Creative Sensemaker: Sinful to miss

Thursday 21 January 2021

Welcome to Creative Sensemaker, our weekly guide to all that’s best in culture and the arts – movies, streaming, books, music, galleries and much else


It is more than 20 years since Russell T. Davies established himself as a cultural force with the Channel 4 drama series, Queer as Folk, watched and admired to this day as great television that both captures and transcends the decade by which it was spawned (All 4, BritBox). 

In two seasons – only ten episodes in all – Davies brought to vivid life the gay quarter around Manchester’s Canal Street, with the wit, vigour and sense of dramatic adventure that were to become his trademark in later endeavours (notably, his revival in 2005 of the long-dormant Doctor Who franchise).

Now, Davies returns to Channel 4 with the eagerly anticipated It’s a Sin (January 22), a five-part exploration of gay life in Eighties London that recreates an era characterised by both hedonism and adversity, by endless parties and (all too soon) the horror of AIDS. 

The premise – five 18-year-olds moving to the big city and sharing digs – is familiar enough, but, as one would expect from a writer as subtle as Davies, the true impact of It’s A Sin is to be found in its nuance and exploration of confusion, foible and the juxtaposition of joy and fear. 

It helps that the cast is so excellent – Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Lydia West and Nathaniel Curtis at the core, alongside bigger names such as Stephen Fry, Neil Patrick Harris, Tracy-Ann Oberman, and Keeley Hawes. Like the decade it depicts, It’s a Sin sets out to dazzle.

Yet it is no accident that the title of the series is inspired by the classic Pet Shop Boys single of the same name. This is dancefloor joy overshadowed by bigotry, social stigma and a virus that cost thousands of lives and was routinely described in the tabloid press as the “gay plague”. 

The contemporary resonance is, of course, instant and unmistakable – with the crucial difference that (beyond the initial, disgusting attacks upon east Asian people when Donald Trump and others spoke of “Chinese flu”) the coronavirus pandemic has not generated a culture of persecution. 

HIV most certainly did – a phenomenon contemporaneously chronicled in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the CIty series, Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart (brilliantly revived in Ryan Murphy’s 2014 television movie for HBO) and Tony Kushner’s monumental drama, Angels In America.

With panache, Davies insists that this extraordinary period of liberation and horror be memorialised in unflinching detail. When Queer As Folk made its debut in 1999, the age of consent had not been equalised and the monstrous Section 28, banning town halls from “promoting” homosexuality, was still on the statute books. 

It’s a Sin will be watched by viewers that take equal marriage for granted and expect their children to be taught at primary school about the many forms that a modern family can take. There has been progress. 

All the same, it is worth remembering that, almost four decades since its isolation, there is still no vaccine for HIV. And if our own populist era has a lesson, it is that social progress is more fragile than we imagine – a warning that curls through every scene of Davies’s superb new drama.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to book your place at the first Creative Sensemaker Live ThinkIn of 2021 on Friday, 29 January at 1pm GMT – at which we’ll be talking about the glorious resilience and bright future of the printed book. 

And here are this week’s recommendations:

Read

(To buy any of these books, and browse further, click on the title to go to the Tortoise Book Store.)

Mending the Mind: the Art and Science of Overcoming Clinical Depression – Oliver Kamm (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
The journalist Oliver Kamm is best known for his exquisite writing style, analytic rigour and wise approach to usage and abusage in modern English. This book is a departure to the extent that he explores, in fearlessly personal detail, his own experience of severe clinical depression. What distinguishes Mending the Mind from the now-familiar genre of misery memoirs and recovery books that amount to little more than inventories of affirmation slogans is its cool but compassionate spirit of inquiry. Kamm sets out to investigate what happened to him with invigorating clarity and seeks out the broader lessons for our understanding of mental illness. A remarkable achievement.

Girl A – Abigail Dean (HarperCollins)
The subject of a nine-way auction between publishing houses, and already sold to television, this debut literary thriller packs a psychological punch with its tale of a New York lawyer, Lex, summoned back to England where she grew up in (and escaped from) a “House of Horrors”. Her mother has died in prison and, as executor of the will, she must now renew contact with her scattered siblings. Dean is a lawyer herself, and it shows in her precise, forensic exploration of damaged souls. 

A Burning – Megha Majumdar (Scribner)
Another impressive debut, A Burning takes as its premise the impact that a single social media post can have upon a life. Learning of a terrorist attack near to her home in Kolkata, Jivan, a young Muslim woman, poses the question: “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean the government is also a terrorist?” Her reward is incarceration, awaiting trial. But the book is much more than another fictional reflection on the power of Facebook: its pages are populated with beautifully-drawn characters such as Lovely, a hijra (transgender) tutee of Jivan, who may be able to save her, and PT Sir, her former physical education teacher. Personal treachery stalks this novel, as do the broader themes of cultural dislocation and nationalism.


Watch

Euphoria – Second special episode (Sky Atlantic, January 25)
Sam Levinson’s HBO series was one of the best television dramas of 2019 and sealed Zendaya’s claim to outright stardom. The first of two special new episodes was a riveting two-hander, portraying a conversation in a diner at Christmas between her character Rue and her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo). The second turns the spotlight on Rue’s transgender lover, Jules (Hunter Schafer). “Rue was the first girl that didn’t just look at me,” she says. “She actually saw me. The me that’s underneath a million layers of not-me.” Season 2 – stalled, naturally, by the pandemic – is on its way, but fans of this supremely intelligent show will find plenty here to keep them going.

Snowpiercer (Netflix, January 25)
Inspired by Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 movie, the first season of this television spin-off was a pleasant surprise – true to the original dystopian concept of a 1001-carriage train circling a world reduced to frozen wasteland, but importing some of the elements of traditional police procedural television to make sense of its episodic structure. Season 2 pursues the themes of autocracy, class and Darwinian survival, with Sean Bean in his element as Mr Wilford, the train’s ‘Great Engineer’ and despot, Jennifer Connelly as Melanie Cavill, the Voice of the Train, and Daveed Diggs as Andre Layton, a former detective. 

The White Tiger (Netflix, January 22)
An excellent adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel (2008), written and directed by Ramin Bahrani. “America is so yesterday,” says Balram (Adarsh Gourav). “In the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man… I offer to tell you the truth about India, by telling you the story of my life.” That story is one of ambition versus the chains of caste, and Balram’s journey from the slums of Gaya district, via service as a driver to a wealthy family in Delhi, to the building of his own empire. Comparisons have inevitably been drawn with Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning study of social stratification, Parasite, but the pace and wit of The White Tiger have more in common with Scorsese or a satirical version of Scarface. Highly recommended.


Listen

Suckapunch – You Me at Six
The band’s seventh album marks a thrilling conversion from emo-pop to hard-hitting R&B, rock and electronic music. The title track alone is dancefloor gold and splendidly at odds with the dour spirit of the moment. Though the words “Surrey five-piece” do not lead one to expect such exhilarating musical defiance, Josh Franceschi and co. mean it when they say: “We’re fucked up in a beautiful way”.

Debussy, Chopin, Mussorgsky – Behzod Abduraimovand
The Uzbek-born pianist is renowned for his creativity and imaginative re-interpretation of the familiar. Most striking in this collection is the thread of deeply-felt urgency that runs through the performances of works by three very different composers. “I built this programme on miniatures,” says Abduraimov, “beginning with a kaleidoscope of all kinds of human emotions.” 

Chapter Two – Fridolijn: Tortoise member, Guy Digby, writes:
Fridolijn’s recent release explores the intricacies of relationships with a heartfelt voice that seeps into your soul accompanied by insistent synth beats. These are songs of a darker shade that require reflection. Above all, ‘If your heart were a city’ elegantly captures the emotions of longing and desire through the pure intonations of a voice over a background of Amsterdam’s street sounds. Perfect for our time of solitude.”

Thanks to Guy for that recommendation. Please do send your own in to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Stay safe and take care of yourselves – and each other.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona