In January, Russell T Davies’ long-awaited LGBTQ+ drama It’s A Sin premiered to overwhelming critical acclaim. The five-part series from the queer visionary follows a group of friends in 1980s London who grow up in the shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander leads the cast as 18-year-old Ritchie Tozer, who moves from the Isle of Wight to the Big Smoke in search of fame and success, with supporting performances from Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Lydia West, Nathaniel Curtis, Neil Patrick Harris, Keely Hawes and Stephen Fry.
It’s A Sin was praised across the board for the cast’s performances, powerful storytelling and for bringing HIV/AIDS to a mainstream audience. A few weeks after its release, All4 announced that it broke a major record as their biggest ever instant box with over seven million streams. It also proved to have a remarkable impact on viewers, with LGBTQ+ charity Terrence Higgins Trust announcing that 8,200 HIV tests were ordered in one day – smashing their previous daily record of 2,800.
It’s A Sin also became the first queer male-focused television production in the UK to utilise an innovative new method of intimacy coordination for its sex scenes. Intimacy On Set, founded by Intimacy Coordinator and Movement Director Ita O’Brien, provides services to television, film and theatre productions that include scenes of sexual content and nudity, to make sure the actors involved aren’t pushed into a place of discomfort.
Ita tells GAY TIMES that her idea for these guidelines came to fruition in 2014, as she researched “the dynamic abuse in our society”. After one of her fellow colleagues at Mountview, one of the UK’s leading drama schools, asked her to teach the method to their students, Ita spent the next three years honing the technique so the entertainment industry could “do intimate content well”. Following various accusations of sexual misconduct aimed at Harvey Weinstein, and the subsequent Me Too movement, Ita’s guidelines were in high demand. Soon after, she landed work as an Intimacy Coordinator on Netflix’s Sex Education and BBC One’s Gentlemen Jack.
“We’re making sure there’s open communication, talking about it right from the get-go, way before the day on-set, putting in place agreement and consent. That’s across the board of touch, nudity and making sure there’s really clear choreography so there’s a physical structure, so all the actors know exactly what they’re gonna do, serve the writing and the director’s vision,” Ita says. “The intention is that nothing is left unsaid; everything’s communicated with clear details. We do our homework so that we make sure we’re honouring whatever the storytelling is and whatever physicality is asked. Then, we can create the best work.”
In the past, Ita reveals that she’s been on several problematic productions where the actors were in “fear” over filming sex scenes, due to a significant lack of “communication” with the director, who failed to outline what the scene should look like and how they should perform. “While they’re putting their clothes on, they’d be shaking. They’d walk on set and wouldn’t know what was going to happen,” she recalls. “Very often, they wouldn’t have even met the person they’re having the sex scene with. They’re told, ‘Get in front of the camera and do it.'” On numerous occasions, Ita would be told by a producer to ‘Check in with the actors, do waivers, stand back and do nothing.’ Ita remembers one specific incident where she attempted to help an anxious actor in the middle of their scene, which resulted in an unnamed, disgruntled director stepping in and shouting, ‘Just let her act it!’
“Before the guidelines, there was this unspoken place where it was like, ‘Everyone does sex, so we don’t need a specialist,’ when it’s actually a body dance. These are two people moving together with a rhythm. It’s just like a tango or a fight,” she states. “There’s a risk, when someone’s intimate and private body is at play, if it’s not done well, they can feel anything from awkward to harassed and downright abused. That impacts, not just someone’s artistry and craft, but their lives.”
Michael Mather, who made his television debut as one of Ritchie’s sexual partners in the premiere, recalls feeling “so stressed” before filming the scene. Once he discovered that It’s A Sin hired Intimacy Coordinators, he felt at ease. “When we got the email after rehearsal, and I found out Ita was on board, I thought it was great. I did know about the guidelines and I heard horror stories, pre-that,” he reveals, before explaining the steps that were implemented pre-filming. “I met Olly because my sex scene was with him, so it was nice to actually sit down in a room and chat about what sex is, because I think a lot of people perceive it in different ways, and talk about what we felt comfortable with, what we didn’t feel comfortable with, and to get to know Olly.
“That was super important to me, because I’m having sex with him on screen. We had another rehearsal, choreographed it, and I think the level of safety I felt on set was second to none, it was top notch. Having that safety allowed me to have freedom to explore my character and all their traits. Knowing that the sex was choreographed and ready to go, it was the least of my worries. Getting naked was a huge worry until I was naked. I was so stressed, but in the back of my mind I was like, ‘I don’t know why I’m stressing so much, because it’s honestly choreographed like a dance, to every single move.'”
As well as knowing his scene partner beforehand, Michael sat down with Peter Hoar, series director, where they discussed their experiences as gay men. “It’s weird to say this, but it was like a family,” he says. “The environment was beautiful. I think because he’s also a gay man and he understands what gay sex is. Because of the understanding he had, it was so easy to work with exactly what he wanted.” According to Michael, set boasted several hair and make-up artists to ensure their bodies were entirely covered, and the scene in question was “rehearsed at different levels of nakedness” to ease the stars into it. “Certain people leave the room, so it’s just the camera guy, Peter and the Intimacy Coordinator. It was so liberating,” adds Michael. “The first moment of taking your clothes off was like, ‘Holy shit.’ We did the first take and I thought, ‘I could do this all day!’ It was fabulous. It was safe and controlled. We were so supported by the team.”
Because set was such a comfortable – and joyous – environment for Michael, he thinks this is reflected in how the audiences perceive It’s A Sin’s sex scenes. “Watching it on screen, you look at it and go, ‘That looks like so much fun.’ That’s what Russell and Peter have been so incredible at creating. Gay sex is fun. Being a gay man is fun! It was a moment that I’ll never forget, and I’m so gassed to be part of this historic programme – with my bum on the screen!” Ita agrees: “Historically before now, we as an audience were squirming because we feel for the actors personally squirming while they’re doing the scene.”
Michael admits that he would’ve been “lost” without an Intimacy Coordinator on set. Knowing that professionals such as Ita will be assisting actors in future with similar scenes, the rising star doesn’t wanna slow down. “As soon as I did that scene, I came out and rang my agent saying, ‘Basically, get me anything that’s sexy!'” Ita chimes in: “Now, actors who have experienced an Intimacy Coordinator can see intimate content on their next production and go, ‘Great, please can I have an intimacy coordinator?’ The industry now has to listen.”
Although Michael jokes that he was in It’s A Sin “for a minute,” he says the series is the proudest moment of his career (so far), due to the series’ unprecedented impact on LGBTQ+ viewers. Again, Ita agrees. The story of It’s A Sin is one she can highly relate to due to her musical theatre background in the 80s, her experiences with queer friends contracting HIV, and her Jill-esque allyship in the 90s, where she provided holistic therapies to those with HIV and AIDS for a charity. “After reading the script, I was just blown away. I was so honoured for Intimacy On Set, for myself, Elle McAlpine and David Thackeray to be able to put all of Russell T Davies’ incredible writing to life,” she says. “It’s an absolute honour to be part of this production. It is, rightly, held up there as an amazing piece of art. What I also love is the honouring of those who lost their lives to HIV. The fight’s not over yet.”
All five episodes of It’s A Sin are available to stream right now on All4. For more information about Intimacy On Set, visit their official website here.