It’s A Sin begins with an anti-war song. Richie Tozer (Years and Years frontman, Olly Alexander) hides his stash of gay porn in his uni suitcase and leaves the sleepy, repressive suburbs for the liberating thrill of ‘80s London, as the bright synth hook of OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’ sends him on his way. ‘Enola Gay’ might have a title a schoolboy would snigger at but OMD’s take on the immorality of the nuclear bomb is surprisingly appropriate for the Channel 4 drama when considering the silent war many gay and bisexual men were fighting in the 1980s. An exuberant hook masking dark lyrical discontent – “you shouldn’t ever have to live this way” – reflects the quest for life-affirming music in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The popular music of the decade embraced synthesisers, outlandish fashion and a coded yet obvious queerness, and for a time, queer musicians could hide and dance in plain sight while a devastating war ravaged their community.
The drama, written by Russell T. Davies and airing weekly on Channel 4, takes on the gravity of the epidemic in Britain with the grace and ambition of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. While the show presents a reality that is often unbearably yet inevitably tragic, It’s A Sin is also remarkable for its moments of weightlessness and joy: we celebrate the central group of misfits finding one another, LGBTQ+ people basking in self-expression and desire – all the while partying away to a glorious, vibrant soundtrack.
This unbridled joy was a reaction to years of shame and repression. We’re first introduced to another central character, Roscoe, on a construction site, tapping his foot along to Kelly Marie’s ‘Feels Like I’m In Love’ on the radio. When the deliciously uncool disco track returns in earnest several scenes later, Roscoe has shrugged off the hi-vis jacket and the ill-fitting uniform of traditional masculinity and stormed out of his family home in full drag and a beaming smile. Female pop and disco divas have long represented something vicarious for many gay men and It’s A Sin’s soundtrack reflects that with Blondie and Kate Bush and Belinda Carlisle all making an appearance.
Richie’s escape from the heteronormative suburbs becomes a hedonistic endeavour at the earliest opportunity. As gay nightclubs sprang up and proliferated high-energy dance music, music itself became a conduit for connection and expression. These clubs represent a new, free world for Richie – and someone who has only just found freedom is not inclined to give it up in a hurry. A standout scene sees Richie break the fourth wall during a pub crawl towards Heaven – a beacon of gay London nightlife – and dismiss the so-called ‘Gay Plague’ as mere paranoia and conspiracy. Richie displays the kind of hubris born out of a lifetime of shame: he spent his adolescence on the Isle of Wight hiding his identity from a suffocating family and he has finally been granted the opportunity to live his life like everyone else, with relative abandon. Until an epidemic disproportionately affecting his community threatens that freedom and safety.
This whole monologue is set to ‘Do You Wanna Funk?’ by Sylvester and Patrick Crowley; a shamelessly sexy track from 1982 that typified a new type of dance music – pioneered within the gay nightclub scene – known as hi-NRG. The inclusion of the song at this moment is particularly notable considering Crowley’s AIDS diagnosis and his death the same year the song was released. Sylvester reportedly learned of Crowley’s death just before he went on stage in Heaven, the very club that Richie finds himself in when he declares that AIDS is a hoax. Sylvester performed ‘Do You Wanna Funk?’ that night in Crowley’s honour, bringing the escape of the dance floor into unbearably harsh proximity with the reality of the crisis.
For alongside the HIV/AIDS epidemic, gay and bisexual men also continued to wrestle with routine threats to their community. As late as 1973, homosexuality had still been classified as a mental illness by the American Psychological Association (following its removal, it was replaced with the diagnosis of “sexual orientation disturbance”) and in Britain, the Thatcher government and Section 28 ensured that aggressive state-sanctioned homophobia would continue well into the late ‘80s. What did it mean to be gay and an incredibly popular musician in a country that deemed it illegal for schools and local government to “promote homosexuality”?
Pioneering synth bands Bronski Beat and Erasure did have openly gay frontmen and released music that directly referenced their sexuality: most notably, the former’s 1984 chart hit ‘Smalltown Boy’ with its urgent synth and Jimmy Sommerville’s anguished wails that “the love that you need will never be found at home.” This openness wasn’t just brave, it was political: ‘Smalltown Boy’s music video told the story of a young gay man leaving the suffocating comfort of his family home, only to be physically assaulted by a homophobic gang, and the vinyl single had the London Gay Switchboard’s telephone number etched into its inner groove. Iconic 80s pop artists that we now know were gay – Elton John, George Michael and Freddie Mercury – were closeted to the public for much of their lifetimes (in George Michael’s case, he was publicly outed after a 1998 arrest for cruising), and it’s impossible to know to what degree that hampered their self-expression. How much of their identity was reduced to subtext?
The rise of the New Romantics saw bands such as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet co-opting a flamboyant and androgynous style. Similarly, Annie Lennox’s fiery buzzcut and suit flew in the face of expectation and these ‘80s staples may have allowed some elements of queerness to exist in plain sight. Did the mainstream rejection of traditional gendered fashion, help queer artists to be more open while still retaining the safety of assumed straightness? Or did it reduce them to pure aesthetics?
In It’s A Sin, we see the reality of both a closeted and open existence and where the two clash. In the penultimate episode, Richie is back in a sleepy pub in his hometown, a far-cry from the lasers and exhilaration of Heaven. He’s alone, stood by the jukebox, trying to echo his London persona and seduce an oblivious old school friend behind the bar, and then he puts on the Pet Shop Boys single the show takes its name from. ‘It’s A Sin’ rings out, brash and mournful, and he casts furtive glances behind him – half-hopeful, half-terrified at the reaction. While Neil Tennant credits the song’s origins to his Catholic upbringing, there is queer subtext in abundance that speaks to internalised homophobia and shame within the LGBTQ+ community: “For everything I long to do / no matter when or where or who / has one thing in common too / It’s a sin”.
Jill – the show’s tireless ally, activist and moral core – recognises, without over-simplifying, that this endemic shame bore some responsibility alongside the virus: “That’s the thing with shame: it makes them think they deserve it. There are wards full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying and a little bit of them thinking: ‘Yes, this is right. I brought this on myself, it’s my fault. Because the sex that I love is killing me.’ It’s astonishing: the perfect virus came along to prove you right.”
“That’s what people will forget: that it was so much fun.” When Richie declares his biggest fear about how this period in history will be remembered, it’s surprising. But after spending five hours with these characters, witnessing how joy became a necessary act of resilience and defiance against institutional homophobia and internalised shame, and how music became queer liberation in the wake of an existential threat, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising at all.