I’m fairly sure that this is the first TV series to be named after a Pet Shop Boys song. I’d assumed that “It’s A Sin” was going to be the theme tune, but, disappointingly, it wasn’t – although we did get plenty of other amazing ’80s music throughout this first episode. More to the point, it’s, rather strangely, the first British drama series to focus on the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s.
Unlike Philadelphia and the Mark Fowler EastEnders storyline in the early ’90s, this didn’t start with someone having already been diagnosed with HIV and or AIDS, but with four young gay lads leaving home to start new lives in London, in 1981. All hopes and dreams, bright lights and parties, pubs and clubs. Well, for three of them, Ritchie, Roscoe and Ash, along with their friend Jill, anyway. The fourth lad, Colin, was shy and quiet and sat in watching TV. I’m glad that Colin was there. Not everyone can be confident and outgoing.
And it was good fun: they had good fun. It was much lighter than I’d expected it to be. I knew that there was a storyline involving a confrontation between Roscoe and his homophobic religious family and I was expecting something like the very emotional scene in Pose which saw Damon being physically thrown out of the house by his stepfather and having to sleep on a park bench. Instead, Roscoe just told them where to shove it, and was next seen having a wonderful time partying the night away in gay bars, going through one bloke after the other.
Sadly, there are probably more Damons than Roscoes, but Russell T Davies has spoken very movingly of wanting those who died of AIDS to be remembered for the joy of their lives and not just for the tragedy of their deaths, and also of wanting to pay tribute to the friends, relatives, medical staff and activists who supported them.
Boys just wanna have fun … and it’s all so poignant, because we know what lies ahead, and we know that some of these young lads are not even going to see their 30th birthdays, and that those who do are going to be mourning the loss of some of the people closest to them. Towards the end of the first episode, Colin’s colleague was hospitalised with a mysterious illness … and, as soon as we saw the lesion on his face, we knew what it was. But, in (by then) 1982 none of them had any idea. Then he died.
In the next episode, we’re – ironically, given that this was filmed before the Covid-19 pandemic – going to see how some of the characters refuse to believe that AIDS exists, and think that it’s a bizarre rumour spread by homophobic sections of the media, or else think that it’s been released deliberately by a Soviet laboratory. Russell T Davies has talked about people trying to raise awareness being thrown out of gay pubs and told to take their leaflets with them. It’s difficult to accept that there’s a deadly disease out there. Until you start hearing about people dying from it.
Speaking of filming, most of it was filmed in Manchester, Bolton and Darwen, and it’s co-produced by Nicola Shindler from Whitefield. There – that’s got my local plugs in! We will apparently see the characters walking round a shopping centre in Eccles. I know that people really need to know that.
The series starts in 1981, the year of the first death from AIDS in the UK. I was only 6 in 1981, and I can’t actually remember when I first became aware that HIV and AIDS existed. We saw a character reading a newspaper article about a “mysterious illness” with no name. That was in September 1982. HIV wasn’t even identified until 1983. But I do remember exactly when I first became aware of just how serious the AIDS situation had become, and that was in the summer of 1985. Rock Hudson had pulled out of Dynasty due to ill-health, and, after it’d initially been given out that he had liver cancer, it was announced that he had AIDS.
He sadly died a few months later, aged 59. As ever, a story about a big name celeb made a lot more headlines than a story involving ordinary people, but it was quite a pivotal moment, because he was the first really famous person to say that he had AIDS. My friends and I were absolutely obsessed with Dynasty at the time, and older people obviously knew him as one of the world’s leading film stars, and it did raise awareness of what was happening. What it couldn’t do, at that stage, was change attitudes and educate people.
In fact, there was quite a lot of controversy, because his character had snogged Krystle Carrington, and people were genuinely concerned that he might have infected Linda Evans, who’d been unaware of his condition. When you think that we’ve spent most of the last year being told not to get within 6 feet of anyone who’s not in our household/bubble, those fears in 1985 don’t seem as strange as they would have done a couple of years ago. At that time, even medical professionals were saying that it was inadvisable to kiss – as in full-scale kiss, not a peck on the cheek – someone who was HIV positive. Most people didn’t believe some of the wilder scare stories, that you could catch it from toilet seats and that sort of thing, but there was a lot of scaremongering going on.
That was 1985. By late 1986/early 1987, everything had changed: it seemed as if everyone was talking about HIV and AIDS. There was the big government campaign, with the pictures of tombstones. It was horrible, but it did frighten people into being more careful and that will have saved a lot of lives. “Hands, face, space,” sounds like something you chant during a nursery school game. “AIDS: don’t die of ignorance” scares the hell out of you.
And the famous pictures of the Princess of Wales opening an AIDS hospice, and hugging and shaking hands with patients without wearing gloves, did a lot to dispel fears that you could catch it just from casual contact. But there were still people who thought you could. The Mark Fowler storyline in EastEnders, in 1990, probably did more to educate people in the UK than anything else did, because it went into so much detail. Like a lot of people who were teenagers at the time, I certainly learnt more about HIV and AIDS from Mark Fowler than I did from any other source.
EastEnders were, as well as educating people about HIV and AIDS, making the point that anyone could catch it. The character of Mark wasn’t in any of the high risk groups. It was difficult: if they’d done the storyline with a gay character, people would have said that they were going along with the idea that it only affected gay men, and they were trying to avoid that … but it’s odd that, even now, none of the British soaps have “done” a storyline in which a gay male character’s been diagnosed with HIV.
Tony Warren, the late creator of Coronation Street, did address the AIDS pandemic in his novel The Lights of Manchester, though. I read that in 1992. A gay man moves from Manchester to San Francisco, and is gloriously happy there because he feels a sense of belonging in a city with such a big gay community. Some years later, he comes home for a visit and tells his best friend that his address book’s now full of crossings out, that there are hardly any names left on some pages, and that it’s pure good luck that he hasn’t contracted HIV himself: he hadn’t been careful because, at the time, he hadn’t known that he needed to be. It’s a shame that that never made it on to TV: it was a very powerful conversation.
Then, in 1993, Tom Hanks won the Best Actor award for Philadelphia; and that was how far things had come. Going back to 1986, we’d had James Anderton, the infamous “God’s Cop” Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, saying some really horrendous things about people who had AIDS. Graham Stringer, who’s now an MP but was then the leader of Manchester City Council, had a right go at him. By 1993, I don’t think a public figure would have said what Anderton did … but even then, when Arthur Ashe died, having contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, remarks were made about how he was a victim, in a way that someone who’d contracted it from sexual contract or shared drugs needles wasn’t. Did Philadelphia, in which we saw characters expressing those attitudes even as they saw the Tom Hanks character suffering, help to change opinions?
The power of books, films and TV. And music. I was supposed to be seeing the Pet Shop Boys at the Manchester Arena last May. The concert was rescheduled for this May, which, at the time, seemed like light years away: the pandemic was going to be over and done with by Christmas. Yeah, right. I don’t think It’s A Sin was ever meant as a campaigning song, but Red Letter Day must have been. And Jimmy Somerville’s Read My Lips (Enough is Enough) actually demanded more help for HIV/AIDS patients. The first episode ended with Smalltown Boy. Do people who weren’t ancient enough to have been around in the ’80s and ’90s know these songs? And was that Juliet Bravo that they were watching on TV in one episode?
Yes. The power of TV. I hope that this series achieves what Russell T Davies wants. It’s been 40 years since the first death from AIDS in the UK, and a series like this is long overdue.