TV review: It’s A Sin

It’s 1981 and a group of young people are on their way to embark upon a new life in London in Russell T. Davies’ new five-episode Channel 4 drama.

Escaping a fairly loveless home environment on the Isle of Wight, Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) is soon having the time of his life in the capital. Good-looking and confident, he is free to enjoy the delights of the capital’s thriving gay scene at night while pursuing bit parts as an actor in the likes of Doctor Who during the day. He soon befriends Jill (Lydia West, who appeared in Davies’ previous drama, Years and Years), who is also hoping to tread the boards. Colin (Callum Scott Howells), meanwhile, is gay too, like Ritchie, but a tamer character who has moved from Wales to work at a tailor’s. He is soon being forced to politely resist unwanted sexual overtures from his married male boss. Finally, Roscoe (Omari Douglas), another live wire, has been forced to flee his family home after his family threaten to send him to Nigeria because of his homosexuality.

All of these characters and a number of others soon converge and become friends in London. As the series moves through the next decade, all also see their lives seriously impacted by the spread of AIDS.

This is clearly very serious subject matter indeed and it would be wrong to pretend that watching It’s A Sin isn’t a powerful, hard-hitting, harrowing and overall, very moving experience. At the same time, Davies doesn’t forget to show that at least initially life for these twentysomethings as they go out, get jobs, make friends, live together, go clubbing, get drunk, go on the pull and generally experience adult life for the first time is lots of fun. This is something many of us will be able to relate to regardless of whether we are young or old, gay or straight or can remember the 1980s ourselves or not. The soundtrack is also amazing. Putting 1980s songs in a TV drama is hardly an amazingly original idea but songs such as Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, Freedom by Wham!, REM’s Everybody Hurts and yes! It’s A Sin by the Pet Shop Boys (many although not all of them performed by artists who whether we knew it or not at the time were gay themselves) are deployed very effectively.

It’s easy to forget how far social attitudes have progressed in the thirty or forty years since the show’s 1980s setting. None of the main characters feel able to tell their families they are gay with the end result that when many of them do contract AIDS their families discover that their children are both homosexual and potentially mortally ill almost simultaneously. Initially, there is a terrifying mystery about the disease. One fairly minor character goes to his grave early on, apparently at a complete loss as to why he and his partner seem to have both contracted cancer at the same time. Another is so ashamed by his condition that he won’t tell anyone he has it. Following his death, his family not only cover-up the cause of his demise but attempt to destroy any evidence that he ever existed. Even as liberal and well-intentioned character as Jill is sufficiently worried about her AIDS-infected friend drinking out of one of her mugs that she destroys it afterwards. The information simply wasn’t available then.

The myth that AIDS exclusively affected only the homosexual community persisted for far too long to, hindering progress partly because many authority figures clearly felt many victims to some extent deserved their fate simply because they were that way inclined. In one memorable sequence, talking straight to camera, Ritchie articulates his own reasons for believing the AIDS virus to be a myth dreamed up by a homophobic media. Such conspiracy theories, of course, foreshadow those who persist in claiming in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t exist today. If anything, although we know Ritchie’s argument is no less bogus than they are, Ritchie does present a better argument for his disease not existing than they do.

Ultimately, with an excellent supporting cast including Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry, Tracy Ann Oberman, Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley, It’s A Sin is a worthy companion piece to Russell T. Davies’s earlier series Queer as Folk and Cucumber. January is barely over yet this may well prove to be the best British TV drama of 2021 along with Russell T. Davies’s greatest ever masterpiece.

All episodes of It’s A Sin can be viewed now on All 4. It is also being broadcast n Channel 4 every Friday at 9pm.

Book review: Soupy Twists! by Jem Roberts

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Soupy Twists!: The Full Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Fry and Laurie, by Jem Roberts. Published by: Unbound

It has now been thirty years since the TV debut of ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’. This news should be ample cause for celebration in itself. Running for four series between 1987 and 1995, the show was occasionally patchy, in common with every sketch show ever made (yes, even The Grumbleweeds) and ran out of steam before the end. The “yuppie businessman” sketches, generally featuring an over-use of the word “damn” often seemed to run on forever.

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But dammit Peter, thanks largely to the formidable combined intellect of comedy’s foremost Steve and Hugh (no offence, Punt and Dennis), A Bit of Fry and Laurie was far more often good than bad.

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Consider: the song “Kicking ass,” a parody of US foreign policy values which concludes: “We’ll kick the ass of cancer and we’ll kick the ass of AIDS,
And as for global warming, we’ll just kick ass wearing shades. We don’t care whose ass we kick, if we’re ever all alone, We just stand in front of the mirror, and try to kick our own.”

Or Fry: “I think it was Donald Mainstock, the great amateur squash player who first pointed out how lovely I was.”

Or Laurie: “Then I was Princess Anne’s assistant for a while, but I chucked that in because it was obvious they were never going to make me Princess Anne, no matter how well I did the job.”

Or Fry’s: “I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

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Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jem Roberts’ excellent book reminds us just what a formidable body of work the talented duo have produced together: Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder (including the famous scene in which Fry’s Iron Duke punches Laurie’s Prince Regent repeatedly), countless TV adverts specifically for Alliance and Leicester (“Mostin!”), their early Young Ones appearance, operating the celebrity gunge tank on Comic Relief, Peter’s Friends and much much more. Roberts also fully covers their formidable solo careers including Laurie’s spell as the highest paid TV actor in the world, in the long running House, probably the only thing many overseas readers seeing this will know him for. Fry has, meanwhile, appeared in everything from IQ (a 1995 movie comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein) to QI. His intense overwork was, of course, symptomatic of problems that would lead to the Cell Mates debacle in 1995.

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Laurie and particularly Fry’s lives have, of course, been well-documented already: as a writer on the history of Blackadder and a biographer of Fry’s slightly older technology-obsessed friend, Douglas Adams, Jem Roberts has written about the boys before himself. He deserves all the more praise then for shedding new light on them – and uncovering and reproducing many new unused A Bit of Fry and Laurie scripts – in this fresh, thoroughly enjoyable and engaging biography of Britain’s brightest ever comedy partnership.

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In praise of Blackadder the Third

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This article (written by me) has been reproduced with the kind permission of Chortle. It first appeared in 2012.

‘I want to be remembered when I’m dead. I want books written about me. I want songs sung about me. And then, hundreds of years from now, I want episodes of my life to be played out weekly at half past nine by some heroic actor of the age.’ (Edmund Blackadder, Dual and Duality).

It has now been a full quarter-century since the first screening of Blackadder The Third. Under normal circumstances, the anniversary of the third series of anything would not be a cause for comment. Yet Blackadder is not a normal programme and the third series alone must rank as one of the best sitcoms of the Eighties in its own right.

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Continuing the slow social decline of the Blackadder family (from 15th Century royalty in the first series to a 20th Century Army officer by the fourth), Blackadder the Third, sees Edmund (Rowan Atkinson again) reduced to the role of butler to the idiotic foppish Prince Regent played by the then still-up-and-coming twenty-something Hugh Laurie. Despite having played two different roles in Blackadder II, as the drunken innuendo-obsessed Simon ‘Farters’ Partridge (‘Sounds a bit rude doesn’t it?’) in the acclaimed series 2 episode, ‘Beer’ and the cast’s Teutonic nemesis Mad Prince Ludwig in the final episode ‘Chains’ (‘Yes! I was one of the sheep!’), Laurie was reportedly tremendously nervous about taking on the part.

It’s easy to see why. The standard set by the second series had been incredibly high and with the regular cast slimmed down (Miranda ‘Queenie’ Richardson and Tim ‘Lord Percy’ McInnerny appear in only one episode each in new roles), a lot of weight was on Laurie and Atkinson’s shoulders, even with the excellent Tony Robinson returning as Baldrick (or rather ‘Mr S. Baldrick’). The introduction of a new character, pie-shop proprietor Mrs. Miggins (Helen Atkinson-Wood), a character referred to in Blackadder II but never seen, frankly doesn’t help the series much.

Thankfully, virtually everything else does. Hugh Laurie is perfect as Prince George, a good-natured, if lazy and spoilt clot who seems incapable of recognising his butler’s insults even when he says them directly to his face. The part would in fact be the perfect preparation for perhaps Laurie’s most successful Nineties role as Bertie Wooster, opposite a less hostile servant.

This is still not the best series of Blackadder, a position which still belongs to Blackadder II. Historically, it’s a bit confused – George is repeatedly referred to as the Prince Regent, a position he didn’t hold until 1811, by which time he was corpulent and in his fifties. Yet virtually everything else in terms of costumes and references suggests this is set in the 1780s or 1790s, while Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, the subject of one episode, was published before the Prince was actually born.

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Despite a few good lines and an excellent cameo by the late political reporter Vincent Hanna, the opening election-themed opening episode is perhaps also bit iffy by Blackadder standards. A few episodes also rely a bit too heavily on fictional versions of real characters such as Dr. Johnson (Robbie Coltrane) and the Duke of Wellington (Stephen Fry) being homicidal maniacs. They were not.

Happily, though, most of the series is sublime, reaching a peak with the brilliant closing episodes ‘Amy and Amiability’ and ‘Dual and Duality’. Blackadder’s run-in with a squirrel-hating highway woman and a memorable scene in which Hugh Laurie’s Prince is repeatedly punched make up two of the best Blackadder episodes ever produced.

And (is a spoiler alert necessary 25 years on?) the series uniquely sees a happy ending for Blackadder himself, with the butler rather confusingly replacing George as heir to the throne. Are we to assume all subsequent royals are in fact descended from him?

It hardly matters. What’s undeniable is that this remains one of the finest British sitcoms ever produced.

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Read more: Third time’s a charm… : Correspondents 2012 : Chortle : The UK Comedy Guide

In defence of Blackadder

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The year 2014, as every schoolboy knows, marks an important anniversary. It is twenty five years since the final series of perhaps the best British sitcom of all time, Blackadder: Blackadder Goes Forth.

It is a shame then, that some have used another anniversary (the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War) to attack the much loved series.

Unpopular Education Secretary Michael Gove is only the latest to do so, launching a broadside at the sitcom during a wider attack on “left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders” in The Daily Mail.

“The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite,” Mr. Gove has written.

Gove seems to have thrown Blackadder into the attack almost as an afterthought. Blackadder is not , after all, a “drama”. Watching the series again, it is difficult to understand what he is on about.  It is hard to see where, for example, he feels Blackadder “excuses Germany of blame” for the war.

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Presumably, he is unhappy with the portrayal of the real life Field Marshall Haig by Geoffrey Palmer in the last episode. At one point, Haig is shown callously brushing “fallen” toy soldiers off a replica battlefield with a dustpan and brush. The Education Secretary also doubtless dislikes Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the buffoonish General Melchett.

“We’re right behind you!” Melchett reassures Baldrick (Tony Robinson) as he sets off for the Front.

“About thirty five miles behind you,” Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) responds dryly.

Gove points to new revisionist histories which he says paint both the role of Haig and the merciless slaughter of the Battle of the Somme in a new light. But it is unfair to attack Blackadder for this. Not only were these new interpretations not around in 1989 when the series was made but they are highly questionable anyway. Gove argues that the Somme which occurred in 1916, more than two years before the end of the war in November 1918 can now be viewed as a “precursor to victory”.

It is worth remembering that on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme, British fatalities alone were close to twenty thousand, seven times the entire number of deaths from the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. And not a single British General died on the Somme.

Although the Daily Mail has captioned pictures surrounding Gove’s words with phrases like “Captain Coward” for Blackadder himself, this is unlikely to be a view shared by many who viewed the programme. The series, of course, ends with all the main characters charging wilfully towards death on No Man’s Land. They know they are probably going to die, but proceed anyway. What on Earth is cowardly about that? Gove argues that: ”For all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.” Nobility and courage? Don’t the deaths of Captain Blackadder, Lieutenant George, Captain Darling and Private Baldrick perfectly exemplify these qualities?

Attacking popular culture rarely works out well for politicians. Michael Gove’s botched attack on Blackadder is no exception.

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