Edward Dowler examines the impact of this important television series
Russel T. Davies’s recent five-part Channel Four series It’s a Sin is one of the most powerful, poignant and involving TV dramas I have ever seen. Perhaps betraying a disturbingly heteronormative perspective, I should say that there are some scenes and conversations that are decidedly not for the faint-hearted. It follows the fortunes of a group of young men: Ritchie, Colin, Roscoe and Ash who live together in London in a flat, known as the ‘Pink Palace’ together with their friend Jill. Set in the 1980s, and focussing on the confusion and human misery that surrounded the AIDS pandemic, it is a pitch perfect evocation of those times, but also obliquely relates to our own very different crisis of public health. Given that I would like to encourage people to watch it, I am going to try and carefully avoid any spoilers in offering the following reflections.
The religious characters in the series are all Christian, and all highly unsympathetic. From the officiating clergyman at a funeral who fails to acknowledge the deceased man’s partner, to Roscoe’s fundamentalist Nigerian father, to a somewhat deranged neighbour whose tactless comment at one point results in her shop window being stoved in, they are uniformly intolerant, judgmental and cruel. But was this the reality? Perhaps in part – but only in part.
When I was on a parish placement in west London during my training for ordination, the parish priest invited me to a dinner party in his vicarage with his friend Fr David Randall and David’s partner. In the late 1980s, David had set up Cara, an organisation which provided pastoral care for people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as their partners, carers, families and friends in his west London parish of St Clement’s, Notting Dale. He did this together with a significant number of other clergy and committed lay people from all the main denominations. Cara subsequently moved to a basement in Ladbroke Grove opposite the London Lighthouse and continued to do wonderful work caring for and supporting people with AIDS within a Christian context.
The point is that Christian response to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s was not uniform, as It’s a Sin depicts it, but varied. David Randall and his many collaborators stood at one end, and there certainly were voices raised in self-righteous condemnation at the other. But it was a far more nuanced picture than the series allows. At the dinner party at which I met him, David at one point turned to me and disarmingly said, ‘I’m a dying man, now tell me about your vision of God’. The woeful incoherence of my attempts to answer this request remains, nearly thirty years later, an excruciating memory. But his question was not simply a provocative challenge but spoke of a real quest to understand within the context of Christian theology the painful and disfiguring death of many young men at this time. It was certainly far removed from the caricatured incomprehension and condemnation depicted in the series.
My second reflection is about Ritchie’s mother Valerie, played by the wonderful Keeley Hawes. Valerie is not portrayed as a religious person, but she is brittle, up tight and anxious, and she leads a highly conventional lifestyle on the Isle of Wight. The climax of the series is a showdown between her and Jill in the final episode, at which Ritchie himself is not present. Dramatically, this episode worked superbly, as climax to the series but morally I was less certain, since it contains what I found to be an egregious blame dump when Jill tells Valerie that, because of the shame that she believes Valerie’s attitudes and upbringing of her son have caused, ‘all of this is your fault’. Without seeking to give too much away – Jill accuses her of effectively murdering a very large number of people.
It is by no means clear that Ritchie – in some respects a rather conservative figure – would have agreed with Jill’s assessment if he had been included in the conversation. More importantly, the result of dumping this amount of blame on a single character, who has heretofore been marginal to the main action, is effectively to deny the agency of a very large number of people whose individual actions and stories are in fact the drama’s central concern. If everything was ultimately Valerie’s fault, then who they were, and what they thought, said and did becomes commensurately less important. Moreover, the judgment that Jill passes on Valerie again feels like a caricature of many tolerant and good parents, as well as carers, friends and clergy who, from different starting points, struggled to come to terms with all that was happening. Jill’s blame dump amply demonstrates that judgmentalism is not simply a one-way street.
It’s a wonderful drama, but the real sin is the lack of historical and moral nuance.
The Venerable Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings