I think I’ve mentioned my love of Russell T Davies before, so it should come as no surprise that I’ve been swept away by his recent Channel 4 drama ‘It’s a Sin’ about the 1980s AIDS epidemic within the London gay community.
I feel as though I should add a caveat here that it’s funny, and just lovely, and warm and poignant, and heartbreakingly sad, because I’m about to get all serious, and I don’t want to put you off it one jot, so there you are, watch it at your first opportunity, and be prepared for accidental spoilers ahead, because I’m tired and easily distracted.
Three things have lingered with me from watching it, one as a writer, one as a parent, and one as a (hopefully) conscientious member of society.
The first thing is a note for writers that the old writing adage of finding the story only you can tell, is far more complex than it seems, and for the white middle class British people amongst us, who have never felt in a position to have experienced anything unique or unusual, there is hope. In interviews Russell T Davies has talked about the way this story is personal to him. How he had friends in London in the eighties, when he had just come out and he would visit them, in their flat they labelled ‘The Pink Palace’ and enjoy parties and how he attended funerals of friends as AIDS swept through the gay community in London, but he wasn’t any of those characters. He didn’t live in London, he didn’t work his way through men. He was at Oxford University studying, trying to save his money so he could become a writer.
It wasn’t his story to tell, it wasn’t the story only he could tell.
And it was.
Because he can write, beautifully, warmly, about these people, this community. He is a wonderful voice for an untold story. He can convey the fun of the moment, as well as the tragedy. On the sidelines, he saw things, heard things, he can use to share that world. We don’t have to be elbow deep in an experience to write well about it, and we have to assume, we might be the only one willing or able to give it a go, or to do it well.
The second thing, comes from two different wonderful speeches in the series, one from a teacher, and the other to the mother of a gay man.
The former is about section 28. (I remember a lecturer at my university in the late 90s about to talk to us about homosexuality in plays, and mentioning that what he was doing was illegal, that we were welcome to call the police, and he could lose his job, because he wasn’t technically allowed to do anything which could be construed as promoting homosexuality, which included talking about it. That was the first I’d ever heard about section 28, which had been in place throughout my entire education.) Homosexuality had been wiped out of children’s lives, and they didn’t even know it.
The latter speech was about not seeing your gay child right in front of your eyes, not looking properly, and it made my heart clench, because I want to look properly at my children, I want to be accepting of who they are. I want to know them honestly, but I was oblivious to gay people until I was about 15. I don’t think I even knew they existed.
Luckily for me, one friend came out, then another, then another, until I was surrounded by gay people and I couldn’t unsee it, but my parents weren’t homophobic, or prejudiced, they just didn’t think to mention it. They didn’t have any gay friends or relatives, and section 28 had seeped its way into their subconscious too.
I hope I show my children the world as it is, the full spectrum of humanity, so they see it, so they don’t slip into my blind spot.
The last thing, in this pandemic, was the lack of empathy for victims of AIDS, the lack of awareness of what was happening, and the assumption that whatever it was, it was due to a fault in the victims, something they had brought on themselves. We abandoned people in need, we decided there was them and us, and we shut them out in the cold.
And 40 years later we’ve told that story, but there seems to be another story every year. About people we’ve ignored who needed our help, people we’ve decided aren’t like us, so we don’t need to give them our empathy.
There are people right now, somewhere, that we’re ignoring, assuming their misfortune is self-inflicted, and we’re wrong. And it’s not enough that in 40 years time someone might tell brilliant heartfelt stories about them. It just isn’t, however glorious Russell T Davies might be.