openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Pissing in Thatcher’s coffee is not enough

'It's a Sin' is a joyous tribute to 1980s queer protests – but it breezes over how the era made protest harder for today's activists

Christopher Silver
11 March 2021, 12.00am
Channel 4's 'It's a Sin' is a moment of triumph for its portrayal of queer lives in the 1980s
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Channel 4

The critical and popular success of Russell T Davies’ ‘It’s a Sin’ is a moment of triumph for its portrayal of queer lives on screen – with its kaleidoscopic dramatisation of a now distant world of taboos, liberation, injustice and solidarity.

But behind the hedonism and heartache lies a troubling subtext about the structural forces that re-shaped Britain in the 1980s – forces that have made the pursuit of youthful, radical, experimental lives, and grassroots direct action ever more elusive.

The show, which Channel 4 this month announced had been the “most binged” ever on the broadcaster’s streaming service, offers moments of brilliantly subversive spectacle. In one scene, its gang of loveable misfits engage in a pitched battle with that great symbol of 1980s Britain: the comically under-equipped but brutal cop. Helmets are knocked off and the show’s heroes are shoved in the back of a meat wagon. Just before the credits roll, protagonist Ritchie reveals his HIV-positive diagnosis – and his determination to live.

Then, as now, protest can be both solemn and theatrically absurd, and easily derided. But it is often also a visceral struggle for survival.

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‘It’s a Sin’ is a necessary tribute to the resilience of community and the vitality of a struggle against a state that met sickness with ignorance and prejudice. It reminds those of us who grew up under the shadow of the homophobic legislation Section 28, but came of age at a moment of growing acceptance, of the most radical message of all – that rights are not handed down, but must be fought for and defended.

Had Ritchie and his friends faced off against the state today, they would find the balance of power dramatically altered. Political organising has been constrained by the increased surveillance, infiltration and criminalisation powers introduced in the intervening decades. But perhaps even more significant, young activists today face punitive employment, housing, welfare and credit-rating systems that can result in potentially lifelong consequences for stepping out of line. Where clumsy censorship and police brutality once sought to constrain activism, today the vast growth in personal debt often precludes the practice of radical risk-taking in the first place.

The world portrayed in ‘It’s a Sin’ was made possible by student grants, squats, cheap rents and a relatively generous social security system

The world portrayed in ‘It’s a Sin’ was made possible by student grants, squats, cheap rents and a relatively generous social security system. The freedom and creativity that they afforded opened up the space for the development of queer lives in a thousand ephemeral venues, magazines, performances and protests. And these factors – though barely referenced in the show – provided the backdrop for resistance against the Thatcher government’s rampant homophobia.

But the show takes an uncomfortably breezy approach to the rise of inequality that defined life for many during that fateful decade.

This is exemplified in the fourth episode, when Ritchie and the show’s co-hero Jill become landlords after securing a mortgage on the ‘Pink Palace’ – the shared flat that brings the characters together. At one point, Ritchie and Jill jest about their new relationship with the rest of the crew around the kitchen table.

“We’ll draw up proper contracts and all that stuff… We’ll be ruthless,” they proclaim.

“Hm, my cruel landlord… I like it,” respond their soon-to-be tenants.

This strange fetishising of exploitation from Russell T Davies, the show’s 57-year-old creator, may simply be a moment of intergenerational detachment. But you wonder how the cast of 20-somethings felt voicing those lines, given how rent immiserates so many young people today in London and all over Britain.

The risk is that the bitter struggles of the 1980s become historicised as a great moderation – one in which cultural and personal liberation are presented as a mirror to the process of economic liberalisation and the restoring of power to capital, even as crucibles of sexual freedom and wider forms of experimentation are exiled from British cities.

The original intent of the project of a property-owning democracy – “to enable every worker to become a capitalist”, in the words of Anthony Eden – becomes the logical narrative end point. It is how the characters ‘grow up’. The cut and dry resistance evoked in ‘It’s a Sin’ becomes impossible: bonds of community and solidarity are replaced with incentives to exploit.

Today, almost everyone knows a landlord, and thus to seek political alternatives is to attack members of your immediate social network and community.

Thatcherism’s lasting stain

Ritchie confesses he voted for Thatcher. His declaration comes in a scene on the absurdities of implementing Section 28 – the notorious anti-gay education legislation that Thatcher introduced, pitching it as a culture war against “hard-Left education authorities” and “extremist teachers” accused of teaching children that “they have an inalienable right to be gay.”

And Thatcher is worshipped by another character: the ambitious, closeted Tory MP, Arthur Garrison, played by Stephen Fry. In a hilarious set-piece, Garrison enlists his lover Roscoe as a useful “coloured” face at an event; all part of a scheme to win “The Lady’s” favour. Riled by Garrison’s hypocrisy, Roscoe pisses in Thatcher’s coffee moments before it is delivered. Sadly, the scene cuts before we can establish whether she drinks her fill.

The show is a reminder that we are stuck in a cultural loop – children of that ghoulish, magnetic, lady

Thatcherism is easily reduced to its iconography, and to flashpoints of cultural memory. Perhaps all that dramas likeIt’s a Sin’ can hope for is to leave a bitter taste on the collective palate. Perhaps it is too much to expect them to expose the lasting stain of Tory bigotry on British society, or to question Thatcher’s ideological triumph.

The show is a reminder that we are stuck in a cultural loop – children of that ghoulish, magnetic, lady. We are encouraged to celebrate the cultural and moral victories of that decade’s radical struggles while conceding defeat to the logic of self-interest that has defined Britain ever since. Even in works of fiction; there is no alternative to the allure of new affluence, wealth and status. Like the Pink Palace, sites of radical imagination become mere financial assets, friendships become contracts, exploitation becomes virtuous.

At its best though, ‘It’s a Sin’ ­­is a drama about decent people resisting the day-to-day brutality of her government – one that shows how barriers of class, privilege and status can be overcome through shared struggle.

Pissing in Thatcher’s coffee is not enough. The only fitting tribute to her government’s many victims – poor, queer, Black, young, old – is to dismantle the system she created by brick by brick.

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