‘The way many of these songs have been embraced by queer people is incredible’

It’s a Sin creator Russell T Davies and director Peter Hoar on the 1980s’ uncoolest anthems


Russell T Davies is one of the great auteurs of modern British TV, and he's been shooting for the stratosphere with It's a Sin. This wrenching, provocative and often hilarious chronicle of the Aids epidemic and its impact on the London gay community of the early 1980s – a snapshot of the carefree before times and the devastating aftermath – has just finished on Channel 4, but it's still free to stream in Ireland on All4. Here, Davies and the series' director, Peter Hoar, talk about the music they chose for the five-part series, including the uncoolest anthems of the 1980s, being given the nod by Kate Bush, and how a soundtrack can make or break a story.

Russell T Davies: I really wanted to include songs that were not cool in the 1980s but which I loved. I had the Hooked on Classics album; I didn't think it was high art, but I loved it. But marvellously, for the sex montage in episode one, the song is broken up into sections. And it's not just a sex montage, it's a sex education: Ritchie learns different forms of sex at each stage. He goes from w**king to mutual masturbation, to passive, to active, and then into friendship and love. I think one monolithic track might have flattened that. But, also, I thought it was hilarious. It's a sequence that I wanted to make people laugh. There's a joy and glee to that, which sums up the whole tone of the show.

Peter Hoar: There's such jubilance. I also think that if it had been one track, we would have been told by executives to cut it in half and that it wasn't necessary.

Russell T Davies: We were told to cut it in half! Once a show you have to have an executive strop, and I chose that scene to have my strop over. I did think that I'd played my hand too early, because we had four more episodes to go, but I had my strop on that and we won. And we were right.

Peter Hoar: Absolutely. Without sex we wouldn't have the same story. I particularly like when it gets to the end and it's Ritchie with his friends. The laughter and giggling! I hadn't seen much of that, face-to-face lovemaking with silliness.

Russell T Davies: I remember while I was writing the show and, say a scene was taking place in March 1984, I wouldn't look at March. Instead, I'd go back a few months. It was always more interesting to go down into the Top 30 or Top 40. That's where the most interesting songs were lurking.

Peter Hoar: I chose this song because I wanted to make my mark as the director and set the scene with how I felt the show should look, sound and feel. I went to 1981 and looked at what had been released then. I needed something that sounded like a bit of a release. Also, technically, I wanted something that had a build. Enola Gay starts with this repetitive introduction and then it begins, which is when we let Ritchie free from his home on the Isle of Wight. It felt like the sound of London drawing him in.

Russell T Davies: I loved the fact that you put all these tracks in and I would sit in the edit and think: I wonder if these came out in the right year. I never asked you because I didn't want it to be wrong.

Peter Hoar: But we did have discussions about music. It all costs a lot to put in.

Russell T Davies: We lost a lot of tracks. But a lot of people also worked very hard to get the money to put the songs in there. At one point, we were going to be stripped of an awful lot of them because it was so expensive. The bill was enormous.

Russell T Davies: The scene with this song is about the character Roscoe being as gay as he could possibly be. Again, it's music that was not cool at the time. At the time, if you'd said "I like Hazell Dean" you'd be laughed out of the pub. But I did and I do.

Peter Hoar: Kudos for that song goes to Omari Douglas, who plays Roscoe. I made a playlist on Spotify for the cast and I put everything from the show in it. I added a few choices of my own and told them to bring something to the party. He put that song into the playlist. We live and die on these scenes in TV. It was an eighth of a page and it said: "Roscoe, in a wig, dancing like his life depends on it." That was it. I said to Omari that he should choose the song and to just feel it. It's on screen for eight seconds and Omari just goes for it.

Russell T Davies: I wanted those women in there – the Kelly Maries and the Hazell Deans – because when the Aids crisis came along, they kept coming to the gay clubs. They would turn up and perform at 2am and that was their life for decades. They never abandoned their gay fanbase, they never turned away. They hugged people when you were being told not to. Those women are soldiers.

Peter Hoar: This song is in episode two and it's not a gay anthem. I was looking for something that gave me a little bit of a mood before it kicked in properly. That song came up and the title was perfect. I also felt it had melancholy to it. It was held back and there isn't as much ebullience to it as there is on other tracks. There was reticence in the track. I also wanted to bring in other sounds from the era so that the show had range.

Russell T Davies: Also, just say the title in your head. What a title. It's exactly what's happening. You could call the show Love Will Tear Us Apart.

Peter Hoar: Electronic melancholia is a real thing. The sound of electronica has melancholy to it. There are obvious titles such as [Gary Numan's] Cars, but all of it has something in it that goes a little bit deeper for some reason.

Russell T Davies: The dying fall of a synth.

Russell T Davies: I think this song works because the character of Gregory's name is also Gloria. I love it.

Peter Hoar: Gloria is his name, but I also remembered those types of songs that would get people on the floor: they come on, you look at each other and you're there going crazy. I thought that the Pink Palace would have been on the dancefloor for Gloria every time it came on because of him. That's always going to be there. He might leave them, but they'll not remember that the moment Gloria plays.

Russell T Davies: The sound of it just lifts you. It comes when it's as bad as it can possibly be [in the show], and so you have to be nimble and clever with your choices. You also have to remember that people can switch emotions in half a second. You can always spot bad actors because they take five seconds to change their emotions. A really good actor can just change in a blink of an eye. That's what that song does. It's a game you play with the audience. It launches like a takeoff and you smile.

Russell T Davies: What a glorious song.

Peter Hoar: Obviously, George Michael didn't mean the same then as he does now.

Russell T Davies: It's nice that he's there, though.

Peter Hoar: Being the director, I was lucky enough to know what was coming in episode three with Colin [he gets a job at a print shop and volunteers as an Aids activist with Jill before having a fit and being detained in hospital] and that's why I chose the song. I was playing tricks with the audience. Colin was absolutely at the top of our love chart at that point. We were in love with Colin and him holding his little keys. It's been enormous how people have reacted to him.

Russell T Davies: But it's also true. You don't know what genre you're going to be in on any single day. People do just drop down dead. That's what is so brilliant about the storytelling in this. You don't have a sad track anticipating a sad scene. My drama teacher used to call it playing the result: if it's a sad scene you don't walk into it knowing that it's going to be sad. You don't know what the result is. Disaster comes out of the blue, so play that in the present tense.

Peter Hoar: It was absolutely true for Colin. He has a fit. He has no inkling. All the things that Colin thought that he had at the tailors have been taken away from him and now he's in this little shop printing things out and he adores it. That's his freedom. That's his life and his truth.

Peter Hoar: I knew I was being cheeky putting Kate Bush in. Russell had written [songs] in and everyone knew that as they were in the script and were going to be paid for. Others such as Kate Bush hadn't. But this song felt right. We initially had it over the scene with them all sat around the table. I'm glad it's not there now as the song is saying the same thing as that scene. They're sat there just thinking: we don't know what to do. Jill is taking responsibility, but what can they say? That song is about women and men swapping places, and certainly the idea of taking someone's place is pertinent. It could have been any of them. Ritchie hasn't been perfect, but he's done nothing wrong. He's behaved in a way that he had every right to. It just so happens that in this particular instance there was something else going on and he fell foul of it. He regrets it, as you can see, but he's proud in lots of ways.

Russell T Davies: We took the song off at one point, do you remember? Someone said they weren't sure about it and Peter very kindly took it off. The whole scene fell apart.

Peter Hoar: And then, of course, the wonderful Kate Bush gave Russell permission to use it directly.

Russell T Davies: You do have to ask permission and she doesn't often give it.

Peter Hoar: What is important to say about all the music in the show is that these songs are still being played now. They're still being heard in clubs and pubs. The way that many of them have been embraced by queer people is incredible. These songs weren't written for those reasons, but they now have another life and language to them, which is ours. – Guardian

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