So the writing and the camera are down there in the sex because that’s where the problem started. But that’s where the joy is. It can be very difficult, when telling a story about a sexually transmitted disease not to step into sex-shaming and making them the source of the problem. You have to be careful. So I was determined not just to make a political point about sex, but simultaneously, on a simpler, dramatic level to make lives to celebrate. The point in the show was to create characters you loved so you miss them when they’re gone.

Neil Patrick Harris & Callum Scott Howells

Of course.

That’s how I feel about people I love, and I miss them. I think that’s part of the success of the series: everyone has lost someone. Everyone misses them. Everyone needs to get past the death bed to remember a life with joy and happiness. I had a text from a friend talking about the suicide of his sister. And her death had nothing to do with HIV.

Oh my goodness.

Watching made him cry and talk to his mother. He’s still coming to terms with it. So that’s why it’s an honor to write this stuff.

What I love about those sex scenes is that they really show the naivete of the characters.

Yes.

We know what’s coming, they don’t. It makes the pain of loss more pronounced.

Yes. I think we made the right choice there. We could have had those sex scenes with ominous chords underneath, hinting at what’s to come. But I think that’s cheap. We have a better story to tell. In drama, everyone is after the dark scenes, the crying in the rain, the “I hate you.” So by finding the joy, finding the scenes of “I love you” and fun, it pushes you into unexplored territory.

One thing I realized in thinking about the show is how much you avoid nostalgia, which is so damn refreshing. There is so much 80s nostalgia right now. Was that a conscious effort to eschew nostalgia, to portray the 80s as a dark, despairing time?

In some ways. I know what you mean. In drama, you can kind of fetishize the past. I learned this on Doctor Who actually. The hairstyles can become funny, but then it becomes all about the hairstyle. I wanted to make a more recognizable world, a more real world. We didn’t want everyone “dressed up.” So you don’t get any 80s madness. We were always just calming it down. There’s nothing worse than someone on set saying “this will be funny.” You always get that. Six months later sitting in the edit at one in the morning, it’s not funny anymore.

[Laughter]

Also, our costume designer was very clever. They’re kids, so they’re wearing things from the 70s they would have still been wearing. Colin only has one coat throughout the entire thing, because he would. There’s a nice normalcy to it that’s quite effective.

Callum Scott Howells (center)

You’ve already alluded to this, but the show is obviously very personal to you. When you reflect on a sensitive point in your life 40 years later, on people that you lost…How difficult was it for you to revisit this time? To revisit who you were as a person?

That’s interesting.

[A beat]

Yes. But, actually, that’s the kind of thing I think about all day all the time because I’m a writer. That’s kind of my job—to think of every awful thing I’ve done in my life. In the end, whatever you’re writing, you’re still just minding yourself. Even if you’re writing Rose and the Daleks [from Doctor Who], you’re remembering being a kid and being scared, what it was like to watch Doctor Who, to be scared of monsters under the bed. At the same time, you’re reinventing as well. But you only tap into yourself.

And I was a lot more boring in the 80s. I’ve never lived in London. I went to Oxford and studied English to be a writer. I was quite bookish and very determined, so I got a job. I didn’t even go out drinking. I was so devoted to getting work as a writer. So I was more of a 90s boy. So, in some ways it’s wish fulfillment—the 80s I wish I lived. Also, I did have friends living that life, so it’s my version of other people’s lives.

You are one of the most vocal proponents of casting gay actors as gay characters.

Yes.

And your leads here are all publicly gay men.

Not just the leads. Any boyfriend, one-night stand, lesbian, a lover who turns up, and a lot of gay people playing straight people as well.

Marvelous. But I need to challenge you on this a bit. I live in Los Angeles, and I know many gay actors, most of whom actually work playing straight characters. So I have to ask, is it proper for a director or casting director to question an actor about his sexual history for any role?

Well, that’s illegal.

Which is what I keep saying.

It’s illegal here as well. You shouldn’t be able to walk into a supermarket and ask your cashier if she’s a lesbian. Therefore, you approach actors you know are gay, or agents to let them know if they have anyone gay, we’ve an open door for them. So we’re not just casting gay actors, we’re casting out gay actors.

Ok.

And we have a terribly successful show where gayness is rising off the screen. Before [the show debuted], I had every straight man in the world line up in the world with an opinion. What a shock that was! They especially love when a gay man is acting “too gay:” back in your box please. Straight men love to tell gay men how to act. But then, we released the show, and there’s an authentic queerness on the screen. I think that’s part of the success of the show.

Alright.

And I’m not setting some industry standard. I make about five hours of television every two years, so don’t panic everyone. You’re free to do what you want.

Doesn’t that suggest that gay actors shouldn’t play straight characters? Is that a double standard?

We have gay people playing straight parts in this show very deliberately. It’s not 50/50. If there’s a hundred straight actors, there are two gay actors. There are a hundred straight parts, but two gay parts. It’s still that way. So it’s not a level playing field; the seesaw is tilted heavily in the direction of straight people. Gay people have to play straight people, or there’s be no point. Plus from the time we’re 11, gay people are looking at straight people and fitting in. We play straight better than straight people. There’s no such thing as an 11-year-old straight kid trying to fit in with the gay kids. That doesn’t exist in the world.

This is such an interesting conversation. The disturbing trend I’ve noticed—and that Star Trek actress Mary Weisman made reference to when she came out not long ago—is the increasing number of actors who identify as bisexual or queer but are entirely hetero presenting. These actors have no history of any kind of same-sex relationship but are now getting gay parts. I think this begs the question: how gay is gay enough? How much does an actor need to prove in order to qualify for the part?

That’s very true, and I thought her statement was beautiful. That’s the future. I would never force anyone to make a statement or to be in the closet. None the less, I’m not working with those people, and there’s work to be done here. Literally, I get told by gay and queer actors who say they can’t get seen for parts day after day after day. So your worry about going too far—we’ve not gone too far. We’ve only begun. When we do go too far, there will be redress. It’s being seen. They want to be seen for parts.

Olly Alexander

To that point specifically, the problem that gay actors tell me about is that it’s the agents. It’s not producers or directors or casting directors or writers. Agents don’t want to rep gay actors. And it’s a problem of homophobia—it’s not that gay actors can’t get work.

I bet that’s big in America. I won’t say we’re problem-free there here, but it’s a smaller business here. There’s less money involved. I’m sure there are agents like that here, but it’s getting better.

So last question then: loss is a major theme in It’s a Sin. You’re someone that has been very transparent about his own personal dealings with loss—you lost your mother at a young age. You lost your husband a couple of years ago. How does loss shape you and your work?

Hugely. It’s an experience. It deepens you. Like I said, I’m here all day and sit here thinking about it. It’s not a pit you sink into. It also allows me to say “let’s be joyous.” My husband was so funny, I wish he was alive to see this. He was so funny. And he would have taken the piss out of it so much. I was on the network news the other night with my head on a giant screen.

Ok.

And he would have thought that was hilarious. He would have fallen over laughing. He would have never let me forget that time I was a giant head on the network news. So it’s good and bad, but that’s what writing is. It’s all those experiences. I’m not saying I’m glad he’s dead because I’ve become a better writer.

No, of course not.

I’d rather he was still alive and I hadn’t learned the lesson. But that’s being a writer: it’s every death and every gain you’ve ever had. It’s my job to put in all of it. Colin’s death in It’s a Sin is kind of my husband’s death stage-by-stage. I didn’t do that on purpose, but typing away, it comes out. “Lying in a bed, eyes open, unable to see.” I didn’t choose to put that down, but I kind of had to. And the scene is very real as a result.

Whatever it says, that was the death in the series that moved me the most.

Isn’t it wonderful? That episode transmits tonight. I’m so excited for people to see it. We talk about how sad it is, but I can’t wait.

It’s a Sin lands on HBO Max February 18.