In August 2020, Russell T Davies was interviewed by actor, writer, theatre-maker and activist Nathaniel J. Hall for Superbia Sunday, part of Alternative Manchester Pride Festival. Nathaniel’s award-winning one-man show ‘First Time’ dramatised his experience of becoming HIV positive at a young age and has led to change-making public dialogue around HIV education and stigma. Nathaniel also starred as a boyfriend of lead character Richie Tozer ( Olly Alexander ) named Donald in It’s A Sin.
Russell’s dozens of writing credits and creations have tackled subjects such as sex work, desire, faith, death and much of his work has been set in Manchester. In this interview when talking about Queer As Folk, Russell discusses how he had to be told to write about Canal Street and then realised he had been researching just that for years. He speaks of his love for the scene and the romance of it as a safe, gay space.
He said; “It’s funny because I was actually asked to write it – sometimes it takes someone else to point out something really obvious to you! There’s a woman called Katrina McKenzie at Channel4 who said ‘Why don’t you write about that?’ Up until that point I didn’t think it was possible to write about that and then I turned around and realised that I had 20 years of going out and clubbing and watching that scene. I had always loved going out on Canal Street, obviously but I love going out on my own. If I bumped into friends I used to say ‘oh go away!’ I would change clubs to be on my own. I realised afterwards it was like research – I used to stand at the railing of Cruz 101 and watch everyone dancing, and I’d be watching such a magical space. You’re watching – even now today – a space that people escape to. You know, the heat and the light and the cigarette smoke and the noise, and you’re just watching people dancing thinking “You’re a bank clerk normally, you’re in the closet, you can’t be out to your mum and dad, you know, but you’ve come here and you are yourself.’ What a dramatic place!
“I genuinely love the romance of places like Canal Street. The romance of a gay space. It’s a true romance, it’s the drama in there – there’s honesty and there’s liberation. You are yourself and sometimes you’re not yourself you can go and be a completely different person. Sometimes you construct a self to go down there. I’ve always said I think it was a matter of time before someone would put that on screen, and a matter of time before a gay drama came along and I’m so glad it was me. Not everyone is, but I am! I remember after the first episode I went to Cruz 101 and the man at the desk said ‘That’s set us back 20 years!”
Please tell us, in a nutshell, what the series is about.
Well, it’s the story of the 1980s. It’s the coming of age story of five 18 year old people who all converge on one flat in London, leaving home, growing up together. It’s the decade in which the shadow of a virus is falling across all of our lives. The five episodes cover 10 years 1981 to 1991. So, as we see these young kids grow up, come out, make friends, fall in love, find work, discover who they are, at the same time the virus gets closer and closer, hitting people in their social life and heading towards the flat itself. And it’s about how they cope with that and it’s how they survive that. It’s about how they celebrated each others’ lives in the face of such darkness.
Would it be fair to describe this as one of your most personal projects to date?
It probably is actually. I didn’t realise until I started writing it how exactly it fits my own life. I was 18 in 1981. I didn’t really have to reach for the cultural references, the songs, and television shows, or the fashions, because I lived through them all. I mean, I think everything I write is very personal. I could equally say how close I am to Rose Tyler, and she’s flying through another galaxy, but yes, this was something I built up to writing for many years.
There hasn’t really been a drama of this scale exploring the British experience of the AIDS crisis until now. Why do you think that is?
Yes, I wanted to see the British perspective. It does exist, it’s there in films like Pride, very beautifully stated, and there’s this whole body of work that I’ve seen: The Inheritance and Angels in America are among the finest things that have been written, and along with The Normal Heart there’s a wonderful film called Holding The Man, and there’s London Spy which features an HIV diagnosis scene that is a phenomenal piece of work. So I was very aware of those pieces of work. But I very much wanted to find my own place alongside them, not repeating what they’ve done. And in some ways, the urge to be new is the least important thing. Because it’s stories like this that need restating again, and again. I’m very aware that younger generations are growing up not knowing anything about this period. And actually, let’s be honest, people who were there at the time don’t know anything about it either. And there are those who have happily forgotten such a bad time, and I don’t blame them for that. So it was a matter of me finding my place in there. It’s an awful subject, it’s a delicate subject, but it’s an honour to write about it.
Are the characters based on any people you knew from the time, or any particularly informed by your own experiences?
Yes, it’s very specifically inspired by a friend of mine called Jill, who was such an inspiration that I couldn’t even change her name when it came to writing a fictional version. My friend, Jill Nalder, plays the fictional Jill’s mother on screen, which was a real honour. Jill was much more active than me, she was a much more honourable person in that she spent more time on AIDS wards than I ever did, and held the hands of the dying more than I ever did. And I love her for that.
How much was based on research? Was any research you did important?
Yes, it is thoroughly researched. Of course, I spoke to the charities. I’m a patron of the George House Trust in Manchester, the North West’s biggest HIV and AIDS charity. They’ve got the logs of all the transcripts from their phonelines during the 1980s. So I put some of that on screen. I talked to loads of friends, I talked to lots of doctors as well. For the facts and for the anecdotal stuff too. But mainly it was an act of remembering, because I was actually there and I saw those people and knew those people and loved those people. It was time I got around to writing about them.
You’ve mentioned that it’s taken decades to build up to writing this project – why do you think now is the right time?
In life we just run forwards. And at the time it felt like it was just a normal life to live with this killer disease. But actually it takes you 20 years to realise that it is not normal. You have kids growing up now during the time of coronavirus, and to them this is normal, that face masks and social distancing is completely normal. It doesn’t make them blink. And it’s the same with AIDS in a way. I just grew up with it and it’s taken me a while to see the enormity of it. I’m glad I waited. Although in some ways, I do think it’s there in everything I’ve ever written.
This is a story told through the experiences of a group of young gay men, but the themes of family, friendship, community and identity transcend demographics – is it important to you that this drama resonates with audiences from a whole range of backgrounds?
Oh, absolutely! At its heart, It’s A Sin is about bunch of people leaving home and doing what we all do, which is find our own family. A family constructed of friends, and friends of friends, even friends’ mothers. You build that for yourself. And I’ve written that many times – that’s essentially describing what the Doctor does every time he steps out and meets a new companion! So I love writing about that. In writing a series about death, death is just the full stop, you’ve got to write the great big sentence that comes before
It’s A Sin feels different to many other representations of the AIDS epidemic – it’s heart-breaking at times of course, but at its core has a vibrant, optimistic tone and is often hilarious – why was it important to you that this joy and celebration is so apparent in a drama which explores such a dark part of the 80s?
Well, this drama takes a place within a greater body of work. If you want the anger go and read The Normal Heart or see it on stage in February at the National Theatre. You will not see an angrier piece of work. And I don’t imagine for a second I could write anything that matches Larry Kramer’s anger on that, an anger that saved lives. He changed policies and made people aware of their situation. That’s one of the most extraordinary men on planet Earth. So I’m not matching that. In the end, I just have to do what I do best and if I have a skill on screen it’s for creating families, for creating friendships, for creating joy and love. And trying to find happiness even in the darkest of circumstances. And I think I’ve got there with this. I’m very proud of it.
The drama is unflinching, and at times challenging, in its portrayal of how different people responded differently to the crisis – family members, friends, lovers, those who contracted the virus. Why was that important to you?
I think in order to bring these people to life, you have to make characters as complex as you possibly can. I always think the key to characters is turning them constantly in the light. So, someone who’s lovely, can be selfish. Someone who’s funny can be sad. And if we just hit one note, then you have just a caricature rather than a character. And I think Ritchie exemplifies this more than anyone. He is the great libertarian, he’s sexually free and wild. Except at home. He goes home, and he’s in the closet. He’s the family boy and he’s the boy running away from family at the same time. He’s quite radical. And he’s a Tory voter! He’s proud of himself and he’s ashamed of himself. He literally expresses gay pride and gay shame almost simultaneously in certain scenes. And when you come to a performance like Olly’s that captures all of that, he’s truly magnificent. He will do things and say things you don’t approve off. And that, to me, makes the character all the more attractive.
One of the most devasting elements for victims of the AIDS crisis was the accompanying stigma and shame. At the same time the wider gay community suffered rife prejudice as a result of the virus too. How far do you think we’ve come since those times?
Things are a million times better. People said we were the love the dare not speak its name. And then along came a disease that dare not speak its name. Double calamity. Obviously, things have got better, radically better in my lifetime. In 1999, I wrote an out gay 15-year-old schoolboy, and he was as rare as a comet. Now, that’s not so rare. It’s really quite commonplace in most schools now (it’s still terrible if you’re in the closet, and I’m not saying all the problems are gone of course). But the prejudice lingers. You just ask people you know, ask a gay man, “do you know if it’s safe to be around someone with HIV if they’re sneezing?” And many people don’t know the answer to that. So there’s still a lot of ignorance. Nonetheless, it is a much, much better world than it used to be. I’ve noticed over the past five years the numbers of friends of mine who feel free to tell me their HIV status has increased by tenfold. It still used to be a secret, but in the past five years, I can notice people being much freer about talking about it.
Tell us about the cast. What was it like working with Olly, Callum, Omari, Lyndia, Nathaniel and the rest of the gang?
Phenomenal! It’s a drama led by a young cast. They’re backed up by enormous talents Keeley Hawes, Shaun Dooley, Tracy Ann Oberman, Stephen Fry, Neil Patrick Harris. But those five young people are centre stage. And it made the whole thing a joy, actually. Andy Pryor, who has done everything I’ve ever worked on since Doctor Who, looks for people who not only are the right actors, but have the right heart. They really got on and what was astonishing about working with those five is how seriously they took the subject matter. They really approached it wholeheartedly, got into the politics of it, and understood the details and the facts of it. But at the same time, what a camp old bunch! They just had the most fantastic time, and how we ever got them to set without hangovers, on time, I’ll never know! But in all seriousness, they were truly, truly hard workers. I think you see it on screen; they feel like friends, there’s a shorthand amongst them, there’s a rhythm between them. And they’re all stars, every single one of them is a star.
As has oft been noted – your dramas have been scarily prescient…I’m almost scared to ask – what are you working on next?
I’m script-editing a series written by Sir Lenny Henry! That’s a surprise to me, but when Lenny calls, you obey. It’s called Three Little Birds, for ITV. It’s based on his mother’s life, the story of three women travelling from Jamaica in 1957 to start a new life in Britain. It’s all written by Lenny, I just give him the occasional nudge, and explain the software to him. He’s a gorgeous man, and so much fun, it’s going to be wonderful.
Some 80s questions now…
What’s your favourite 80s band?
I love The Communards. And the Eurythmics.
What’s your favourite 80s film?
Back to the Future. It’s probably my number one favourite. A film without a villain. It’s amazing. Only time is the enemy.
What’s your favourite 80s fashion trend?
What’s your favourite 80s TV show
Doctor Who, of course!