It’s December 2019, and NME is on the set of It’s A Sin, where it’s the early 1980s. The breathtaking five-part Channel 4 series from TV supremo Russell T Davies follows a group of young gay friends living, loving and dying through the Aids crisis. Across the floor, star Olly Alexander is all trademark open-hearted charm: hugging visiting journalists and flashing his winning, toothsome grin. Dressed in a toga, the Years & Years frontman is preparing to shoot one of the show’s many party scenes inside a dilapidated old high school on the outskirts of Greater Manchester – here doubling as the mates’ hedonistic shared digs, ‘The Pink Palace’. We’re talking aggressively beige wallpaper, theatre poster-adorned walls, and kitsch flourishes such as a plastic shark on the wall.
Alexander, who’s known as both a dynamic pop star and a powerful voice on LGBTQ+ issues, is clearly in his element. The other day, he filmed a scene set in the gay nightspot Heaven (but in reality shot in Manchester’s Gorilla – a venue he’s played before), dripping with perspiration and glitz. “There were 100-or-so extras dancing to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ as I snaked through this crowd, making out with random people,” he beams. “It was amazing to think what it must have been like then.”
Though he’s 30, Alexander is boyish enough to play Ritchie, who we meet as a closeted 18-year-old, days before he ditches small-town life on the Isle of Wight for the bright lights of London. Once there, he finds kinship with Roscoe (Omari Douglas), whose Nigerian family effectively disowns him; shy Welsh teenager Colin (Callum Scott Howells), introspective drama student Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) and fellow aspiring actor Jill (Lydia West). Together, they throw themselves into their newfound freedom, running circles around nights that never end. But in the bars and clubs, there are whispers of a new “gay plague”.
Most dramas about the Aids crisis focus on the pain and suffering involved. It’s A Sin is devastating, with scenes that haunt you long after the credits roll, but it’s also a bold, outrageous, funny, vibrant celebration of gay life – complete with banging ‘80s soundtrack including Soft Cell, OMD and Wham! Oh, and there’s a ton of joyous shagging too. The toga is perhaps appropriate, because Alexander has enough graphic carnal scenes to raise eyebrows in the Court of Caligula. It’s something he found unexpectedly tough to film.
“I had three full days of sex scenes, so I had a lot of guys to get through!”
“Going into the show, I thought: I’m a confident person, I perform for a living, I like sex – this will be easy,” he says. However, when it came to workshopping the scenes with an intimacy coordinator, who makes sure actors are comfortable while filming scenes of rumpy-pumpy, it was challenging. “I had three full days of shooting sex scenes, so I had a lot of guys to get through with this process!” he laughs. “And I actually had a complete emotional and physical breakdown in the first rehearsal session. I went to the intimacy coordinator and said: ‘I can’t do this’. I just had a really violent reaction to trying to simulate sex.
“But they really held my hand in the process and in the end, I really enjoyed it. I laughed the whole time. When we were shooting the scenes, I was singing songs in between and making jokes. Because it’s ridiculous that you’re at work suddenly with all your clothes off making noises.
“I really underestimated how difficult it would be but I’m so fucking proud of myself. After I did it, I felt like I literally could do anything.”
It’s a level of confidence he didn’t always enjoy. As a teenager, Olly was mercilessly taunted with frequently homophobic insults. Eventually, he found sanctuary in acting. “When you’re in a drama club, that’s your time to shine,” he says. “And the rest of the time at school, I was bullied. The only time I felt good was when I was performing because suddenly I was good at something.”
Similarly, he found succour in Queer As Folk – Russell T Davies’ turn-of-the-millenium tale of life on Manchester’s Canal Street – which introduced rimming to TV audiences and taught more teenage boys to wash their own sheets than the Daz Doorstep Challenge. Alexander would watch it in secret: “It helped shape me as a gay man.”
“‘Queer As Folk’ helped shape me as a gay man”
After studying at the Hereford College of Arts, the parts came thick and fast. He got jobs on TV shows like Skins, The Riot Club and God Help The Girl, and also trod the boards with Judi Dench (the veteran actor even cameoed on Years & Years’ 2019 album ‘Palo Santo‘) and Ben Whishaw. But he was forced to give up acting when Years & Years – the chart-topping pop trio he joined in 2010 – took off, winning the influential BBC Sound Of poll in 2015. He wasn’t actively looking to return to telly, he says: “But then my agent mentioned this and it was too good to pass up – and fortunately, the stars aligned so I could do it.”
It’s easy to see why Alexander jumped at the part. While most Aids dramas are written from the point of view of the activists who were bravely at the stormfront, It’s A Sin celebrates the thousands of fun loving boys who were left grappling to make sense of the senseless, while authorities and the public found it easier to look the other way.
For Alexander, it was also a chance to confront a disease that had terrified him in his fledgling years. “I remember being scared that if I had sex, I would get HIV,” he says. “That was something that was always in my mind; this anxiety that it could happen. There’s such a huge amount of shame that surrounds our sexuality, but the issue of what it means is something we’re still unpacking now. There’s still so much stigma.”
Section 28 – Thatcher’s notorious legislation that banned the promotion and teaching in any school of “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship” – was not repealed until 2003; when Alexander was 13. So the first time he was aware of Aids, it was as a cruel jibe in the playground.
“I remember being scared that, if I had sex, I would get HIV”
“I just knew it was connected to gay people and it would be used as the butt of jokes. There was an episode of Family Guy with a song and dance routine called ‘You’ve Got Aids’ and that was sung at school. And you know,” he sighs, “I joined in. At the time, I didn’t understand the way it made me feel or my own sexuality. I was just afraid of going anywhere near that.”
Unsurprisingly, he’s a fierce advocate of LGBGTQ+ positive education at school. “When I was younger, there was a real willingness to gloss over the whole period of the Aids crisis. There was no mention of gay people in my school anyway, so there was nothing inclusive in the syllabus. When I got older, part of my self-discovery as a gay man is reconciling what this whole Aids epidemic really means; and what it means to my identity and my community. As gay people, we’ve inherited this massive trauma – and one I was scared of even delving into.”
Despite being set in the 1980s, It’s A Sin boasts the very 2020s concern of having all of the gay male characters played by gay actors, as is a lot of the behind-the-scenes talent, including the writer, director and producer. Did it change the energy on set?
“It felt different to me,” says Alexander. “I’ve never had an experience working on a set like that. As a queer person, I’m often in situations where I’m in the minority compared to straight people. That’s not to say I’m uncomfortable in those situations, but doing something where it’s primarily a queer team I felt like: ‘Gosh, I don’t have to censor myself at all. I can be as camp as I want’.”
“I didn’t have to censor myself – I could be as camp as I wanted”
A year later when I catch up with Alexander, via Zoom from his home in London, a different virus is on everybody’s minds. There are no hugs. The spectre of COVID-19 looms over everything, giving the show a timely feel. In one scene, Ritchie delivers a speech, in full pomp, about the ridiculousness of the idea of a “gay cancer” and dismisses Aids as “a racket – a money-making machine for drugs companies.” It’s a diatribe that mirrors the anti-masker conspiracy theorists of today.
While he caveats that COVID and Aids are different, Olly couldn’t believe that six months earlier, he’d filmed a scene where he said “almost the exact same lines as were being said about this new virus.” He adds: “It blew my mind. I spent a lot of time thinking: ‘Wow this is wild. I can’t believe this is happening’.”
It’s A Sin has even bled into Years & Years’ upcoming third album, says Alexander, after he scrapped an entire album’s worth of songs. “The pandemic happened and I went back to square one and just wanted to make a lot of upbeat, euphoric dance tunes,” he says. “That’s what I’ve been focused on the majority of 2020 doing. Definitely the show had an impact on that. Although I don’t think it’s going to sound ‘80s, I’m trying to channel that energy and dancefloor transcendence.”
Alexander should clear a space on the mantelpiece for a BAFTA because It’s A Sin is just as transcendent. It shows that behind every death statistic was a joyous, funny, beautiful person whose life shouldn’t be defined by their demise. “There’s not been a drama about this period made in the UK on this scale ever,” says Alexander proudly. “It’s all those things Russell [T Davies] does so well. It makes you laugh and cry. It makes your heart break as well as growing three sizes bigger. When I watched it, I bawled my eyes out and I knew everything that was going to happen but it was still so emotional and joyful.”
He won’t be the only one weeping when the show finally airs this week. It’s full of harrowing details that you’ll lose sleep over, while still remaining defiantly jubilant. For Olly’s teenage fans, It’s A Sin may prove as life-changing and educational as Queer As Folk did for him 23 years ago. He’s right to be proud.