When Russell T Davies wrote It’s A Sin – his new Channel 4/HBO drama about the 1980s AIDS crisis, which might just be the best work he’s ever done – he didn’t expect to be premiering it during a global pandemic. “We shot this before lockdown,” Russell tells Weekend over a Zoom call. “This drama in which people wear PPE, and are scared of hospitals, and there are all sorts of prejudices and false facts about this new virus. We made that drama and put it in a box, and then along came 2020 to upstage us magnificently.”
It’s not quite the same story, though: because HIV, when it first emerged, was routinely labelled a ‘gay plague’, the response from the public and the authorities was markedly different to the measures we’ve seen recently. “HIV brought shame and fear, in a decade that was already more homophobic [than today],” says Russell. “Shame heaped on ignorance, heaped on silence – that’s not a good recipe. Imagine being on a hospital ward, dying, and not allowing anyone to visit you, because you were ashamed – ashamed you’d caught it, and ashamed of your own sexuality. Whereas now, you’ve got a virus that Phil and Holly talk about for about three hours every day on This Morning.”
It’s A Sin charts the lives of a group of young, mostly gay friends in 1980s London, as the shadow of AIDS gradually creeps across the decade. Olly Alexander, frontman of electro-pop trio Years & Years, leads the terrific cast as aspiring young actor Ritchie Tozer, with supporting roles for seasoned hands including Keeley Hawes, Stephen Fry and Neil Patrick Harris.
It’s unflinching and heartbreaking and outraged, but also shot through with the signature warmth and wit that has helped establish the genial 6’ 6” Welshman as one of Britain’s foremost screenwriters.
“Will an audience come to this?” muses Russell. “We’re very aware that it’s a hard sell. You don’t want to be glib about it, because this is a tough subject matter. But the only way to do it is write like I always write – which is like life: sad one minute and sunny the next, and not a hair’s breadth between the two. We’re all switched on to 27 different emotions in a single hour, and that’s what I always try to show.”
Russell has drawn heavily on his own experiences and memories of being a gay man during that time. “I’m 57, I’m of that generation that lived through the 80s,” he says. “I was 18 in 1981, and I’ve created a bunch of characters who were 18 in 1981. Though I wish my life had been as exciting as theirs – as glamorous and funny.
“The truth is I’ve compressed a lot into 10 years – it’s kind of a lifetime’s experience packed into a decade. But I like that, it gives it a sort of energy.
“It’s also very much based on the life of my friend Jill. She really is called Jill – I couldn’t even change her name – and she really went to London, she really became an actress and lived in a flat they called The Pink Palace. She faced that virus head-on. The character [played by Lydia West] is different to the real-life Jill, but the experience is the same – so much so that we cast her as Jill’s mother. When I phoned her up to offer her the job, she was on a cruise ship off Malta, living her best life. I said, ‘Come back – come back to Manchester and play your own mother!’”
For a long time, admits Russell, he was in a kind of denial about what had happened, and the friends and lovers he’d lost to AIDS. “I think everyone of that generation feels like that. Very few people stood and faced the storm. History tends to get written by the activists – and so it should – but the result is that it makes history sound more active. And what I actually wanted to capture was people carrying on with their lives – with families and birthdays and jobs. That feeling of life going on. It’s a tricky rhythm to get right. That was the hard work of the series.”
It’s A Sin, then, is Russell’s way of turning and facing the storm – partly as an act of remembrance. “Parents are passing away now,” he says, “and that generation of gay men didn’t tend to have children, so they don’t have those people to remember them.”
The scripts were also inevitably informed by the death of his husband and partner of 20 years, Andrew Smith, in late 2018. “That loss comes out in very particular details in some of the deaths,” says Russell. “Equally, I’ve got to say, even if I’m writing a rip-roaring Keystone Cops comedy, there’s Andrew there in that. There’s no-one who gets my jokes like he used to.”
The couple were living in Los Angeles, where Russell had moved to work off the back of his phenomenally successful Doctor Who revival, when Andrew was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2011. They returned home to Manchester, and Russell spent the next seven years combining writing with being Andrew’s carer – something he’s since described as ‘the greatest work I’ll ever do on this Earth’. “The best piece of writing I’ll ever do was his eulogy at his funeral,” he tells me. “Which is not even written down anywhere. It’s not on a piece of paper. It was all in my head.”
Stephen Russell Davies (there’s no T – it’s just something else he made up) was born in Swansea in April 1963. The son of two teachers, he grew up in a household that “never switched off the TV until after closedown”. A fiercely bright comprehensive school kid, he won a place to read English at Oxford University, before joining the BBC in Cardiff and then Manchester (he still has homes in both cities).
After an early career spent in children’s television – he even presented an episode of Play School, before deciding his talents were better served behind the scenes – and soaps, Russell’s major breakthrough came with his groundbreaking 1999 drama Queer as Folk, partly inspired by his own party years in Manchester’s ‘Gay Village’. Now regarded as a TV classic, at the time it proved so controversial that a famous beer brand pulled its sponsorship mid-run.
“Week four, I think,” he hoots. “They said they’d rearranged their financial planning for the next quarter. What a load of rubbish – they got scared and pulled out. The only other time I’ve seen that happen,” he adds, laughing his big Russell T Davies laugh, “was when all those cruise ships withdrew their sponsorship from Broadchurch because episode five had a boat set on fire!”
In my 50s, I’m coming to realise that, even if I wrote Romeo and Juliet, it’d still gay, because I wrote it.Russell T Davies
One of the more unexpected consequences of Queer as Folk’s success was the call-up to revive Doctor Who. “I included a scene in Queer as Folk with [robot dog] K9, which did kind of plant the notion of connecting me with Doctor Who,” he says. “That’s not a manufactured link – the return of Doctor Who really was partly initiated by Queer as Folk.”
Five years at the coalface hasn’t dampened his ardour for the Time Lord (“I love that show more than ever”), to the extent that It’s A Sin features an entire scene on the set of a 1980s Doctor Who episode – complete with Daleks. “So 20 years on from K9 in Queer as Folk, it’s come full circle,” he beams.
He was a highly visible Doctor Who showrunner, becoming such a well-known face he was once sounded out about appearing on Dancing on Ice. “Stars on thin ice, more like,” he laughs. “I think I must have been on a very long list of anyone who’d been on telly that year. Doctor Who Confidential? You’ll do! But it’s Eurovision or nothing for me, frankly!”
More recent successes include his playful gallop through the Jeremy Thorpe affair, A Very English Scandal, and dystopian drama Years and Years, and he’s currently script-editing Lenny Henry’s upcoming Three Little Birds, based on the story of his mother’s journey from Jamaica to the UK. “He emailed me out of the blue and said, ‘Will you mentor me?’ I was delighted, he’s a lovely man. I mean, he’s a brilliant writer. But I give him a nudge here and there… I’m a whizz on the software.”
Russell proudly embraces the ‘gay writer’ label – not, in his view, a reductive attempt to box him in, but a legitimate expression of who he is. “It’s my favourite subject matter,” he says. “In my 50s, I’m coming to realise that, even if I wrote Romeo and Juliet, it’d still gay, because I wrote it. I know what a privileged position that is,” notes the man who can add the title of Britain’s Most Influential Gay Person 2007 to his haul of Baftas, and his OBE. “I’m sure there are gay writers who despise me – ‘why does he get all the work?’ But I work hard at it, and I think I treat that privilege with respect.”
Incredible though it now seems, Queer as Folk – and Russell’s sexuality – was wielded as a weapon by some tabloids when it was announced he would be bringing back Doctor Who, with The Sun headlining their story “Ducky Who”, and the Telegraph claiming his appointment might “alarm purists”.
“You know, that industry is dying – it’s lovely to see the slow death throes of those papers,” he says, candidly. “And you never give them an interview. Whenever publicity comes along: The Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Spectator – no. It makes life kind of simpler.
“Frankly, I wasn’t surprised by those headlines – I’ve had a whole lifetime of that. And has it ever stopped me being commissioned? Has it ever stopped me writing whatever I want? Absolutely never.”
It’s A Sin is on Fridays at 9pm, Channel 4, or watch the full series on All4.
“I did Doctor Who 10 years too soon…”
“I was in the middle of running an empire,” recalls Russell of his days at the helm of Doctor Who and its various spin-off and behind-the-scenes shows, including Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. “And my god I did that 10 years too soon, didn’t I? There should be a Doctor Who channel now. You look at those Disney announcements, of all those new Star Wars and Marvel shows, you think, we should be sitting here announcing The Nyssa Adventures, or The Return of Donna Noble, and you should have the tenth and eleventh Doctors together in a 10-part series. Genuinely. And I think that will happen one day. If we can just shift Doctor Who up a gear…
Even The Nyssa Adventures…? [For the uninitiated, that’s Nyssa of Traken, companion to Tom Baker and Peter Davison’s Doctors, as played by Sarah Sutton.]
“Yes! You laugh, but did Star Trek fans ever think they’d be getting a Captain Pike series? Ever. That’s insane. The whole science fiction world is so creative and so money making now, I think your wildest dreams can come true. Though that’s already happened with Doctor Who. Here we are waiting for the Daleks to come on in primetime on New Year’s Day. It’s mad. Let’s not take that for granted, that’s mad. So if you want The Nyssa Adventures, it’ll happen one day.”
An edited version of this article appeared in Waitrose Weekend published January 22, 2021.
(c) Waitrose Weekend