The joys, and the boys, are plentiful. The early episodes are a riot of sex, celebration and youthful ambition. You’d call the buzz of it all infectious, if the phrase didn’t create a horrible irony in this context. Because creeping in around the edge of the fun comes this mystery disease, word of which is trickling over from America. To begin with, nobody knows what it is, what it’s caused by and whether it’s even real. People trying to raise warning flags are batted away away, dismissed as paranoid conspiracy theorists. A virus that seems to infect only gay men? Ludicrous.
Like any virus thriller, in the first act, people start disappearing. Around the margins, men exit the lives they’ve built, retreating from friends, fired from jobs, wheeled to lonely hospitals or reabsorbed into the families that drove them away in the first place. Hidden away, they die secretive deaths, their lives uncelebrated, buried by people frozen with shame. Cruelty is heaped upon cruelty, all of it documented here with an eye that misses nothing.
It’s painful to watch, as it should be, but not suffocating. That’s because, like the old Mr Rogers quote about coping with scary things on the news by looking for the helpers because there will always be people helping, It’s a Sin is also about the helpers. There’s Jill, based on Davies’ childhood friend and actor Jill Nalder, who really did live in a Pink Palace in 1980s London and, in a satisfying closed loop, here plays the fictional Jill’s mum. There are the volunteers, the people who staff the helplines and march in the streets. There’s the lawyer who frees an AIDS patient unlawfully imprisoned in a hospital ward. Later, there are the nurses and doctors who care for the dying, and there are the mothers.
It’s a Sin has some wonderful mothers, women who love their sons like butter loves bread. They love them unstoppably, facing off ignorance and malice to keep on loving them until the end and beyond. There are other kinds of mothers too, the terrified and the ignorant who raised their sons without once – to paraphrase two of the drama’s powerful speeches – looking to see who they really were, yet still managing to fill them with shame about it.
Because as well as being a record of these men’s lives told through a prism of love and bravery, It’s a Sin is a polemic. Entwined with the laughter and colour, it’s white with rage. The hypocrisy of the establishment is jabbed throughout, pithily in one scene set in the Members’ Dining Room at the House of Commons, where a group of gouty, married MPs who would doubtless go on to support Section 28 are accompanied by their beautiful young, male lovers. Brutish and insidious homophobia is scattered across the episodes, present without ever becoming the main story.