It’s a Sin (It Ain’t No Sin)

December 1 is World AIDS Day.

I took a quick inventory of artists and scholars whom I admire, or matter to me, or whose work I have enjoyed, or who even simply interest me, who died of AIDS or AIDS-related complications….and it’s a lot of valuable people:  Charles Ludlam, Ethyl Eichelberger, Jack Smith, Cookie Mueller, Ondine, Frank Maya, Gerald Mast, Colin Higgins, Tony Richardson, Denholm Elliott, Wayland Flowers, Lynne Carter, Liberace, Rock Hudson, Robert Reed, Fred Sadoff, Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke), Rudolph Nureyev, Alvin Ailey, Anthony Perkins, Keith Haring, Jon Gould, Derek Jarman, Jacques Demi, Michel Foucault, Allan Bloom, Klaus Nomi, Peter Allen, Lance Loud, Tom Fogarty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Freddie Mercury of Queen, Ricky Wilson of the B52s, Esquerita, and the members of WITCH.

When you present a list like this, cynical monsters accuse you of “virtue signaling” instead of, oh, attempting to articulate the toll of a plague, since most people seem deaf to statistics. We write about show business here; the world lost these public figures due to the same virus. We’re assuming the producers of The Great British Baking Show (Great British Bake Off in the UK) had a similar goal in mind when they recently presented a special episode featuring cast members from the 2021 series It’s a Sin, and it worked, as it led us to watch that series and to scribble this.

Russell Davies of Queer as Folk, A Very English Scandal, and the rebooted Dr. Who penned the series, the title of which (in addition to being a song) can have two shades of meaning, depending on your point of view. It can refer to the societal prejudice still held by some that homosexuality runs contrary to the natural order of things. But it can also be read as a condemnation of all those who allowed gays to die as an outcome of those prejudices. (It’s only partially relevant, but the title reminds me that Mae West, a gay icon herself, had originally called her script Belle of the Nineties by the provocative title It Ain’t No Sin). The series tracks a group of gay friends and their allies living in London during the years 1981-1991, peak years for the AIDS crisis in terms of loss of life. It originally aired on Britain’s Channel 4 last year, four decades after the start of its story’s fictional but very real events.

By now of course, the AIDS drama has become something of a subgenre, comprising such disparate contributions as The Normal Heart, Longtime Companion, Tales of the City, Philadelphia, Rent and Angels in America. The perspective on these historical events can take infinite forms, however and I found this one particularly compelling, on account of its dual, oppositional arcs. This group of friends have the tragic misfortune to be coming out and discovering themselves at the precise moment when doing so could well kill them. Joy and personal growth mingle with confusion and sorrow. Dreams seem to come true and then are replaced with living nightmares. First among equals in the cast is Ollie Alexander as an aspiring actor and cabaret performer, cheerful and funny, but full of denial about the spreading disease, and dishonest in different ways with his family, and (fatally) with his lovers. (As it happens, Alexander was also in the 2010 version of Gulliver’s Travels we mentioned in this post yesterday). Keeley Hawes is his working class mum whose moment of truth provides the emotional climax for the series, in a scene where her son’s best friend (Lydia West) reads her (and us) the riot act. Neil Patrick Harris is a kindly middle-aged haberdasher who helps a shy young colleague (Callum Scott Howells) navigate the shoals of the journey he’s chosen for himself. Stephen Fry plays a hypocritical MP who becomes the sugar daddy to an African immigrant (Omari Douglas) even as he plays footsy with politicians whose policies are killing gays.

Directed by Peter Hoar the series is carefully structured so that, along with the characters, we experience the steady emergence of the AIDS crisis as it goes from being a curious news story in the background…to a cruel and unavoidable force of nature that kills half the people in the show and leaves the rest of them devastated. And if that comes to you as a spoiler, boy, do you need to watch this series. That said, the show is not five episodes of unrelieved depression, quite the opposite. It’s sobering, but the entire point and power of tragedy is to first know the vitality and promise of people before those are snatched away. The arc of it is bittersweet, and sobering rather than an exercise in hopelessness, otherwise there’d be no “call to action” as this excellent series most assuredly contains. Never Again, yes?