Welsh-born Russel T. Davies is one of Britain’s most heralded writers, bringing progressive and powerful dramas to our screens for 30 years. His remarkable catalogue comprising such groundbreaking shows as Queer As Folk, the revival of Doctor Who and 2019’s nightmarish vision of a far-too-plausible-future, Years and Years. Now, in collaboration with Director Peter Hoar, Davies brings us a passion-project decades in the making, where he unflinchingly portrays the previously unexplored landscape of the AIDS epidemic in 80’s London. With alarming parallels drawn between the crisis and our current COVID-governed-world, it feels like the perfect time to experience this poignant, tragic and triumphant story through Davies’ signature, no-holds-barred style.
Davies knew from the get-go he needed gay actors to play the many gay characters and this was non-negotiable. Believing that in order to do this right, it must come from a place of truthfulness and credibility, for which gay actors were the only sensible choice. Davies has always made a point to further LGBTQ+ representation on screen and this is no exception. So along came the relatively inexperienced Olly Alexander, frontman of the band Years & Years (no relation). He inhabits lead character Ritchie Tozer, an 18 year-old, aspiring actor exploring sex at university while hiding his proclivities from his parents. Parents who don’t approve of his career choice and would likely not know of his sexuality, forcing him to keep it a long-held secret. Alexander delivers an excellent turn in his first big role and through the opening episode, proves himself fully capable of shouldering the emotional weight of the subject matter while embodying the playful wit and charm of the character. Richie is not the sole lead however as is promptly shown through the introduction of Ash, Colin and Roscoe played by Nathaniel Curtis, Callum Scott Howells and Omari Douglas respectively, each with their own snappy establishing sequence, economically but effectively outlining the circumstances that have brought them to London. Finally there is Jill, played elegantly by Lydia West, a close friend of the boys and arguably the most nuanced character of all. Her arch through the series is exemplifies the far-reaching anguish of the tradegies that befall the gay community. The central cast are all exceptional, especially given their collective, relative inexperience but the supporting cast are just as strong. Among whom sits veteran Neil Patrick Harris as Henry Coltrane, a middle-aged gay man living with his partner, unashamed and unaffected by the bigoted attitudes thrown his way. His charisma is palpable, magnetic, and in several scenes he threatens to steal the show, but Davies knows how to strike a balance and after 45 minutes you’ll have at least 5 favourite characters vying for your affections. We also see a different side to seasoned Brit Keeley Hawes who, alongside Shaun Dooley, plays Richie’s well-meaning but emotionally complex mother, complexities that come to a controversial head in the final episode. Both his parents exhibit unrefined perspectives, likely shaped by their isolated life on the Isle of Wight and the heavy conservative government of the time. It both informs Richie’s reluctance in coming out and demonstrates the unintentional damage that societal insensitivity and ignorance can do to a young gay man. The wealth of principally British talent feels like the right way to tell this story. With the AIDS epidemic in London being almost completely overlooked in terms of television and cinema until now, it’s fitting that the ones who are portraying it are mainly British actors.
As the series unfolds we see the five leads romping around town expressing themselves in loud, boisterous fashion and the show wastes no time in getting down to business with detailed expeditions into the often-glossed-over realm of gay sex. There’s a particular montage that leaves little to the imagination and you can feel the gleeful delight emanating from Davies’ script. For a series centering such an seemingly dark subject, it’s wonderful to see a vein of joyfulness running throughout the show, a celebration of the era and of gay love. First and foremost this is a human story and at its core a beating heart of pride, entirely separate from the disease. The joy of course is juxtaposed with tragedy and every harsh edit from raucous house party to silent hospital ward subverts and disconcerts. As the series progresses, the reality of the danger grows and what began as an ‘American’ disease or a conspiracy to attack the gay community, soon becomes a very real crisis, the effects of which are devastating to watch. Authenticity permeates the drama and you can tell Davies is a man who has lived these experiences and endured similar tragedies first-hand, making it all the more potent. However he doesn’t use conventional, empathy-inducing tropes to get you on side. He simply tells the tory he wishes to tell and allows the audience to make up their own mind on the more morally-ambiguous moments. He doesn’t draw the characters as heroes or martyrs, they are not one-dimensional, sympathetic victims. They are full-bodied people with hopes and dreams, fears and flaws who are simply trying to live through a distressing and uncertain time, making mistakes along the way. As I said, this isn’t an AIDS story… It’s a human story.
Hoar’s direction flirts with an array of styles making for a fluid, multi-genre series and as such, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what this series is. Somehow it walks a tonal tightrope of comedy, tragedy and docu-drama. One moment it’s borderline sit-com before deftly handbrake-turning into a sombre commentary on gay death, condemning public apathy or government inaction. But despite the diversity of timbre, scene-to-scene, Hoar maintains a delicate cohesion throughout all 5 episodes. Davies’ long-time collaborator Murray Gold works the soundtrack, hand-picking nostalgia-triggering hits from the era including anthems from Kate Bush, Queen and of course, The Pet Shop Boys, to create a powerful sense of time and place. With Sarah Brewerton’s precision editing, the soundtrack and cinematography (David Katznelson) cuts together beautifully resulting in a fast-paced yet detailed journey through the ’80s, full of vibrancy, passion and trauma in equal measure. As is true with much of Davies’ work, it’s like nothing you’ve seen before.
Ruling – This show exemplifies why Davies and Channel 4 are world-leaders when it comes to telling powerful British stories that educate and inform while delivering harsh truths in a candid manner. There are moments throughout this show that will be hard to watch but don’t look away. This is a show that wants you to feel. So feel. After all, this is Russell T. Davies at his very best and that alone should be all you need to know. Enjoy.