How It's a Sin landed a pop star for its lead and why it's so different from other AIDS stories
Writer-creator Russell T. Davies details the creation of his HBO Max limited series starring Years & Years singer Olly Alexander, about five friends rocked by the AIDS epidemic in 1980s London.
It's a Sin is anything but what its title suggests.
The new five-episode HBO Max limited series, which just wrapped its run on Channel 4 in the U.K. to critical acclaim, introduces viewers to five friends in 1980s London. Young and living it up, their lives will soon be upended by the spread of AIDS. At the time, little was known about it — to the point of it being called just a "gay cancer" or "gay flu." But it was much worse, of course — incurable, in fact.
Russell T. Davies, creator of the original Queer as Folk and former Doctor Who writer and executive producer (he also created that franchise spin-off Torchwood), was all too familiar with the stories and setting because he lived it. But he hadn't seen the British experience shared with the world. So he changed that.
While the AIDS epidemic is at the center of the drama, the series' antagonist, if you will, it's so much more than that. The series spans a decade as the five friends — Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Jill (Lydia West), Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) — pursue their respective careers and try to live their best lives, lose friends to the virus, and do what they can to stay healthy.
EW spoke with Davies about the experiences that informed his motivations, why Years & Years lead singer Olly Alexander was the right person to lead his ensemble, and how he (eventually) landed on that title.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There have, of course, been many movies and some limited series and such about the rise of the AIDS epidemic through the years. Some really incredible stories. So what was it you wanted to say here that wasn't in those?
RUSSELL T. DAVIES: Yeah, I agree and I'm very much aware that I'm joining a great body of work, and it's a privilege and honor to be part of those pieces of work, all of which I've watched. As a gay man. I'm drawn to watch any queer drama, and certainly anything with HIV content in it. But actually, I felt that the ordinary British experience haven't been felt. We are in the shadow of the American experience in terms of our culture. I think it's very good shadows, a strong shadow — Larry Kramer came along and wrote The Normal Heart and then Tony Kushner wrote Angels in America, and possibly every writer in the world has stood in awe f those ever since. Incredible pieces of work. And recently Matthew Lopez with The Inheritance.
We have done our own stuff. There have been stories of Britain. They've tended to filter into other stories, into our soap operas — our soap operas are a lot more domestic and real than American soap operas; they're much more real and issue-led. And so they've been telling some very good stories, but nonetheless, well, I had things to say and ways to say this that I thought hadn't quite been done. I hadn't seen this from street level — some of these dramas are told from the corridors of power — and I hadn't seen it set within Britain. And I hadn't seen the passage of time. It was important to me that this takes place over 10 years — it was from 1981 to 1991. And that's the nature of the virus — it's slow and invasive and takes many forms, and even death itself isn't predictable with it; that can take many forms. And so I thought this was a good structure to do.
Within that, I had things to say as well. I'm very proud of it as a drama. And I'm very proud of the characters, but there are moments where unashamedly I break [the fourth wall] and say, I've got something to say here. [Laughs] For example, the best example of that is episode 2, which talks about all the false facts and fake news and the rumors and the nonsense and the half-truths that were peddled at the time. I've never quite seen that dramatized — what a state of suspense we lived in where we didn't quite believe it, we couldn't believe such a thing was true. I mean, a gay plague, the flu, an illness that only affects gay men — the impossibility of that. That might be one line in some drama; I wanted to do an entire episode based around those years.
And later on in episode 5, there's a very powerful confrontation when one mother meets another mother in a hospital kitchen. And that contained something I've always wanted to say. It's a tough, powerful scene, and I have always wanted to sit certain families down and have those words with them. So, yeah, I have things to say.
When you were mapping out the story, did you always envision it as a series or were you ever thinking it could be a movie? Why this format?
Let's be honest, I would have taken any shape or form. If they turned me down, this would now be me discussing my marvelous stage play. [Laughs] Or a novel. It took a while to get made and I thought, "Well, I'll go write a novel if I can't get this commissioned." The only long-form job I've ever worked at was Doctor Who, which was born to be long-form, and so I had a very happy time with that for five years. Everything else I've ever done just tends to one-offs. And I like that. I do love long-form jobs, but as a writer, I tend to think of what I want it to be, and I get in and I punch, and then I run. [Laughs] I'm just like that as a lover.
So like Ritchie in that way?
[Laughs] Oh, I wish I was like Ritchie. I think we all wish we were like Ritchie. Bless him. Isn't that a phenomenal performance?
Olly is just fantastic. Even though this is an ensemble, he's really kind of still leading the way. So tell me about the casting there — and I'm going to assume it doesn't have anything to do with the fact that he's lead singer of the band Years & Years and you wrote and created the series Years and Years.
[Laughs] Exactly! That was the first thing we said to each other — we've been getting each other's emails by mistake. I'm lucky that I have this in the exact years when Olly's star is rising because he's a huge pop star in Britain — well, and across the world; he goes off to Japan and things like that. We were trying to catch a comet on the luck of him being available, being willing to act, and be so good. We did audition him, I've gotta be blunt — you don't sign up someone famous and hope they're good. We gave him a big, thorough audition, and within about 10 seconds, I was sitting there going, "Oh, this is it. This is it. This is it." Within a line. And then I had to pretend to be interested for the rest of the interview. I wanted to go make all the phone calls, I literally wanted to run after him down the corridor [when he was done] and tell him he had the part. But as you know, that's never true — whenever you read actors saying, "They offered it to me on the spot," no they didn't, because you have to clear it with 57 people in charge of the money.
But that's how instant and immediate it was. The timing was perfect. If it had been another year he would've been in Japan doing something or not fancying doing drama at the moment, and what a godsend he is, not just as an actor but you then discover someone who's completely committed to the cause, who was really wise on gay history, HIV history. Which no actor needs to be — that's not their job. But he's the triple-threat, he's the real deal. You've got everything with him, and it's a joy to be able to unleash him upon the world now because I can't wait for people to see him.
Was the character always supposed to be someone who liked to sing or did you incorporate that once you had Olly?
That's just by chance. No, I wouldn't have done that because his voice is too good, and I think we kind of tempered his voice so it didn't sound too brilliant because. It's exactly what my friends did — it's a story of a lot of them, a bunch of actors in the 1980s, and I chose actors on purpose because I wanted them to have a nice, free creative life. I wanted them to quite poor. I wanted them to be living on the fringes of society. They're not particularly successful actors, they're just jobbing actors and I get to have enormous fun with that, putting them in musicals and television shows. But, yeah, I almost thought about not doing the singing thing just because he's a singer. But in the 1980s, that's what everyone did to get their [Actors' Equity card], because you had to belong to Equity, the actors' union, and their simple way of doing it was going around and working men's clubs, singing pubs and bars. And if you got 20 bookings you could get an Equity card, so it's literally a tried and tested pathway to success.
What's the backstory of the title? How did you come to It's a Sin?
It was originally The Boys, and we knew that the Amazon show The Boys was looming on the horizon. Which I love. It's a brilliant show. We were quite selfish and clung to our title — eventually, HBO Max sent us an email going, "Don't be ridiculous. We can't advertise something with the same title as another channel." And actually, newspapers had already started mixing up photographs between the two; they'd talk about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s with a photo of, like, those superheroes and their biceps, so we got a signal that things were going wrong. [It's a Sin] is my favorite I've ever come up with. I literally just sat down and thought of it. I sat down thinking, "What can we do? Oh, It's a Sin." [The Pet Shop Boys song] was already written in; it is played in episode 4, in a really key moment when Olly is alone, and he's going to chat up a boy, an old school friend of his played by Jonny Green in the most fantastic performance. You know, people that come in for one episode are rarely that good, because they have a hard time coming in and matching the pitch and the performance, and Jonny Green comes into that episode and like a magician steals it; he's absolutely wonderful. So I love that episode, I love that moment. So everything is crystallized around that song. It's also a very old song — it's an old song in the 1930s called "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," which sums up the whole feeling of being in the closet. And it wasn't [a sin]. It's not a song about being in the closet then, but my auntie Maureen used to get drunk at Christmas and stand on the piano and sing that song. She was a Hitchcock blonde, auntie Maureen. She was wonderful. She wasn't an old auntie with curly hair. She was vicious. She was absolutely fantastic. At her funeral, the priest patted the coffin and went, "Well done, Maureen. Well done." [Laughs] That's a life well-lived. I want someone to do that to me! So yeah, [the title's] got a lot of connotations for me. It just fit it very nicely.
All five episodes of It's a Sin are streaming now on HBO Max. You can watch our full panel above from the SCAD aTVfest with Davies, as well as Alexander and his costars Neil Patrick Harris, Lydia West, Nathaniel Curtis, Omari Douglas, and Callum Scott Howells.