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TV review: It’s a Sin, 54 Days: China and the pandemic, and Spiral

05 February 2021

red production company/channel 4

It’s a Sin (Channel 4, Fridays) follows a group of young gay people in 1980s London

It’s a Sin (Channel 4, Fridays) follows a group of young gay people in 1980s London

IT’S A SIN is the kind of phrase which everyone expects Christians to level at every form of behaviour of which we disapprove, seeing ourselves as God’s mouthpieces, eager to trumpet his condemnation to the world. In my experience, however, almost none of us does so; in our society, Christian views of sinfulness are most clearly defined by those who don’t actually go to church, like tabloid newspaper editors and TV dramatists — musings inspired by Channel 4’s new drama series bearing this title (Fridays) (Online Comment, 29 January).

It follows a group of young people in 1980s London, first, as they revel in the newly achieved liberation of their homosexuality, and then as their lives are devastated by AIDS. It is powerful, moving, and full of wit, pace, and verve. But, despite these glowing positives, I found in the first two episodes some irritating over-simplifications.

Its strong message is that limitless promiscuity, having sex with everybody and anybody, is how life should be lived, and, until the vile plague overwhelmed the scene, was a source of never-ending joy. What I remember of my many gay friends is that their lives of love and lust had a roughly similar quotient of heartbreak and misery as straights’ experience, and that living free of all personal commitment was by no means a guarantee of happiness.

Surely, in at least London church circles, rumours of the new virus in the United States were taken seriously far earlier than the series implies? But, as the drama darkens, a new gravity enters to anchor the effervescence, and I expect that it will grow in depth and meaning.

The first of two programes, 54 Days: China and the pandemic (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) was an immensely sobering account of what happens when control, order, pride, and power rule human affairs. It revealed the Chinese authorities’ shameful initial denial that the illness spreading in Wuhan was anything new, or was person-to-person transmittable.

Their doctors and scientists knew what was happening, but their warnings were suppressed, and they were punished to maintain public order and confidence in the regime. We saw not just the abject moral failure of those in power, but also extraordinary acts of courage by those professionals who defied them, using international online forums to warn and share. Never has transparency and openness been so obviously essential; secrecy and repression literally dealt agonising death, worldwide.

Spiral, BBC4’s greatest Continental import, broadcast the final episode of its eighth series on Saturday, brilliant to the end. Its flawed characters — loyal, manipulative, loving, betraying — bent the law to enforce the law, constantly challenging our sense of justice and morality, and became our best friends and favourite enemies.

Its depiction of the brutal reality of Parisian poverty, squalor, and immigration, and of the exotic power-struggles of a totally different legal system, was endlessly fascinating.

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