Sex, Sin and Shame in 80s London

On Channel 4's It's a Sin (and other queer TV highlights)

I relish footage of the London club scene in the early-to-mid 80s: Blitz kids and Bowie nights, make-up on men, clashes of colour and asymmetrical hairstyles. A time when clubbing meant getting dressed up in home-made outfits and going into Central London, to a wine bar where Boy George was the coat check person. It seems to me a happy confluence of popular culture and the counterculture, a high-point for the dissolution of gendered fashion. The 90s, by comparison, seemed to ushered in a new reinforcement of gender norms (think girl groups and boy bands, the laddiness of Britpop) and a dilution of subcultural communities in favour of a more noncommittal aesthetic eclecticism (what fashion critic Ted Polhemus described as the “supermarket of style”) which continues today.

One of my favourite pieces of archive footage from this era is ‘Andy the Furniture Maker’, a 35-minute documentary short from a 1986 series called Six of Hearts, which explored the lives of LGBTQ people in the UK. It’s an intimate and irreverent portrait of Andy, a gay working class rascal from Essex who – after stints as a fisherman, a rent boy and a car thief – finds his calling making wacky but wonderful furniture. The documentary’s talking heads include Derek Jarman, who was early to recognise Andy’s latent creative talent, and then-Royal Academy curator Norman Rosenthal. But the star remains Andy himself, raffish and roguish, chain smoking and cursing, gadding about the Essex coast recanting his past adventures. It’s also cut with cherished rare footage of gay bars in Earls Court, which colour the tale vividly. The short was uploaded to YouTube (where it can be watched in full) by the film’s director, Paul Oremland, who also provides a sad update: Andy died young a few years after the film was made. Not from AIDs, which prematurely stubbed out the lives of so many of his peers (including Jarman), but from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long, so they say.

The Six of Hearts series was first aired on Channel 4, a British TV channel launched in 1982 with a pledge to cater to the tastes of groups under-represented by other UK broadcasting channels such as the BBC. Key among these groups was the LGBTQ+ community, and so Channel 4 actually has a long and happy history of making queer television, of which Six of Hearts is a lesser-known but brilliant example. Remember Brookside? This long-running Liverpudlian soap opera was the first in the UK to include an openly gay character (Gordon, who mistakenly outed himself by getting delivered a copy of the Gay Times in 1985) and the first to screen a lesbian kiss on British TV before watershed (Anna Friel’s character in 1993). The channel has been home to Eurotrash, Sugar Rush, So Graham Norton and Queer As Folk  (you can read an interesting and v academic history of Channel 4’s queer programming here). Its strong tradition of exploring queer narratives finds its latest iteration with It’s a Sin, a five-part series that premiered on Friday 22 January but can be watched on All 4 in a single sitting (which is obviously what I did).

It’s a Sin is a double-scoop for me: not only do I get to enjoy some queer television, but queer television set in amongst that 1980s party scene I so love to see on screen. If you’re reading this, I imagine you probably already know the series’s premise, but for posterity, It’s a Sin follows the lives of a tight-knit group of gay youths and their allies in London. Escaping religious, Conservative and/or working-class families, our three main protagonists explore their queer identities with newfound freedom, fuelled by partying, hedonism, and lots and lots of sex. What we get is a celebration of the 1980s gay club scene and its surrounding subcultures, but also a more sobering look at some of the realities that accompanied that era, depicting the devastation of the HIV/AIDs crisis and the accompanying shame that weighed upon victims of the disease. The series can be tough to watch at times (tears were shed, dear reader), but this feels necessary given the subject matter. Its toughness never feels gratuitous or overshadows hope, even in its most solemn moments. 

One of the series’ strengths is how deeply embedded it is in the communities it depicts: writer and creator Russell T Davis based the plot on his own experiences of London gay life in the 1980s, loosely basing some of the characters on his friends. A fun fact imparted by my dear friend (and fellow queer television enthusiast) Harry: Jill’s character is based on Jill Nalder, a real-life activist who was cast as Jill’s mother in the show (she’s interviewed by Gay Times here). Jill is the driving moral force of the series, a beautiful paean to female allyship and the relentless optimism and tireless organising of real-life activists. As well as conducting extensive research into the era, Davis has hired gay actors to play gay parts, and the cast includes at least one outspokenly HIV+ actor (theatre-maker and activist Nathaniel J Hall – also h/t Harry for pointing out!).   

It is this embeddedness and authenticity that allows Davis greater freedom in showing some of the moral complexities and ambiguities of the characters: our boys are not morally untouchable martyrs but fully-fleshed out and at times deeply flawed. Lead character Ritchie Tozer outs himself as a Tory (believable given the attitudes of his parents) and (*spoiler alert!*) confesses to having knowingly infected men he’s slept with with HIV. It’s one of the series’ most difficult moments, a moral failing that’s hard to excuse but easy to explain with one five-letter word: shame. Shame, the series implies, is the virus within the virus. It causes people to cut themselves off from friends and family, dying alone for fear of being found-out; it fuels excessive drink, drugs and indiscriminate sex, ultimately perpetuating the transmission of HIV. 

Much like Andy, our real-life 1980s partyboy and furniture maker, the It’s a Sin boys burn twice as bright for half the time. If that sounds romanticised, it’s not meant to be. As much as I love watching footage of boys dancing with boys in Earl’s Court gay bars some 35 years ago, I wouldn’t for a second want to swap shoes and experience their hardships. It’s important then, I guess, not to direct our appreciation for these twice-as-bright flames into celebratory nostalgia, but to pledge instead to create a culture where sin and shame are no longer synonymous with sex, or queerness, or transness for that matter. Great TV, which can help dispel shame by creating empathy and awareness for queer history, seems like a nice place to start.

- Rosa xo

It’s a Sin is on Channel 4 here.