[Spoiler alert: a key development in Channel Four’s It’s a Sin is revealed in this article.]
I have felt a chill of recognition at the emotional terrain laid out in Channel Four’s It’s A Sin. I arrived in London in 1990; Channel 4’s new series ends in 1991 with the death of the central character, Richie, from AIDS-related lymphoma. The particular cadence of excitement, erotics, fear and anxiety that the series rehearses feels hauntingly familiar. I’m watching it in lockdown, anxious for my kids, for older relatives and friends, aghast and angry at the scale of loss and grief. There are multiple emotional resonances between the AIDS and Covid crises. But because of changes in my circumstances and because the trajectory and reach of this new virus are different, my anxiety now is not laced with the sense of shame, sexual uncertainly, and fear that it was then. Though I’m stuck at home, I do not feel embattled in the face of some of the raw hatred then evident in the press and in the streets. And though I’m using an identical emotional vocabulary, the feelings feel different – as their sudden resurgence for me as I watch It’s a Sin suggests. I have a strange sense of feeling two registers of anxiety almost at once – relating to my first and now second experience of mass illness and death.
This sense of the historical and contextual specificity of emotion, and the way it soaks through to later moments, was at the heart of ‘“Archives of Feeling”: AIDS in Britain 1987’, which I published in History Workshop Journal in 2017. This piece was also about the dance of ‘then’ and ‘now’: the longstanding and ‘sticky’ sense of queer shame adhering afresh in the 1980s, and the tumult of fear and hate of that decade resonating through the 2016 contexts of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election in which I was writing. Finding myself gripped by It’s a Sin (haunted by the characters and their fates in sleepless nights after each episode) reinforces my sense that the most compelling histories of emotions often come through the mediation of literature, drama, or film. For me this series touches an emotional pulse that I found hard to pinpoint and render within the parameters and rhetoric of the academic article presented here.
Watching It’s a Sin in the midst of another pandemic encourages comparisons. The differences are huge; this virus is more widely spread and more easily caught. But still it disproportionately affects particular demographics and in ways that expose entrenched health inequalities. This virus, like HIV, has spawned an ‘epidemic of signification’: Trump characteristically harnessed Covid to his poisonous nationalism whilst Boris Johnson touted a wartime British spirit as the country’s death toll spiralled beyond most others. Fear-mongering, denial, loss, grief, loneliness, and depression are circling again. Vaccine nationalism recalls the enduring scandal of the uneven availability of life-saving HIV treatments; both contexts expose the socio-economics and racisms of drug production and access. Epidemiologists who worked on AIDS in its first decades are deploying that hard-won expertise and experience on the heath and public response to the current crisis. Historians and commentators hark back to the 1980s though more frequently to the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918–20. There are obvious reasons for this further reach, and yet it also recalls for me the sting of denial and invisibility. When Covid is described as the biggest pandemic for a century, I’m jolted back to that powerful sense I had in the late 1980s and early 1990s that ‘our’ illnesses and deaths didn’t matter. To date Covid has claimed a horrifying 2.29 million worldwide; AIDS a comparative total of 32.7 million to date.
This is partly why It’s a Sin is so welcome. In the first few years that I was in London, AIDS was most often creatively explored on a small scale and largely for audiences of gay men – in theatres above pubs, one-room exhibitions, and arthouse cinemas. It was affirming for me to be part of those audiences – consolidating a sense of belonging, of difference and of an associated politics. But the very fact that It’s a Sin is so widely available, watched and discussed (and also critiqued – I think rightly – for the way in reproduces troubling gender roles and dynamics) has been for me a catharsis of sorts. It comes as a recognition of grief often felt in suspension, of devastating losses too long overlooked.
Matt Cook is Professor of Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London, and a member of the History Workshop Journal editorial collective. His new book, Queer Beyond London, co-authored with Alison Oram, will be out later this year with Manchester University Press.