For Russell T. Davies, It’s a Sin marks the culmination of a story he’s wanted to tell for more than two decades, but, for myriad reasons, wound up telling in reverse order after his other shows, including the original Queer as Folk and Cucumber, helped pave the way for the drama about the onset of HIV/AIDS in London.
Already a massive ratings hit in the U.K., the five-episode drama has quickly become one of the most critically hailed dramas of the year since the five-episode series debuted last month on HBO Max.
Davies joined The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg and Lesley Goldberg on the TV’s Top 5 podcast for a wide-ranging interview about obstacles to getting It’s a Sin made, why Queer as Folk needed to come first, only casting gay actors in gay roles and why there won’t be a second season of the breakout hit.
It’s a Sin is a show you’ve been kicking around since 1995. Before you made the original Queer as Folk. Why did a show like Queer as Folk need to come first to lay the groundwork for something like It’s a Sin?
I went to write [Queer as Folk] in 1998. A significant thing about Queer as Folk is that the British one barely mentions HIV or AIDS at all. It is there. If you actually watch it, it’s almost on every page, ticking away in mentions of vigils and charity nights and people who they’ve lost. But that was absolutely the right decision to make in 1998 because that’s a time when we were only ever being defined by a virus. Both in the news and in fiction. If a gay or a queer character cropped up — and we didn’t even say “queer” then — they would be related to an HIV story. That’s all we ever saw. It was literally time to break free. You look back historically, that’s two years after the first [HIV/AIDS] drugs began to work. We didn’t know they were working at the time. That gets rewritten with hindsight. It’s as though everything was all right from 1996 onward. It wasn’t at all. We had no idea. It all felt like one big experiment. It all felt deadly, to be honest. It was time to break free of that. It was time to say actually, we can be gay, we can be queer. That’s why we reclaimed the word “queer.” It goes back and seizes that from history and says this is who we are. It was a very important thing to do. It upset the gay press hugely. That was the press launch when the gay press realized that we weren’t spreading a safer sex message in it. We said, well you don’t say that about straight dramas and they should spread a safer sex message too. That’s not a gay thing.
So yes, I had to do that first. I did a show called Cucumber, which died a death. It’s a very naughty series that was rising toward the writing of It’s a Sin. It’s about a middle-aged man’s angst, his body fears, his fears of intimacy and about falling in love. All those fears stemmed from the 1980s. I sent the last episode of that in and said to myself, “I have to write about AIDS now.” That drama led me in the right direction. [My shows are] all in the wrong order. If you watch them in order, it would go It’s a Sin, Queer as Folk, Cucumber. If you do that, you’ll get the story of one man’s life. If you mention that the lead character survives through all those three different shows, you’ve got my take on a modern gay male.
What did your friends or colleagues say about the absence of AIDS in those shows? Were people understanding of the point you were trying to make
There were not great big battles over that. We talked about it, but I had my reasons and stood by it. I liked what they did in the American Queer as Folk. They took the older character in the British version and [turned the character into] a man who was HIV-positive and thought he was going to die and spent all his money. Then the combination therapy came along and he was going to live, but he’d spent everything he had. Never mind the issues of HIV; what a great story.
For It’s a Sin, how challenging was it to get a green light given the subject matter? Did you encounter any kind of pushback?
There were. It was first turned down by Channel 4, which is where it’s ended up. In 2016, there was a good reason to try this at Channel 4, because they’d just had Cucumber. In a sense, they’d done the white, middle-aged gay-male show. I was told at one channel, “What if its start is on an AIDS ward in say, 1990 or 1992, with the machines and people dying, and then went, ’10 years earlier… .’ ” I thought that was unbelievably crass and literally refused to do it. My producer said, “I know you don’t like that scene. If you just type it out, if you just type one page of that, it might get made.” I’d rather die than type that page. It’s the wrong way to tell it. There was a lot of nonsense like that. Then you just wait for the right commissioner. In my experiences, all the bosses will leave their jobs every two or three years. So just sit still and the right person will enter the seat again. Heads of department changed and I got [It’s a Sin] commissioned five years later.
Is there a second season of It’s a Sin? What’s the next chapter in your storytelling journey?
There isn’t a second season. It was lovely. It said everything I wanted to say. The only long-running thing I’ve ever done is Doctor Who and that’s because Doctor Who is designed to be long running. I’m not quite sure [what’s next]. A couple of people have contacted me asking them to mentor them, which I’ve done. I love doing that; both of those shows have been picked up. Strangely, I find myself as a script editor after all this time. I will start writing. I don’t know how I follow something like It’s a Sin. I think I’m just going to write something funny. I look at my career and I’m a bit puzzled on when I became such a tragedian, when I’m a really big laugh actually.
The perception on Doctor Who was that it was a fallow property and then you made it back into the thing that people were talking about. Is that something that attracts you in any way? Obviously, you like that science-fiction genre world. Are there properties where you’re like, this was cool when I was 20. I would love to make people understand why that’s cool again.
No, only because I did that so powerfully on Doctor Who, and let’s face it, so successfully. It would be a nightmare trying to do that again. That’s the only show I’ve ever loved that much. There isn’t any other show. I like evening soap operas like Coronation Street, but they’re still running and I couldn’t work on them. I couldn’t work with that amount of volume anyway. So no. I do get asked. You’d have a hard time now pitching a new science-fiction show at me because I do say that I’ve done the best.
You’ve mentioned in the past about only wanting to cast gay actors in gay roles, which you did on It’s a Sin. Why is that important to you?
It’s very important to say now. I’m sitting in a house that was built by straight actors playing gay parts. The cast of Queer as Folk was straight. In A Very English Scandal, Hugh Grant is obviously straight, and what a performance that was. That’s in a part that’s actually a bisexual man. It’s the success of those shows with audiences that allows me to reach a stage where I can say right now, I believe in casting gay as gay. What that means is you have to open the door and say to actors and agents specifically, “These are gay parts, if you have gay actors who’d love to come forward and join with us, that would be great. We’d love to meet them.”
There’s a reason why the cast clicked on It’s a Sin and that’s because they were out and they were politically engaged as human beings on this earth, from day one. The name of the game these days is authenticity. It’s a different world to the one that I started out in. There’s an awful lot of gay actors. Gay lead actors, and gay lead actors who will finance a production because they’re so famous, are still very rare. Which proves that we’re nowhere near equality. You have to create these stars now. Look at Olly Alexander [who stars as Ritchie]. He’s absolutely fabulous and he will be acting in 50 years’ time. Right now, I think maybe he could start to finance productions simply by joining a show. You have to start here. Otherwise, all this talk of equality simply doesn’t exist.
Was this something that was in the back of your mind when you were casting the original Queer as Folk and it simply wasn’t possible in that moment? Or was there a moment years later where it clicked in your mind?
It wasn’t possible. With hindsight, you think, should we have made more effort? Because out gay actors did exist then, but again, out gay lead actors, it’s a great fallacy to presume all actors are the same. You can’t point to an actor and say he’s out, that doesn’t mean they’re a lead actor. It’s my job as a program maker to make programs modern. To feel like they’re made in 2021. To get that energy. To get authenticity. I would be failing if I didn’t.
Looking at how much the landscape has changed, would you revisit Queer as Folk with a new cast to represent LGBTQ life today?
I wouldn’t. Stephen Dunn has the rights to Queer as Folk and I hope he gets it made [for Peacock]. We’ve read the scripts and I gave a few notes. I hope it happens, but it’s not my show anymore and I’m happy to hand it over. I don’t think I should be, sitting here at my age, revamping my old property. I think that’s a bit sad. When I left Doctor Who I said I was only going to do gay drama. I did Banana and Cucumber and Tofu, and then I did the gayest production for A Midsummer Night’s Dream for BBC One that you’ll ever see. Then I did Years and Years, A Very English Scandal and now It’s a Sin. I’ve reached the end of that cycle, if I have cycles. I now think whatever I write will be gay. Maybe it doesn’t need to be aggressively queer content, but it’s queer because I’m making it. I don’t know where that’s leading but I will find out.
It’s a Sin is only a five-episode run. How conscious were you as you were writing it that you were leaving five, six, seven seasons of television on the shelf?
It’s what I like to do; it was always a one-off for me. When the channel controller picked this script up I can remember him saying, “Oh, this is great. The ’80s. There’s tons of music. We could run this for years.” He was very much seeing it as a show that we do ’81 this year, ’82 next year, ’83, ’84 … I was like, “Oh dear, sorry. This is just a one-off.”
For more from Davies, including what he hopes viewers take away from It’s a Sin, his thoughts on where LGBTQ TV should go next, straight actors playing gay and how his experience with Doctor Who marked the end of his journey into science fiction, listen to the full TV’s Top 5 interview, below.