When Russell T Davies was a teenager in Swansea, he heard about a gay sauna in Newport. "I used to think, I could go and have lots and lots of sex in that sauna right now. I was 17, I was a virgin. How horny are you at 17? You'd have sex with a letterbox." He thought about the sauna a lot. Eventually, one afternoon in 1980, he travelled to Newport alone, found his way to its door — but at the last moment lost his nerve and walked on by.
"I was too scared to go in." Not because of Aids; the disease hadn't yet been identified. "I was simply scared of men and sex and becoming what I am."
At the time Davies thought he was being a coward. Had he gone inside, he knows he would have discovered sex and loved it, and kept going back. Before long he would have said to himself: "Why not move to London? It's got a million gay saunas!" He couldn't have known what he understands today — that if he had, he would probably be dead.
Had Davies contracted HIV in the 1980s and not survived, British television would look very different. There would have been no A Very English Scandal triumphing at the Baftas in 2019, nor the dystopian drama Years and Years, whose chilling prescience still haunts me. Audiences unaccustomed to seeing explicit gay sex on primetime television would not have been scandalised — or electrified — by his sensational 1999 drama Queer as Folk, about young gay men in Manchester. And 21st-century children would not have grown up loving Doctor Who, as transfixed by Daleks and the Tardis as their parents once were.
Davies arrives in London from Manchester to meet me before the latest lockdown begins. It's quite disorientating to see the man in person — all 6ft 6in of him. He is bearing gifts for my kids and an inexhaustible supply of laughter, his booming Welsh baritone constantly erupting into joyful hoots of mirth. He is without a doubt one of the happiest men I've ever met. What's even more remarkable, though, is the ease with which he can segue from hilarity to tragedy. "I mean," he offers softly, "who walked past me that day outside the sauna in Newport, going the other way? Some other boy did walk in there. And probably died 10 years later."
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first Aids cases in the UK, and Davies always knew he would write a drama about the epidemic one day. "But you're scared of doing it justice." He'd watched the great seminal Aids dramas — The Normal Heart, Angels in America — "And how can you live up to that? So it took me a long time to think of the things that hadn't already been said. There's a great temptation with Aids to fall into that argument of saying, 'All those lives lost — these might have been people who discovered the cure for cancer, they could have been doctors and professors, they could have enhanced society.' " Davies wanted to tell the story, instead, of Aids' unremarkable victims, "who might not have had a huge effect on the world. Their life's destiny was to sit with their loved ones and have a pizza and a laugh on a Friday night. And that's as good and as important a life as someone changing the world. That's why I've made my characters so ordinary."
It's a Sin follows a group of youngsters from the provinces, all based on people Davies knew, who arrive in London in 1981 with little more than high spirits, quick wits and big dreams. Two aspiring actors, a builder, a tailor and a teacher become friends, move into a flat they call the Pink Palace, fall in and out of bed with each other, go out partying together and remind me so much of my own early 20-something circle that when one after another begins to fall mysteriously ill, I wept as if they were my friends.
Davies says parts of his younger self are in all of the characters, but I suspect there's most of him in Ritchie, the fabulously charismatic star who is having the time of his life, sleeping with every man he fancies, when rumours begin to circulate about a new disease killing gay men. To Ritchie it sounds preposterous. How could a disease possibly know he was gay? When activists try to warn him about the risk of unprotected sex, he dismisses them as killjoys trying to spoil his fun. "And that's exactly what I thought," Davies admits. "I thought this is ridiculous, it can't be true. What, a disease that affects haemophiliacs and Haitians and homosexuals — how impossible is that? This is absolute rubbish. I just thought it was nonsense."
Like Ritchie, Davies had endured a sexless, closeted adolescence, knowing he was gay by the age of 11 but telling no one. His parents were teachers, but he didn't enjoy school and lived only for the local youth theatre group. All its actors were gay ("though no one actually said so"), the coolest ones were the campest and Davies fancied them all.
"I loved those boys so much!" he wails, melting at the memory of a blond boy in tight jeans. But the crushes were wistful and chaste — "more like adoration or worship" — and he had graduated from Oxford before he finally came out to his parents and two sisters. "No one exactly fell over with surprise," he chuckles.
By the mid-1980s Davies was living in Cardiff, working in children's television and having a ball. All that repressed desire could finally let rip. So was Aids denial his way of trying to stop the disease ruining the party? "Yes! It felt like life was being spoilt — almost deliberately. But then, of course, it was not long until the deaths started to happen, so you didn't have the luxury of thinking that for very long." The very first man Davies ever slept with died of Aids.
He wants It's a Sin to show us another untold Aids story, too, about why HIV-positive men knowingly infected others. "Very often those people have been for decades portrayed as villains. And monsters. And illegal — criminals in fact. And maybe that's true. They're also very ordinary boys being as stupid and as horny as any boy ever is. And scared. And in denial. I don't want to spoil it, but this is more important than spoilers. It was very important to me that Ritchie is someone who is HIV positive, who knows he's probably HIV positive, but carries on sleeping with men."
Davies has much less sympathy for anyone having unsafe sex today. "One of the reasons why I felt, yes, now is the time to write this show, was a new wave of friends of mine, 54, 55, 56-year-olds, saying, 'Oh, I'm HIV positive now.' And I'm staggered. I'm like … how? I get now that it's a midlife crisis. You break up, you go out, you've forgotten, you're drunk, there's a new boy, there's hot blood, off you go. And it's as though the past never happened. You have sex and suddenly you're HIV positive." An uncharacteristic edge in his voice makes me ask if he's angry with them. "Oh, furious. Jesus Christ, you know, come on!"
Is there ever an excuse to have unsafe sex in 2021? "No! No, no, no, no."
Davies couldn't have known that by the time It's a Sin came out a brand-new virus would be haunting the planet. He worries the pandemic will make the show look "opportunistic, or boring", but it may make some viewers pause to wonder why we could find a vaccine for Covid within nine months but still not one for HIV after four decades. Has that thought already crossed Davies' mind?
"Yes," he agrees pointedly. "Yes, it has." Then again, he thinks the success of antiretroviral drugs played a big part in transforming public attitudes to homosexuality. Until HIV became a manageable condition like diabetes, and no longer a grisly death sentence, he felt that Aids had helped legitimise homophobia. "It was like everything that people said about you became true in the shape of a virus. We became a disease; we became ugly, we became wrong. Dangerous and dirty."
Public opinion has certainly altered unrecognisably since his first big gay drama, Queer as Folk. For a start, no one batted an eyelid in 1999 at straight actors playing gay parts. "It didn't exist as an argument because back then I kind of assumed that we couldn't cast gay actors. There just weren't enough out gay actors." This might sound implausible until you watch the scene in It's a Sin in which Ritchie ruminates with his boyfriend, another promising hot young actor, on the professional imperative to present themselves as straight. The couple trade the names of then-closeted showbusiness stars such as Derek Jacobi. When one names Phillip Schofield, I assume this is a good joke — but it turns out to have been a total accident.
"Gay men always say that a handsome man on television is gay. So in the 1980s we always used to say Phillip Schofield was gay," Davies laughs. "The lawyer [for It's a Sin] said, 'No, you don't need to clear this with Schofield, because he's straight. He's married with children, we don't need to check that.' Only now he's come out! Isn't that weird?"
This time round Davies took great care to cast every gay role bar one with gay actors. The only snag was "you're not allowed to ask when someone comes in to audition. Which is absolutely right. Because the boss of Tesco isn't allowed to ask whether the woman on the tills is a lesbian or not. And that's a good rule. But it's a nightmare once you're casting. People always think I would know if an actor's gay or not, but you don't!"
He is, however, braced for a new critical onslaught. "I know what the response will be, because we live in 2020. The response is going to be: what about the women who died? What about the lesbians who died? What about the children who died? What about the Africans? And I'm rolling my eyes thinking, yes, okay, I accept that. But if I'd written that, they'd say only a lesbian could write that; only an African could write that." He capsizes into gusts of laughter. "So these days there's simply no winning!" Millennials' objection to anyone writing about any identity other than their own makes him snort. "Well, I just ignore that. Having written about a Time Lord going to Mars."
For a fleeting moment I think he's about to pick a fight with woke culture warriors — but in the very next breath he applauds their "activism" for pioneering these debates. He doesn't have a bad word to say about anyone or anything. He can even come up with a positive spin for Covid: "Out of crisis comes great art — and out of that I think great things will come." Seeing my expression he asks, "Do I sound ridiculously positive?" Insufferably so, yes, I confirm. He looks delighted.
"Well, I'm ridiculously positive because the opposite is so easy. It's so easy to say, 'Oh, my life's a nightmare' — and the online world is full of hate, hate, hate. There's so much hate out there, and in everyday conversation as well. There's so many people angry. And we have to fight against it and look for the good stuff. I genuinely believe that. I mean, I can be angry if I'm watching telly and thinking it's shit, and despising writers who are lazy. Oh God, you can see that every night. Rubbish cliffhangers. Rubbish dialogue. But what do I get out of that? What interesting thing came out of what I just said then? Nothing. Look for the good, on the other hand, and you start to get somewhere interesting."
Davies knows what he is talking about, for fate has tested this philosophy with bitter cruelty. By 2011 he had bowed out from Doctor Who in triumph and relocated to LA with his long-term partner, Andrew Smith. For Davies, the new darling of Hollywood, life looked enviably perfect. When Andrew first began to jumble up his words, the couple were puzzled but not sufficiently alarmed to consult a doctor until their next return visit to the UK, when a former neighbour suggested he might as well get a private brain scan. "Just to be sure. Just to be safe." Due to fly back to America ahead of him, Davies was about to check in his bag at Heathrow when his mobile rang. Andrew's news was shattering — he had a brain tumour. Davies turned around, walked out of the airport, and nothing was ever the same again.
The couple had met in 1998 in a gay nightclub in Manchester. It was love at first sight. Andrew was a "gloriously handsome" Customs officer with no clue about Davies' career; "What do you mean, you write?" was his rather puzzled response. Davies adored Andrew's indifference to his success, though they both loved TV and would watch it together endlessly. "We properly laughed," he told the Radio Times in 2018. "We used to laugh night and day."
Following his scan results, Andrew's memory was so dazed and vague that he took two days to remember the nurse had given him a piece of paper. When Davies googled the words on it — glioblastoma multiforme — his heart stopped. "The worst form of brain cancer you could possibly get. Absolutely malignant, stage 4. And I'm sitting there next to Andrew. I literally went, 'I'm just going to do some emails', I went upstairs and I spent about two hours thinking, oh my God, this is the worst, the worst, the worst."
When surgery and tests confirmed the diagnosis, Davies knew Andrew's chance of survival was just 3 per cent. Andrew, however, announced he did not want to know his own prognosis. "I think that's the one thing that kept him alive for eight years. He never knew how bad it was. At no time did he ever think he was dying."
I can't think of anything worse than the loneliness of keeping that secret, let alone the vigilance required to police it, Davies was forever having to "rugby tackle to the door" every well-meaning friend or fellow patient with a grisly anecdote about glioblastoma multiforme. "It became funny in the end. I kind of enjoyed all that. It kept me busy. I had a role."
Caring for Andrew was a full-time job. Davies was with him "night and day", preparing every meal, helping him walk. When I last interviewed Davies in 2013 he had one eye on the clock, concerned to get back from London to Andrew in Manchester; he could never spend a night away, and has described caring for him as "the greatest work I'll ever do on this earth". After Andrew survived seven brain surgeries Davies began daring to hope for a miracle. "To be able to care for him for another 20 years, that would have been lovely."
The end came very suddenly. Andrew threw up one morning and three weeks later he was dead. A hospital mix-up meant it was Davies who had to tell him he was dying. "And I think that's one of the great privileges of my life. It was an honour to be the person saying it. I didn't handle it brilliantly. I started to cry. The first thing he said was, 'I feel sad for you.' That's how selfless he was." He breaks into a grin. "That won't be my first response, let me tell you. I'll be going, me-me-me-me!"
Davies arrived home from hospital that night to find a box. "I'm thinking, what the f*** is this?" Inside was the Golden Rose of Montreux award he'd won for A Very English Scandal. "I thought all awards would never mean anything from now on. I'm standing here with this gold f***ing trophy — and now I've got to make seven calls to tell our family and friends Andrew is dying."
Widowed men often couple up again with startling haste, but when I ask if he's met anyone new he looks at me as if I must be mad. "Oh darling, I can't imagine it. I'm still in that stage of finding it shocking. I mean I could spin all sorts of yarns and say, I'm 57, where are you going to find anyone anyway? Some poor soul who'll watch me take my clothes off — that's a terrible thought. But that's not the problem. The truth is, I'm not looking. I was just so lucky to have that man."
Andrew died at home in October 2018 with Davies and his sister at his bedside, each holding a hand. "And Killing Eve was on the telly. Season one. Sitting there with that burbling away, isn't that strange?" It doesn't sound strange to me at all, though; television has always been the other great love of Davies' life.
"I've only just begun to realise in the past couple of years," he agrees, "that I'm writing dialogue the entire time in my head. I'm doing it all the time with every single piece of conversation ever. When I'm talking to the taxi driver, when I'm sitting on the train on my own, I've got dialogue running through my head that I reshape and re-edit and — and I can see the shape of it. Not like a printed page, but just in my head. I can see the shape of that, I can see the rhythm of it. Twenty-four hours a day. It's always running through my head. And actually when I come to write, the dialogue is the easiest thing in the world. Dialogue rattles out of me."
As we have been talking I've been trying to work out why the dramas he creates move me to tears and make me laugh more than anyone else's. I had thought it must be down to the unswerving authenticity of his writing, but his cheerful collusion in Andrew's denial of death, and practically Pollyanna-ish optimism, imply a rather more pragmatic relationship with truth. The secret of his genius has less to do with the head, I realise, than with the immensity of his heart.
Does his own work ever make him cry? "Oh God! Always sobbing," he nods. In real time, as he writes? "Oh yeah, yes. And I laugh at my own jokes. I sit there howling with laughter. It's why I work so hard. Because I do enjoy my own stuff."
It's A Sin lands on TVNZ OnDemand as a full series on 23 January.