'It's a Sin's' Russell T. Davies: Talk About Equality All You Want — It Doesn't Exist

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 2, 2021

Writer-producer and gay-content creator Russell T. Davies is no stranger to controversy... he invites it, especially when discussing gay actors playing gay parts. His recent comments have caused quite a stir in the media, and he could not be more pleased.

Born in Wales, the scribe cut his teeth on BBC TV content for children before moving onto TV soaps and period dramas. His big breakthrough, in 1999, was the groundbreaking series "Queer as Folk" (which birthed a popular U.S. version on Showtime).

Davies went on to pen the queer-themed, "Bob & Rose" (2001) and became chief writer and executive producer of the wildly popular BBC series, "Doctor Who," in 2005, from which came the seminal spin-off "Torchwood" as well as "The Sarah Jane Adventures" and "Wizards vs. Aliens."

More gay content followed with "Cucumber" and "Banana" (both 2015) and the limited series "A Very English Scandal." In 2019, he created the riveting futuristic drama, "Years and Years."

Set in the early 1980s and spanning a decade, the 5-episode series chronicles the lives of friends and flatmates, mostly gay men, living in London at the outset of the AIDS crisis.

Ritchie (Olly Alexander, in a career-making turn) moves from the Isle of Wight to the big city, and immerses himself in lots of gay sex. One of his early conquests, Ash (smoldering Nathaniel Curtis) becomes an instant friend. Also sharing the flat are, Wales born Colin (Callum Scott Howells in a terrific debut), a sweet, reserved and naïve bloke, Roscoe (a fab Omari Douglas) who has fled from his conservative family and Ritchie's bestie, Jill (Lydia West, heartbreaking) who is the heart and soul of the series.

The four principal male actors above are all out and gay.

"It's a Sin" honors a generation of young gay men decimated by a calamity no one wanted to acknowledge by brutally depicting just how insensitive and ignorant the response was to the crisis. The show also has the daring to take a generation of straight families to task for perpetuating shame and guilt on their queer brethren, which led to nihilistic and irresponsible behavior.

EDGE had the pleasure of video-chatting with Davies a week after it's HBO Max premiere in the U.S.

EDGE: I just finished my second go 'round with "It's a Sin." It felt so real. Things were bad here in the states in terms of ignorance but it was a jolt to see how bad they were in Britain as well.

Russell T. Davies: That's interesting, isn't it? Yes. That's part of the reason I wanted to write it. There's a wonderful body of American work showing the crisis, from "Tales of the City" onwards. This afternoon I had an email from Tony Kushner saying he loved it! I'm so thrilled. I'm more thrilled than any compliment I've ever had in my life! I don't even know what to say back to him...How do you speak to someone like that? But, yeah, it was a chance to contribute to a great body of work over the years showing the HIV/AIDS crisis and to show the British end of it. Well, MY version of the British end of it. I hope over the years, 25 more versions will get written. Thank you for watching it twice. I appreciate that.

EDGE: You tap into important ideas that should be obvious but usually aren't. There are insights in the series about shame and stigma that could have saved lives. I feel a similar thing about Catholics and the clergy scandal.

Russell T. Davies: Well, it's funny because now we're seeing society dealing with a virus without shame and scandal. I'm not saying we're particularly handling the Corona virus well, but at least we're talking about it. At least, we officially know what to do, how to avoid it... If only we all had conversations like this, had daytime television having phone ins about it and evening news broadcasts about it, surely lives would have been saved. But because it was sexually transmitted, that brings shame, that brings embarrassment, that brings silence, that brings ignorance. You get caught in a circle of silence and that's what causes the deaths. It couldn't be spoken about. The lessons couldn't be spread.

EDGE: And because of it we lost an entire generation of young gay men. It's interesting that in "It's a Sin" it is the theater community that are the first to rise up, because that was exactly the case here in NYC.

Russell T. Davies: Yeah, I wanted to show that. A lot of it is based on the story of my friend, Jill Nalder who plays Jill's mother onscreen. And she is a classic ol' West End girl. She was in the chorus of "Les Miserables" for 10 years—20 years, I think. (laughs) We weren't allowed the rights to use "Les Miserables," that's why I had to invent a musical about the French revolution...

EDGE: I wondered about that. Your invention was fantastic.

Russell T. Davies: I think that should be the spin-off show, frankly! We did try, though. I think it was the money, it would cost a fortune because there's been a movie. It wasn't their fault...But that was a great day when I thought, well I could write my own. (laughs) I get to write something with tricoteuse...And, again, it's part of the untold story. Those chorus boys were amongst the first to disappear. And it's amazing, so many people have opened up in the aftermath of (the show's) transmission about stories about people they've lost. So many of those were chorus boys and those lovely people in companies who just vanished...We didn't have mobile phones...the internet. Some of them died with us. And we went to the hospital beds and held their hands. And some just went home and vanished. I had this extraordinary email off a friend of mine...I wish I had this before transmission because I would have used this line onscreen. She was a dancer on the West End in the '80s and she wrote, 'we let our gorgeous friends go home to die in their childhood bedrooms while their parents hid them from the neighbors.' (clasps his heart) What a sentence. I would have used that! She's absolutely right.

EDGE: I know the show is filled with moments from your own life. Was there one particular thing that was most difficult to write?

Russell T. Davies: Not particularly, because I love writing. (laughs) Writing is always hard... but I do love it. I suppose Colin's death was very hard because I was writing that about a year after my husband died. I was with him for 20 years, bless him. He had brain cancer.

EDGE: I am so sorry.

Russell T. Davies: Thank you, darling. It's funny because he was very ill and he finally convinced me to marry him because he was dying. I was tricked, Frank. I was tricked! (laughs) I never wanted to get married. And he was so ill that the only date that was free was the first of December, which is World AIDS day so a lot of people think he died of AIDS...Not that it matters what took him away. So he had a very similar death. I kind of used his death. The staring into space with the eyes moving because had brain cancer so his brain went as Colin's did. That was hard to write but there was a certain amount of joy in the truth of taking something that really happened. I don't think he would have minded for a second. He knew what I was like better than anyone. But watching that back is tough—is hard. Beat by beat, the way he degrades towards death is very similar. So, yeah, but equally you're probably writing well when you do that kind of thing.

EDGE: Let's dive into the gay actors playing gay roles controversy. It's your right to cast who you want to cast and say what you want to say, what are your feelings about how social media attacks now without any pause or desire to let comments marinate?

Russell T. Davies: I don't really pay that much attention. I'm only really on Instagram. I've got a Twitter account that just sits there for "Doctor Who" things...Life's simply a lot easier if you don't pay any attention to it and I mean that. My family's not on social media...They're a literate, modern family...So I think there's a great belief that we're all on Twitter, but we're not. And, yes, the whole thing gets enflamed and, yes, I'm aware that whole thing took off and then I'm aware that a day later it's all blown over and gone. What I loved about that is it's one of those rare moments you have in gay rights where it touches on straight people's lives. THEN they get up in arms. That's fascinating. When we say we want gay rights, we want equality—the majority of the straight population will applaud and say, yes, yes, yes. But the moment you start touching on what straight actors can or cannot do, suddenly they're up in arms. Suddenly, you've gone too far. Suddenly, you pointed a little bit too deeply. And suddenly, they have opinions. It's marvelous to see! I consider that a great day's work when I've agitated people in that way. And agitated commentators.

I think some of it did accidentally offend some actors--straight actors playing gay parts—I never intended that to happen. Because actors are powerless... it's just a job. And literally I built my house on straight actors playing gay parts. I've done it a million times. But they've been so successful, that now allows me to look forward. It's 2021 now!... And the proof of the pudding-- is in this show... It's success over here has been extraordinary and strange and quite unique and I think it's genuine queer energy rising off the screen. You haven't quite seen anything like this before. And it just feels right. People can talk about this forever. You can have a political view on it, a sociological view on it. You can have a queer view on it.

But I know that behind me in my working life, all day, every day, there are the mass ranks of unemployed and unseen out gay actors who cannot get cast in roles. They're not seen, they're not auditioned or they're not considered right. Or they're considered to be a little bit too easy. All the way down to John Barrowman when he initially auditioned for "Will & Grace," and he was considered to be too gay. That story echoed! (leans in) Mind you, he's very gay. (laughs) I love John, I adore him. That story rankled deep in my soul for a very long time. I also understand why the program makers did that. Because of the world they lived in... it's not their fault... So someone's got to push things forward... It's how I will do it. It's how I work. I think when you talk about the Twitter conversation, the one good thing about that... is that the next time a famous gay actor is sitting in their press junket talking about their gay role, this question will crop up and it's not going to get any easier for them! And I like that. And when I talk about how powerless actors are, I'm talking about a level of actors who do have a choice about what they take on, who finance productions. At that level, you need to start thinking about what you're doing.

EDGE: It was a surprise, too, that that Colin would be the first one we would lose.

Russell T. Davies: It's funny, isn't it? But then again we have assumptions about sexual behavior, about lifestyles—there's that assumption that anyone who sleeps around is more likely to get it, which is wrong. It's not the sex that kills you, it's the virus. So that was deliberate. Across five episodes, I've got to portray four deaths and there are offstage deaths as well... So I have to keep varying it and showing the different ways in which AIDS can attack the body... I think people were surprised by Colin's brain being affected... In the gay community we know this stuff. Outside, in the straight world, I realize now, on transmission, how much of this is unknown. People were shocked by that. That it could attack the brain. I wasn't aware that what I was writing was particularly radical... At least it spread some facts.

EDGE: You have a true gift for creating flawed. nuanced characters that get under your skin so fast you find yourself so deeply invested in their journeys. You did it with "Queer as Folk," you do it here...

Russell T. Davies: Aw, thank you. I don't know how I do that. (laughs) I'm enormously lucky with those casts. And I think the luckiest I've ever been with this cast. They're just explosively brilliant. I think because I've been writing queer characters for a long time I'm careful not to present them as 'nice.' And not to present them as villainous, either...I've always thought that equality means our fictional characters being as complicated as straight characters. For example, no straight person objects to Tony Soprano, do they? (laughs) We all think he's absolutely wonderful and brilliant. Sometimes with a gay character, we start getting up in arms as if we're letting the side down. As though we mustn't be seen as having faults or doing these terrible things which I don't agree with at all. I think any character just gets richer if you keep turning them—you make the selfless characters selfish, you make the selfish characters selfless, then you're taking steps to becoming a bit more real. So I do it on purpose...

EDGE: It gets tiresome to watch Tom Hanks win an Oscar while Ian McKellen has always gone home empty-handed.

Russell T. Davies: Absolutely. And I do understand that some actors raise the finances for productions. And we have almost no one who can do that in the queer sphere. It's very hard to find, even Ben Whishaw. Ben Whishaw is huge. When we did "A Very English Scandal," he won a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, he won an Emmy. Is he financing films? I don't think he is... It is a massively homophobic system. The only way it's changing is to create stars like Olly Alexander. Create him as a star now, and he can do whatever he wants in life. I don't want to put this pressure on him. I'm talking about the bigger picture... The fact that gay leads don't exist to finance films proves that we don't have equality. Single-handedly proves it. Talk about equality all you like. Where is it then? It doesn't exist. Are we saying that gay (lead) actors aren't as good as straight lead actors? Absolutely not. Where is it? So, yes, it's time to start moving things. And I'm aware I'm starting a conversation where I'll be cursed with this question for the rest of my life, but I love it and maybe in 20 years, 30 years it would have started shifting things.

EDGE: "Queer as Folk" was such a monumental series because it didn't give a fuck about making the straight world feel comfortable, or even the gay world. It explored flawed characters and interesting storylines. What made you so bold?

Russell T. Davies: I'd spent a lifetime working on soap operas and it was the first program I ever wrote with a budget! So it goes wild. Literally you could see my mind running through the streets and doing whatever I like. I'd never had night shoots. I'd never had cars. I'd never had people with three lines. All of those used to be cut from anything I ever did. So on a very simple level—that's a very interesting question, because the answer is very prosaic: I'd never been given the freedom of a budget before. And it wasn't a huge budget. But for me at the time, (it) was a vast amount of money... Simple as that, I was set free for the first time.

EDGE: Then with "Torchwood" you pushed the envelope even further and took on genre by placing gay characters in a genre where they rarely existed before.

Russell T. Davies: Well, begging for it. Begging for it! What a queer genre it is. I still marvel at the flat groins of superheroes... They're all muscles. The most beautiful people... They have extraordinary bodies. They're heroes and they're beautiful and sexless! The whole Marvel empire is fascinating. It doesn't rely on romance. One day there's going to be a great big gay superhero muscle fuck fest! I want to be there, Frank! And I want people to realize how much they want to cum watching this stuff. (laughs)

EDGE: "Years and Years" so extraordinary. I know it was a one-off, but maybe one day...?

Russell T. Davies: Do you think? We'll catch up one day. It's funny because it wasn't successful here. It was a real ratings disaster. I can say that happily now having had a ratings success with "It's a Sin." (laughs) ... In fairness, the channel, BBC1, is very proud of that show, but there will never be another series because the demand simply isn't there. It's a shame, isn't it. But I loved it. I'm very proud of it. Those who watched it loved it, I like to think.

"It's a Sin" is available to stream on HBO Max

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute