It's A Sin was almost never made. It’s creator, Russell T Davies, has revealed that the drama was turned down by several major networks over several years before being commissioned by Channel 4 (cut down from the original eight episodes to five), adding in an interview that the show’s subject – the ’80s AIDS crisis – was ‘tough to talk about’ and he wasn’t sure ‘whether an audience is gonna come to [it] or not’.
And yet when it aired in January, It’s A Sin’s first episode attracted an audience of 3.3 million, and since then millions more people have binged the whole series on All4, making it the channel’s biggest instant boxset ever. It’s clear there is very much an appetite for It’s A Sin after all.
In case you’ve missed it so far, the drama follows Ritchie (played by Olly Alexander), a young gay actor who moves from the Isle of Wight to London in search of his big break. He meets Jill, played by Lydia West, who desperately wants to know more about the disease that’s starting to kill the people she loves, and makes it her mission to do everything she can to support and help those suffering. It resonated. In between glowing reviews and reminders of why the show remains so important, viewers were flooding social media with calls for people to #BeMoreJill. ‘I didn’t realise the impact of Jill’s character until I saw everyone creating the hashtag,’ Lydia tells Grazia. ‘Jill doesn’t do anything for a round of applause or for validation, it’s all from a place of selfless love, and I think everyone can take that into their lives.’
As fans will know, Jill is based on one of writer Russell’s best friends, Jill Nalder, who – in a genius casting move – plays Jill’s mother. Following the reaction, the real Jill reached out to Lydia. ‘I just saw “Jill” pop up on my phone, and I was like, “Jill, who’s Jill?”’ Lydia pauses. “Oh! It’s Jill,”’ she laughs. ‘And I answered. She was like, “Lydia, oh my gosh, I had to reach out, isn’t this mental?” And I told her I’m so happy and so proud.’
Despite living through the crisis, the real Jill was also surprised by the response to her character. ‘She was like, “I’ve been in back-to-back meetings and [doing ] nonstop press and I can’t believe it,”’ Lydia says.
The rest of the cast stay in touch in a ‘Pink Palace’ WhatsApp group. Amazingly, it’s everyone in the Pink Palace’s first big role – Olly has experienced success via his music career in band Years and Years, but primetime TV is another league – so fame of this scale is new to all of them. ‘It’s nice to experience this with some of your best mates, but also people who understand as well,’ Lydia says. ‘We’re all overwhelmed and thankful and grateful and honoured to experience that as a team. And it is very much an ensemble piece.’
Lydia hasn’t been able to watch the series along with the rest of the UK every Friday, as she’s been busy working nights filming Suspicion, a TV thriller starring Uma Thurman. Instead, she’s been watching the series with her sister Rachel – an episode every few days, as Lydia couldn’t take the heartbreak all in one go. Meanwhile, Rachel – a teacher – has had to resist bingeing the whole thing, despite her colleagues asking her about later scenes. That includes Lydia’s most powerful moment – a scene shared with Keeley Hawes, who plays Ritchie’s mum, in the final episode airing later this month, set on the Isle of Wight. ‘They were all talking about the seafront,’ Lydia says, exasperated, ‘and Rachel was like, “What are you talking about? I’m on episode two!”’
Apart from the massive reaction online – the show has been praised by the likes of Michelle Visage and Elton John – Lydia says her life hasn’t changed that much. ‘I’m still going on my walks, and my runs, and to the Co-op to buy my bits,’ she laughs.
Lydia last spoke to Grazia in 2020, when she was named as one of our stars to watch for 2021. She’s already living up to that promise. It’s A Sin might be her big breakthrough role, but more is already on the way. Aside from Suspicion, she’s also finished filming romantic comedy Text For You, in which she stars as a music journalist. Celine Dion also stars, playing herself. But will Lydia ever work with Russell again? It’s A Sin was her second time working with him after 2019’s Years And Years. ‘I hope so,’ she says. ‘I’d take another Russell job in a heartbeat.’
It’s A Sin is on Channel 4 on Fridays at 9pm. All episodes are available on All4.