In 1999, Queer as Folk broke prime time on UK television. Overnight, its creator Russell T. Davies became the most famous gay writer in his country. The first episode featured a 29-year-old man who had sex with a handsome 15-year-old boy, an image that spawned exactly what Davies wanted: almost universal outrage.
Sarah Lyall wrote in the newspaper: “An explosion of graphic language, male nudity and explicit sex that is guaranteed to offend as many people as it fascinates.” The scandal ranged from conservatives who believed they glorified gay sex (it did) to gay activists outraged by their stereotypes: promiscuous, drug-using young men who seduce underage boys – and have the time of their lives. Yet the show’s humor and authenticity had captured the hearts of three million viewers by the season one finale.
The British “Queer as Folk” left only one thing out. It started in the ninth year of the AIDS epidemic, but never mentioned AIDS because Davies didn’t want homosexual lives “to be defined by disease,” he said. “It was the right thing to do.”
Twenty-two years later, at the age of 57, Davies has finally fought the epidemic he carefully avoided. The result is “It’s a Sin,” a highly autobiographical five-part series that hits HBO Max on February 18. It follows the lives of four gay men in their twenties – and an important friend – who came to London in the early 80s, just like Davies, when rumors of a mysterious new plague began to trickle down the Atlantic.
“They are following their lives as the virus approaches everyone,” he said.
The series, which premiered in the UK last month, has the honesty, exuberance and sexuality of “Queer as Folk”. But “sin” is also full of tragedy. If the enthusiastic reception in the UK press is a reliable indicator it could become the most famous AIDS drama since Angels in America.
AIDS is the melting pot that lives in any gay writer old enough to remember it. It scratches our insides until we figure out how to wrestle with it. We need to explain why we survived: mostly by stupid luck. And then you are doing justice to the other half of our generation who didn’t – all the handsome men who never made it past 40.
Davies prides itself on his motto: “A moment’s imagination is a lifetime experience.” But it actually took him a lot of triumphs and real tragedy before he could tackle this smoldering story. The current pandemic has provided him with the perfect backdrop and provided so many echoes of an earlier apocalypse.
He spoke to me on the phone last month from his hometown of Swansea, Wales, where he lived in a large house overlooking the sea when he was not a city boy in Manchester. His pursuits for “it’s a sin” have been “very simple,” he said. “I wanted to create characters you love so that you would miss them as much as we missed the people we lost.”
He can still remember exactly when he realized the epidemic was real. He was out walking in the blazing sun in June 1983 when he saw the headline in Him Magazine: “AIDS Gay Death-Plot Panic” – the words superimposed on an erotic drawing of naked men in a test tube boiled to death. “It’s a sin” restores all the horror he felt in that moment.
Davies is a 6-foot-6-inch Welshman, prolific screenwriter and showrunner, and a happy troublemaker. He suggested that even if he had avoided the subject of AIDS, it had always been a subtext of almost everything he wrote.
“If you look at my work over the past 20 years, I’ve always told the story of sex that led to death, which I think was molded very deeply into me in the 80s,” he said. “In ‘Queer as Folk’ there is a death after a one night stand. In “Cucumber” it takes six episodes to get to this catastrophic one-night stand where a man is murdered. In ‘Years and Years’ the set piece is the death of Danny Lyons, played by Russell Tovey. “
“So I think actually I wrote and wrote and wrote it,” he added. “And now I’ve put a label on it.”
An American remake of “Queer as Folk” (which Davies did not write) was a five-season hit on Showtime and dealt with the AIDS epidemic. Like its English ancestor, it gave millions of young lesbians and gays their first ideas about how they could be comfortable or even celebrate their weirdness.
In the UK, Olly Alexander was a teenage viewer of the original show. Today he’s a 30-year-old pop star and front man for Years & Years. He is the main character in “Sin”. Davies said he had Alexander on his mind when he started writing Ritchie Tozer, his main protagonist who is an aspiring actor. Ritchie also comes closest to the author.
“Ritchie is actually the most complex character,” said Davies. “He’s the one who doesn’t necessarily do good things.”
Alexander told me he was “a little scared” when he saw “Queer as Folk” for the first time as a 14-year-old. “But it was also groundbreaking to see men figure out relationships and have sex with each other,” he said. “It was really a big moment for me.”
Davies had never met Alexander before casting him on his new show, but when Alexander auditioned for Ritchie, Davies knew he had his star.
The young singer also checked two other boxes Davies thought essential: he already had a tremendous young following (his band’s first two albums had hit # 1 and 3 respectively in the UK) and he was a proud and gay man. When his band Years & Years performed at Glastonbury Festival in 2019, Alexander gave a passionate four-minute speech on the rights of homosexuals who went viral. He was standing in front of a huge sign that said “Queer Is Beautiful” and noticed he was speaking on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
“And the only reason I can stand up here and talk about my gay self is because of all the people who came before us and fought for the rights of lesbian, gay and transgender people,” he said. “Everyone here has a chance to change history.”
This side of Alexander was particularly attractive to Davies. “The nice thing about him is that he has a clear gay conscience,” Davies said to me. “He really responded to an article about the AIDS crisis. That was already in his heart, something that he recognized and welcomed and wanted to do justice to. “
The admiration is mutual: “He is our hero,” said Alexander of Davies.
The other element of “It’s a Sin,” which is completely autobiographical, is the character Jill Baxter, the larger-than-life friend every successful gay gang needs. The role is played exuberantly by Lydia West, a young star who made her debut on Davies’ previous HBO show “Years and Years” (unrelated to Alexander’s band, though he and Davies enjoy chance).
The role is particularly important to Davies, although West didn’t learn it until the day before he first read through the script.
“Russell sent me a text saying, ‘Lydia, I don’t want to worry you, but Jill is basically loosely based on a very close friend of mine,'” she said. “‘And one more thing to add: She plays your mother and you will meet her tomorrow.'”
“And I said, ‘OK Russell, no pressure at all!'”
The real Jill is Jill Nalder, an actress and a close friend of Davies’ since they were teenagers. Her London apartment in the 1980s was the original “Pink Palace”, the name of the apartment club house shared by the 20-year-olds of “It’s a Sin”.
“She was that woman in London who literally held the hands of the dying,” said Davies. “She’s the real deal.”
It was just great for West to have her on set with me and play my mother, she said. “It just felt like a great honor.”
Another thing Davies found necessary was an American star convincing HBO to put money into the production. His casting director suggested that Neil Patrick Harris play the role of Henry Coltrane, a Savile Row gay tailor who has a 30-year relationship with a Portuguese Iberia Airlines steward. It turned out that like Alexander, Harris had been a huge fan of British queer as folk as a teenager.
On a phone call from his Harlem brownstone, Harris told me that “Queer as Folk” was “really defining content” for him as he fought for examples to make him feel “vital and sexy”.
“There is something about Russell, be it Queer as Folk or Years and Years or A Very English Scandal,” he said. “It has a racing heartbeat and you want to know more about the characters right away.”
Harris was “incredibly flattered and immediately delighted” when asked to do “It’s a sin,” he said. “It made me cry, it turned me on. It felt important to a generation that remembered it, but even more so to a generation that didn’t know about it. “
Davies said that if he had sent Harris “a thriller about cocaine, he would not have been interested.”
“But if you give him a script about AIDS,” Davies continued, “the intelligence kicks in, the social conscience kicks in, and that’s how we got it.”
Davies applied his own intelligence to all types of series, including one of the most popular in the UK. His greatest popular triumph came when he orchestrated the revival of Doctor Who, the most important television show of his childhood and a franchise that holds a unique place in British popular culture. His version was a huge hit when it premiered on the BBC in 2005 and drew 10.8 million viewers for its first episode. It also gave Davies the platform for his most widespread subversive success: the bisexual character Capt. Jack Harkness, who kissed the doctor on the mouth in episode five.
The scorching event in Davies’ life was also the most personal: caring for his husband during an incurable illness. Davies met Andrew Smith, a handsome customs broker, at a club in Manchester in 1998. They fell in love and moved to Venice, California in 2010. In 2011, Andrew found out he had brain cancer.
Davies had never had the slightest interest in marriage, but in 2012, after they returned to Manchester, they finally made their way to the registry office “because we thought Andrew was going to die immediately. He set me up! “Over the next two years, Andrew’s therapy included seven craniotomies, but by 2014 he had stabilized, said Davies,” and we thought he would survive. “
He discovered something he never suspected: the chance to care for a sick husband can be a gift. The time of Andrew’s illness was actually “the best eight years of our life together,” Davies told me in our last conversation. “A lot of people thought we were suffering. It was actually a very good time – it was a lot of fun to be in each other’s company. Oddly enough, I wouldn’t have missed it. “
Andrew died in 2018. I asked Davies if the experience affected the way he wrote about death.
“Without a doubt,” he replied. “The fact of missing someone, of losing them – I already knew what that felt like. But yeah, in a good way, I think it contains some kind of truth. That has an authenticity. “