'It's A Sin' — the British cultural references a US audience should know before watching the hit drama on HBO Max

The poster for It's a Sin on HBO Max.
The 'It's A Sin' gang from 1980s London. (Image credit: WarnerMedia)

British series It’s A Sin finally hits the US, when it lands on HBO Max from 18 February. From the Queer As Folk and Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davies, the highly emotional series follows a group of young friends in London at the height of the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis. It was immediately hailed by UK audiences as a TV gem after its launch on Channel 4 and All4 in January. 

Starring Stephen Fry, Keeley Hawes and Years and Years singer Olly Alexander, as well as American star Neil Patrick Harris, the five-part series features plenty of nods to British culture that might leave some American audiences searching Google for explanations. So here’s our handy guide to some of the notable cultural references from It’s A Sin.

Who is Gladys Pugh?

One of three main It’s A Sin characters, shy gay Welsh lad Colin (played by newcomer Callum Scott Howells), is given the nickname Gladys Pugh by his housemates. Gladys Pugh, also from Wales, was a character in the classic comedy Hi-de-Hi!, which aired on BBC1 from 1980 to 1988. 

Set in the 1950s, the British sitcom followed the goings-on at the fictional Maplins holiday camp and Gladys (played by Ruth Madoc) was the camp’s radio announcer, famous for her dulcet Welsh tones. See Gladys making an announcement in a Hi-de-Hi! clip below…

Who were Isla St Clair and Larry Grayson?

Isla St Clair is a Scottish singer and actress, who became a household name when she co-hosted classic British gameshow The Generation Game with Larry Grayson from 1978 to 1981. The late Larry Grayson was a much-loved ultra-camp comedian and a true grannies' TV favourite. His big catchphrase was to say "Shut That Door!". In It’s A Sin, Ritchie (Olly Alexander) discovers the gang have nicknamed one of his boyfriends Isla St Clair, as they think he looks similar. Thus Ritchie gets nicknamed  Larry Grayson. Here’s lovely clip of Larry and Isla from The Generation Game back in the day…

Where to watch It’s A Sin’ in the US.

There are five 60-minute episodes of It's A Sin which will be shown in America on HBO Max from February 18, having already been aired in the UK on Channel 4 and the On Demand service All4.

Mrs Thatcher and her significance to the gay community.

Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990. Leader of the right wing Conservative party, her politics on gay issues were incredibly divisive. It was under her government that Section 28 (see below) was brought in, while her response to the AIDS crisis was also thought to be inadequate. At the Conservative party conference in 1987 she made a speech now seen as a very anti-gay rights. 

What was Section 28?

There are several references to Section 28 in It's A Sin which was a law brought in in May 1988 that banned the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools. The teacher character Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) is told to go through all the books in his school’s library to remove any with homosexual references. The law had a devastating impact on the gay community and only came to an end in the United Kingdom in 2003.

The ‘AIDS: Don't Die of Ignorance’ advertising campaign featuring John Hurt.

'AIDS: Don't Die of Ignorance' was a public health advertising campaign launched in response to the rise of HIV/AIDS in the UK. The government feared that millions of people could become infected and a leaflet was sent to every home in the UK. But the campaign is most remembered for a 1987 doom-laden 40 second television advert, voiced by acclaimed actor John Hurt, which featured an exploding volcano and a huge gravestone monolith. See the famous advert here:

What is a bus conductor?

One of the characters Gloria (aka Gregory) is a bus conductor. Bus conductors were a common feature on double decker bus services in the UK until the late 1980s. The conductor collected fares, monitored safety and signalled to the driver when it was safe to drive off after a stop via a bell. Here’s a clip of famous British comedy star Hattie Jacques as a bus conductor...

The appearance of Doctor Who and the Daleks.

Lead character Ritchie Tozer is desperate to become an actor and by the show’s later episodes is fairly successful, getting TV parts plus stage musicals. He’ll be seen shooting scenes in a Doctor Who episode where he leads a band of space warriors against a deadly foe, the Daleks. Doctor Who is the top sci-fi TV show in Britain and has run on BBC1 from 1963. It’s A Sin writer Russell T. Davies was actually the show’s executive producer from 2005 to 2010, so it’s no surprise he put a Doctor Who scene into It’s A Sin. The Daleks are the Doctor’s most famous alien enemy who famously scream "Exterminate" at their enemies when on the rampage. Enjoy the Daleks in action here:

Nicholas Cannon
TV Content Director on TV Times, What's On TV and TV & Satellite Week

I'm a huge fan of television so I really have found the perfect job, as I've been writing about TV shows, films and interviewing major television, film and sports stars for over 25 years. I'm currently TV Content Director on What's On TV, TV Times, TV and Satellite Week magazines plus Whattowatch.com. I previously worked on Woman and Woman's Own in the 1990s. Outside of work I swim every morning, support Charlton Athletic football club and get nostalgic about TV shows Cagney & Lacey, I Claudius, Dallas and Tenko. I'm totally on top of everything good coming up too.