It's a Sin star Nathaniel Hall from Stockport opens up about contracting HIV aged 16

  • Report and Article by ITV Granada Reports correspondent Mel Barham

It is the show that everyone is talking about - 'It's a Sin' follows a group of young gay men in the 1980s just when the global AIDS crisis is emerging.

But the conversation goes beyond how great the drama is (and it IS good); it has managed to reignite a topic that was far from at the forefront of the mainstream agenda.

In homes up and down the country - (and soon to be globally when the drama is released in America and beyond) people are talking about a very different virus.

HIV - which elicited so much fear, shame and prejudice back in the 1980s - is now being seen in a new light.

The terrible mishandling of that crisis four decades ago and the stigma that has remained - is highlighted with a real flair by the writer Russell T Davies.

'It's a Sin' follows a group of young gay men in the 1980s just when the global AIDS crisis is emerging.

With the scenes of nurses in PPE and patients quarantined, the show has a strange echo to the world we're living through right now.  Perhaps that has helped strike a chord with some viewers and enabled an empathy that a year ago we may not have had.

But one of the actors - who I met in a cold and wintry park in Stockport - pointed out that the AIDS crisis was very different to the pandemic we're experiencing now. 

Back then, it was the gay community who were completely vilified and made to feel that this was a disease they'd brought upon themselves.

Nathaniel Hall knows all too well about that shame and stigma. His personal story - could well have been a plot in It's a Sin. The actor was diagnosed with HIV when he was 16, and given a life-expectancy of 37.

"To have that (diagnosis) at that age, it was like being hit by a truck, it was really quite traumatic, and I lived in relative silence for about 15 years.

"I didn't tell my family, I only told partners and very few friends until in 2017 I realised that was really impacting my mental health.

Nathaniel didn't tell his family about his HIV diagnosis for 15 years.

The drama is set in London but it was filmed here in the North West. Eagle-eyed viewers will no doubt be able to spot some of the locations - many are around Manchester's Piccadilly.

Writer Russell T Davies - of 'Queer as Folk' fame and 'Doctor Who' - told ITV Granada Reports that he wasn't sure how the show would be received.

He said: "I was looking forward to January thinking how do you sell a drama about AIDS? That's a really tough sell so I'm really delighted that people seem to have grabbed hold of it and run with it and the most important thing is the bigger reaction (to the show), the news that HIV testing rates have soared, and charities say donations are rising and the community-wide response has been gorgeous.

"Looking back a lot of people didn't realise this happened a lot of the straight community is gobsmacked to see people dying around them at the time and they didn't know.

"I think a lot of people did know they just parceled their memories away, there was a lot of shame, a lot of fear, ignorance. and for a younger generation they're watching this open mouthed amazed that these things happened."

That response to the show has translated into a significant rise in HIV testing, according to HIV charity The Terrance Higgins Trust.

Credit: Andrew Perry

But The Proud Trust who run the LGBT+ centre in Manchester say more progress is still needed.

It said: "If you come from a strict community, a closed community, potentially a faith community, you might find things don't feel much different to some of those people in its a sin in the 80s actually you don't feel safe to come out, you're not able to be yourself...and as an LGBT organisation the proud trust we see those people we did then in the 80s and we do now." Amelia Lee, The Proud Trust

In that wintry park in Gatley, Nathaniel tells me he's been blown away by the response to the show.  

He says: "It was really clear, particularly for the LGBT+ community, this was almost like an unhealed wound and we were really allowing people to grieve and express something that hasn't been given airtime in a way that it should be really.

"What I was concerned about was that those scenes where you see people scrub themselves or not want to be with people with HIV or AIDS would allow old myths to resurface but actually what we've seen is this opportunity for re-education - to let people know HIV is a manageable condition, to let people know how they can protect themselves and to tell people the importance of getting tested."

Since going public with his diagnosis in 2017, he has become an HIV activist.

He launched his own show at the Edinburgh fringe about his experiences - he's hoping that will tour in the Autumn - 'If Miss Rona behaves' - he says.

As for his health - thanks to medical advancements, his condition is now described as undetectable.

He takes one pill a day, and his partner takes PrEP, which means he can't pass the virus on.

That prognosis back in 2003 is no longer his reality, and he should live a long and healthy life.

It's certainly a world away from the death sentence HIV once was.

But now that the conversation has been reignited - the hope is that this powerful drama might just help dispel that long-held stigma surrounding HIV and encourage more people to get tested.