It’s easy to forget what Russell T. Davies has achieved to date. Twenty-odd years ago, Queer As Folk altered a bit, by reflecting a lot, a sane perspective on homosexuality and one of the ways it did this was to make one of the central trio of characters — the one played by Aidan Gillen — pretty unambiguously bad. He burnt up the show, outdistancing in his power of blackness and bastardliness, his nice boyfriend, Craig Kelly, and even the gorgeous blonde boy bombshell, Charlie Hunnam.
The British Queer As Folk, which ran from 1999 to 2001, was brilliant because it gave gay characters a fully human complexity. It’s also easy to forget that Davies wrote the script for Steven Frears’ A Very English Scandal in which Hugh Grant gives the performance of his life and skates around the dark frozen lake of sexual ambiguity and human treachery in one of the great things made for television. Now Russell T. Davies has written It’s A Sin about the early Eighties and the horrors of Aids and for a while there it looks like a softer, more sentimental proposition, but then it doesn’t and it turns into a heartbreaking, very powerful drama about human fragility and the irreparable nature of human loss.
In It’s A Sin all the gay characters are played by gay actors and this works, in a way that figures to make them look as a group a bit more ordinary and unlovely because things are not being filtered through an implicit idealism of physical beauty.
Roscoe (Omari Douglas) tall, black and elegant, the guy who has secret dates with Tory politician Stephen Fry, is drop- dead good-looking but Colin (Callum Scott Howells) the boy from Wales who works for a tailoring shop, is not. And the central figure in the whole five-part series is played by the pop star Olly Alexander and he is attractive in a slightly weird goblin-boy way so that the process of watching him for four and a half hours works on the audience a bit like the enigma of how the raised eyebrow can yield to infatuation and then to pain and joy, the catastrophic mixture of love.
But at the halfway point you feel you’re in the presence of a well-intentioned piece of communitarian piety which is held together partly by the splendour of the guest appearances — not only Fry but a gaunt and handsome Neil Patrick Harris speaking the Queen’s English — but especially by the beautiful performance of Lydia West as Jill the black girl who lives and breathes for these gabbling and gushing young guys who come to take on the terrible status of those who die in battle. She is wonderful, starry and effortlessly sympathetic without force of hokum.
Then in the last 90 minutes or so everything is transfigured and the sense of young life cut down like a flower and with no long stay becomes all but overwhelming. There may be touches of corniness (Roscoe’s break with Fry is a bit glib) and the demos seem just a bit postured compared to the way the drama deepens and darkens and presents with a tremendous encompassing force a sense of life doomed and of death’s inescapability. The Welsh boy has fits and loses his mind as if senile. The young actor, Richie (Olly Alexander) holds to life with the fragility and the impassioned sense of youth as a birthright which takes the breath away.
This is a soaring, wonderfully credible performance of a young boy beating at the very gates of human possibility like an immortal. It is mesmerising, extraordinary and utterly true. This is a ticket to any future Olly Alexander might want. He seems to play himself and to make the portrait unforgettable.
Then there is Keeley Hawes as his mother. At first you admire the realism with which this usually posh actress masters the mannerisms of a lower-middle class woman and then this ceases to be noticeable as Hawes delivers a performance of monolithic authority as she runs the gamut between rage and disdain and a bereft grief so terrible it admits of no concession or comfort. She ensures, not single-handedly but dwarfingly, that It’s A Sin turns into a work of art, full of truth and power, as it contemplates the gravest things in the world.
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