Have you seen It’s a Sin yet?
I have, I’m so proud to be a part of it, it’s just extraordinary. Those young men are just astounding. It’s really powerful television. The shock of remembering the PPE and the masks appearing… Of course, we had no idea when we were making it that that was going to have such a strong meaning throughout 2020. There’s an extra importance to it, you could say.
Who is Arthur Garrison?
He’s a particularly repressed figure because he doesn’t think he is gay, he’s that kind of gay who reckons if you’re the active partner in a relationship, to put it delicately, with a younger man like Roscoe then you’re not gay. It ignores the basis of being gay or indeed heterosexual, which is your ability to love.
How would you describe his relationship with Roscoe?
The sad thing is, when he’s with Roscoe there’s a tenderness and genuine sort of affection, but he’s far too afraid. What you can’t respect is the hypocrisy of a politician who behaves one way while preaching and voting another. There was an idea that the government was letting gay people die in a way they wouldn’t have with others, that haemophiliacs who contracted AIDS were somehow innocent victims by comparison to gay people. A couple of friends of mine became HIV positive in 1989. As far as I knew they were going to die. One of them did, very quickly, the other one survived and is alive today and one of my closest friends.
Did you base your characterisation on anyone in particular?
I had people I was thinking of vaguely! It would be invidious to name names but we all know the sort of people. What John Le Carré called the Belgravia Cockney. There was plenty in the script to get my teeth into. Russell doesn’t write formula, he writes real people.
Where does Garrison sit in the Conservative Party hierarchy? Do you imagine he would ever make it to the front bench?
He hopes to move up to a Cabinet position but I don’t think he’s got much chance. The fact that Thatcher doesn’t even really know who he is seems telling and highly believable.
How was Omari to work with? It looks like you had enormous fun.
We did. He’s a wonderful fellow and a terrific actor, so likeable and easy to work with. The atmosphere on set was just fantastic.
What is unique about Russell’s scripts?
There’s so much, but Russell’s particular genius is to make you laugh and cry simultaneously. I would have played a butler in it or someone in the background – you’re proud to be a part of it, like a message to my dead friends that they’re not forgotten. There’s so much to mourn and celebrate when you look back. Knowing the subject and watching that first episode as they coalesce into a group of friends is so fantastically moving – all that hope, and the wildness of it, the suggestion of the first time people were able to find themselves… You usually had to go to a city to do that, somewhere there was a community – the word “community” was being used for the first time.
Like the boys, you moved to London in 1981. How similar were your experiences?
I was so excited by work and academic work and acting, and maybe afraid of relationships or being rejected, that I never liked The Scene, the gay pubs and bars and clubs. I’m romantic, lyrical and sentimental. Plus I was really bad at it! I thought people would take one look at me and think, no thanks. I was aware by the late 80s that had probably saved my life.
So were you watching the boys in It’s a Sin with relief or envy?
I was seeing my friends there. I remember so many incidents. I lived in Chelsea with my partner, my lover from Cambridge but we were living together then as best friends – he’d go out to clubs most nights and there was a gay pub round the corner but it was very gentle sweet one, Chelsea queens and that sort of thing. I remember having a heated discussion with the man talking about this nonsense story from America, that they’ve made a great song and dance of a few people dying because they want to close the venues down. I said that I’d heard it really was serious, a genuine puzzle to the medical profession and you don’t recover from it. You want to go back in time and be even more vociferous, saying: face this! Watching this series had a deeply personal effect on me.
How quickly did you become aware of AIDS?
I left university in June 1981, exactly the time the virus entered Britain really. It began to be talked about that autumn. It was called GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency, but people called it the bathhouse flu. There were rumours in America, my friends who went to the clubs and so on talked about it but, just like the characters in It’s A Sin they dismissed it as nonsense: how can a virus know you’re gay? Then suddenly I found myself in the Broderip Ward at Marylebone Hospital in Praed St, sitting on the bed of dying friend, going to funerals with distraught parents. Can you imagine where you’re sitting on a bed with a dear friend of yours, and his lover who is not HIV positive, and the parents are there, having found all this out at once? Their son had come out to them, introduced their partner and disclosed to them they were going to die of an incurable disease in the same sentence. Some of the parents freeze out the lover because they think he’s given it to them or is a bad influence, but in other beds they’re hugging each other and they’ve become family, and even go into AIDS work after their son dies. It was such a moving and terrible experience, seeing these skeletal ghosts, as Armistead Maupin described them, these shadows of humans. An awful thing. It’s amazing how recent and yet how long ago all this was.
Did Russell’s writing ring true?
All of it. I read the script through walls of tears, I just saw all the faces of all these dead friends, the parents, the whole broken promise of it. It’s incredible bad luck that just at the time the gay community was beginning to find confidence and joy and freedom and pride, it should be dealt this staggeringly cruel blow. There’s line in Schindler’s List where Stern is typing up the list of names for Schindler to rescue, hands it to him and says, “this is an absolute good.” An extraordinary line. How many things can you say that about? I feel this series is an absolute good. It’s not preachy. The joy of Russell’s writing is that it’s a full embrace of the real life behind that. It’s not just a glorification of heroic gay people who were victims of society and Big Business and Big Pharma and ignorance and so on, nor is it just having fun. It’s a fantastic mixture. To be part of a Shindler-Davies production is a terrific thing.
How do you think the show’s tone will land with contemporary viewers?
Its tone transcends cultural history. In this show you’re looking at puppies running into a mirror. They’re so full of joy and energy and love for each other, then life bangs them on the head. They only had each other. It’s almost impossible to imagine what AIDS would have been like with the internet and social media. The antiretroviral medication probably arrived at the same time as the World Wide Web, when people like me started getting Mosaic browsers. We forget the astonishing help social media can offer in these times, although they would have proliferated many more conspiracy theories as well, of course.
What role do you think a drama like can add to the conversation around HIV and AIDS?
It’s very important to remember how many millions are still infected today and how many millions have died. The lie has been fully exposed that straight people couldn’t get it – those transmissions rates are gigantic around the world. It’s just a matter of ensuring the medication gets to where it’s needed, which can be very difficult. There are good things – you can take medication now. But because of the population explosion and the way we live, if you let your guard down as far as HIV is concerned, it comes back. And it lets in chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis… The same behaviours that can tamp AIDS down can tamp those down.
The drama understands the complexities of human behaviour too, doesn’t it?
You absolutely can’t criticise it. We all know what it is to be human. In Greek myths we are Apollo – reason, order, harmony, sunlight, knowledge, prophecy, maths, all those gifts, but we’re also Dionysus – impulse, drive, frenzy, addiction, a need to lose control. We all recognise we’re compounded of these elements. There is a beast in us and a monk. That’s what the series shows, the kindness, warmth, reason as they look after each other, particularly Jill, but there’s also the thing that you can’t get the clothes off quickly enough – they throw themselves at each other.
It feels very unusual for an original TV series to place AIDS at the heart of the narrative.
I was making the set laugh with a story about Louis Benjamin, one half of the partnership who owned most of the West End theatres, the Stoll Moss Empire. I was strolling through Soho and bumped into him and I asked him what they had at the Palladium at the moment. “Oh, we’ve got that La Cage Aux Folles,” he said. I’d seen it and loved it, so I asked him why it was coming off and he said, “I tell everybody it’s a lovely family show, a very particular kind of family, very funny, and now this AIDS has come along and suddenly it’s not funny to be queer anymore!” I laughed about that. He had that instinct of what the public felt and in a sense he was right – the jolly, camp, fun, wink and twinkle John Inman thing of being gay was overshadowed. What he said was bruisingly vulgar and strange, but had a point to it – there was a dark side people couldn’t help but think of. People might instantly think a drama on this subject is a downer: grim, grey, sad, worthy. What Russell makes it is deeply, tearingly, laceratingly emotional and tragic, but only because you care so much about the characters. You’ve seen their hope, joy, friendship and silliness, they’re not presented as perfect but you understand and root for them. What happens to them, the inevitability of it and the knowledge we have that it’s coming – it’s like looking at a wonderful beach party and they’re not looking at the sea when there’s a tsunami coming. By the time they turn to see it, it’s too late. We’re not just spectators but participants, we belong to the future that knows what’s going to happen – read that headline more carefully, don’t throw that newspaper away! It’s wonderful writing.
Why do you think this is such an important story to tell, and why now in particular?
One hopes young people who might have almost no knowledge of what AIDS was like in the 80s and early 90s will still see it as an extraordinary story and connect with the characters. I hope it will rekindle an awareness of what that generation went through and how that science has helped with our pandemic now and how these things do get solved. What was learnt in the 80s and 90s in terms of virology and immunology through researching the virus, the counting of T-cells, CBC counts, viral loads, are all in common use through talking about the pandemic. I don’t think we’d have had such a quick vaccine were it not for those astonishing breakthroughs as people raced to find a cure for AIDS. But AIDS is still with us and HIV is still with us and I’m sure that’ll be true of coronavirus too. I hope it takes some of the “us and them” out of our feelings about things. We’re all the same bags of water and chemicals and hormones and blood, we’re all soft machines. Because we’re vulnerable, we have to be social because we don’t survive on our own like cats, but in packs, herds or colonies. If there is a fight in the world, it’s between those who believe it’s our individuality that counts and those who believe it’s our sense of being in a group that counts. I’m in the latter camp. We can only move on from these kinds of crises collectively.