Russell T Davies’ seminal AIDS drama It’s a Sin was almost never made after being turned down by TV bosses
It’s a Sin, the powerful and painful British AIDS drama applauded by viewers for its queer cast and groundbreaking portrayal of one of the darkest chapters in LGBT+ history, may not ever have happened if programme chiefs got their way.
The show follows three gay men as they move to London in the early 1980s. But a mysterious illness that spreads among queer men collides with their life of sexual freedom and kinship.
This premise, Davies said, was “hard to sell” to TV channels, igniting a years-long campaign to get a broadcaster to sign off the project where he was sometimes rejected multiple times.
He even had to dial down the show from eight episodes to five. The celebrated showrunner explained: “[It’s a Sin] kind of went from channel to channel to channel and I was first talking about this in 2015.
“It’s taking a long time to get on air,” he continued, adding that the show’s subject – the spectre of the AIDS crisis – was “tough to talk about” and he couldn’t predict “whether an audience is gonna come to [it] or not.
“So it was a hard sell, you know, that’s why it went round various channels and was turned down, at least twice if not three times.
“Genuinely, because it’s about people dying. It’s a tough piece of work. And I can’t sit here now with any guarantee that people will watch it – it’ll be really interesting to know.”
Russell T Davies could have written a ‘hundred episodes’ of It’s a Sin. But he’s thankful for five
“It always started at Channel 4,” Davies said. “They said no. And then it went to BBC One and they said no.”
He added: “It even went to ITV at one point, and they just said: ‘Not yet. We’re not quite that sort of channel yet.'”
The 57-year-old was thrown a lifeline by Channel 4’s commissioning editor of drama, Lee Mason, who “literally put the script in his drawer and waited for all the staff to change and all the heads of department to move on and then got the script out again and said: ‘Would you like to make this?'”
Davies described It’s a Sin taking so long to take off as a double-edged sword for him – while frustrating, it gave him time to refine it.
“I mean, the longer you think about something, the better it gets, I think it gets richer and deeper,” he said. “It’s like stew, it just boils and reduces.”
But some broadcast bosses wanted it to be even shorter than the five episodes it ended up with. “It was planned as an eight-parter,” he said, with Channel 4 originally wanting to cap the series to a four-parter.
“There’s no WAY I can fit all of this into four,” Davies defiantly told them. “I told them the fifth episode was about something else and then changed my mind completely and delivered a completely different episode five, and they didn’t get cross, they were very kind.”
He continued: “You kind of have to realise the problem with making dramas now – if it doesn’t have a spaceship or a monster or a chase in it, you get a lower budget – so it shrank.
“But then, on this subject matter, the truth is I’m realising now, as I come to the post-production and the launch of it, I could have written a hundred episodes about this. A little bit of me is sad.
“When [director of programmes] Ian Katz and Channel 4 first read it, I think he kind of presumed it would be a long-running series, that we’d have three, four years of going through the 80s, five or six episodes a year of moving through the decade, and maybe I should have leapt on that.
“But then, to be honest, I don’t think we’d have got Olly Alexander and I don’t think we’d have got a cast like this to sign up for many, many years. You wouldn’t have got Keeley Hawes to sign up for many years. I don’t think so.
“This is normal business we’re talking about, this is the making of a television show. This is how it falls out. You do these deals and you bargain. You know, it could have been shorter, they could have said: ‘Come and make a one-off film.’
“So I’m delighted we got five hours of it.”
‘I still mourn the eight-part version’
Does the full eight-episode-long It’s A Sin exist anywhere? “It was never an actual script,” the Welsh television producer admitted.
“I still mourn the eight-part version. I’m sad that never got made, that hurts. I did have to cut things out.”
Davies added: “By the time I came to it, it was four episodes. Then as I wrote it, I just thought there’s no way.
“It was mostly to do [with] because you’re dealing with a virus that kills people and definitely killed people in the 1980s.
“The show would have been like a ratatatat of deaths. Imagine if there’s one episode missing, it would have been ferocious, you’d have to kind of have five episodes to put more life and air and breath into it.
“Put daft Doctor Who scenes into it, West End musicals… All of that would have vanished if it had been compressed into four.
“So it found its space, it just found its space in the end. So all the things I never said and wrote will come out somewhere, somehow.”