Why were you drawn to the project?
The project was offered to me very suddenly. The producer Phil Collinson, who I've known for years, reached out to me personally and said, "are you available?". Russell and Phil were keen for a gay director, they felt that might be really helpful to the project for insights, and for the way that the camera would see things. I'd always wanted to work for Russell. And I think It's A Sin is the best thing he's written, in a long time. I also thought the same of the Jeremy Thorpe drama - he's created something with such power and strength, knowledge and wisdom, all of those things that he always had. But somehow, it's as if something sharpened. The scripts were a joy to read, so funny and so relatable. So human. This series is about life not death. Yes, it's a teary ride but the positivity in the project was something that attracted me.
Why do you think now is an important time to be telling this story, 40 years after the time in which it's set?
There has been huge progress in the fight against HIV and Aids, but it's not a done and dusted deal. It's not like the stigma has gone from people living with it, some people still deal with that on a daily basis. And the mental health challenges too. And I think that that's why it's always important to tell this story, because I don't think that's going to go away overnight, no matter what we say about it. In a way, this is a story which should have been told every year since 1981. I was 18 the year that the infamous Aids advert came out. I hadn't discovered my sexuality at that point and didn’t come out until I was 22. But that was one of the first things I remember discovering, that if I have sex, I might die. Russell and I discussed that as well, and how that fear of sex combined with the drafting of Clause 28 (which we do touch on in the drama). It wasn't just HIV that was giving us a hard time. And I think that's another reason to tell the story, because it's a reminder that marginalised groups had a really hard time.
As director, what was your approach to recreating the 80s?
I was keen aesthetically to be careful with the 80s, partly because it’s very popular - there's a lot of fantasy based in the 80s and people like to revel in it, and rightly so. But I didn't want to do that. Nostalgia is a bugbear of mine. In many ways, I think that being too nostalgic in drama is a curse. Because it risks becoming a bit of a veneer over things and I don't think you get into the heart of the drama. We had Luana Hanson who was a brilliant designer, incredibly detailed. And a great head of costume, Ian Fulcher, and make up, Lin Davie. The art direction across the series is just phenomenal, with so much going on in these sets. But at the same time, Russell definitely had these thoughts, as I did, about being careful, making sure we weren't too over the top with it. What's important to me is the story, the actors, the characters, all of those things. Sometimes design can get in the way of those things, can hold you back from believing in the world because you're constantly checking it. We're a very literate TV audience these days. I agreed with Russell about what works on screen, and that's why I think we worked very well together. I think we had the same sensibilities, we had the same mistrust sometimes of TV when it goes too far. And we've watched a lot of TV between us over the years, particularly from the 80s.
The cast mentioned you shared a music playlist with them to help them get into the 80s vibe?
Yes, definitely. It started off with Russell writing a handful of tracks into the show. And for me that was like a door being opened to say "right, music's okay on this show." Russell did his tracks, like Hooked on Classics, which you'll know from episode 1 and maybe five or six major tracks that Russell wrote into the script. They were a little bit obscure, some of them, they weren't the classics. They were uncool, and I loved that. And then I just thought "I'm gonna go with that", and then add more to it. And I picked a number of other tracks from the years, trying to stay on point, but also find other less obvious tracks along the way. Even if you've never lived through the period in which the music was created, there's something about music that just gets into your soul. And that's why it worked for the cast I think. None of them lived through this period, but they were listening to this music and really getting into this world. And yes, I encourage them to join in. And Omari was the best actually. He put loads of great tracks into the Spotify playlist. Also their personalities would show through their music choices as well. Not just their own characters, but who they are and how they listen to music. Olly's a musical genius, so he must have known all about this stuff and listened to all of it. But certainly for some of the others it was like a stepping into new territory.
How was it working with the young ensemble?
Amazing. It was so great when I met them for those first rehearsals, to see them come together for the first time. And being that friendly, and that jokey, and laughing as a group was so great to see. And, you know, they were superb from the start. It was so quick that they bonded and that's down to Andy Pryor, casting director, because Andy has picked some people we'd never heard of, never seen before, but he saw the heart in them really, and that doesn't always happen in casting, you don't always get the right hearts behind the talent. But yeah, this was fun from the start. And it was a long shoot, so I'm glad it was!
And what was the experience like for you as a director being part of this project?
We worked very closely as a team but I'm a big collaborator, anyway. From Olly who did an amazing job leading the ensemble to being lucky enough to choose my own DP on this, David Katznelson, who is also a genius, talent and great collaborator. It was a very forming experience. On a personal level I have never felt as comfortable, as myself, on any show I've ever done before. And that's not because the people I work with in the past didn't make me feel comfortable. Because they did. But there was just something very special about this project which allowed me to feel and be 100% myself during production. And it was important and so empowering to be able to tell a story like this, especially as I've lost friends through HIV. I can't imagine being able to do this again. Really, I think I became very aware of that as we were making it. And also let's not forget the incredible guest cast that we had, as well. Stephen Fry, Keeley Hawes and Neil Patrick Harris, Shaun Dooley, Tracy Ann Oberman. These people coming and going and bringing that star quality and also an empathy with all of them too. It's just a very special project to be part of.