I cannot think of a show I have enjoyed less than this show. I can also not think of one that I would recommend more highly. This is gay epic, spanning nearly a decade across the 80s as a group of five young people start into their adult lives with different hopes and dreams, not aware that survival will soon become their primary ambition. 1981 is a liminal year for their own adulthood and self-actualisation, but also for the AIDS crisis which would go on to claim more fatalities than World War One.
Davies told Esquire, ‘I was 19 in 1981, so I’ve been wanting to tell this story for that long really.’ And indeed looking back at his career, it almost seems like he’s been honing his skills to give a treatment to the crisis that is both sensitive and emotive and deeply political. This is a writer who knows how to depict culture – although it can hardly be taken as comprehensive, the program which catapulted him to fame, Queer as Folk, did so due to its groundbreaking and honest depiction of gay life in the noughties. He plots this show with a point to prove. Davies captures the fear from lack of information about the virus as only someone who lived through the crisis would be able to. But crucially, it’s very clear that the worst sin is the homophobia which meant that resources were withheld from tackling the crisis as a generation of young men was decimated. He captures the prejudice which exacerbated the pandemic and its insidiousness – from doctors to politicians, Article 48 to internalised homophobia. Some characters are very, very kind. ‘Jill’, based on a friend of the writer, shows a world of volunteers, hotline runners and campaigners. Others are not. In one of the cruellest of many causes a sharp inhaled breath, the sweet mother to one main character falls in this category – when her son is doubly outed as suffering from AIDS and being a gay man, her macho husband breaks down in tears, while she shouts and swears and bans the dying boy’s friends from his bed side.
It is this absolutely heart squeezing combination of tender and terrible which is both true to life and the foundation of landmark social television; Davies understands that tragedy is awfulness plus its antithetical counterpoint. We find and lose a culture – as so we see five disparate individuals find a home and safe space together, only for it to be taken away. There’s loss of love as the ones you want to reach out to perversely become the ones who might kill you with a kiss. And above all, there is seismic loss of life, an unrelenting slog as characters are born to us only to be snatched away again. Russel T Davies is the master of dialogue for characterisation and can sketch out love stories in a matter of minutes – here he has five one hour episodes to try to convey what this must have felt like to live through.
It’s heartening to see so many cameos from older members of the LGBT community today – Stephen Fry and Neil Patrick Harris have very different roles – whilst Olly Alexander (lead singer of Years and Years) plays his history with maturity and sensitivity. There is so much more that could be said to credit the fantastic cast, or the arch and deeply witty writing, or the sheer energy which the show vibrates with. This is a story about loss, but also a loving commemoration of what was lost. It’s Davies finest work and everyone should watch it.
Artwork by Rachel Jung