It’s September 1981 and Ritchie is venturing forth from the Isle of Wight to study law in the Big Smoke. “It’s different on the mainland,” his stuffy parents warn him, unaware of the stash of gay porn in his bedroom. Once at college, Ritchie’s stance of “I’m more like bisexual, really” lasts for about five minutes before he’s glimpsed dreamboat drama student Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). Egged on by supportive straight friend Jill (Lydia West), Ritchie ditches the law in favour of acting. His next task, this being a series by Russell T Davies, is to locate a flat that is as cheap and picturesque as it is unrealistic, and fill it with emblematic gay flatmates.
In short order, stunning Roscoe with the supermodel strut, who’s been all but disowned by his Nigerian family, joins gentle, conventional Colin from Wales, immediately dubbed “Gladys Pugh”. Ritchie also entices aloof Ash to the ménage, despite a rocky initial hook-up. “You need a good wash,” he tells Ritchie with a curled lip. The actual script is even more blunt.
Ritchie might need some tips on sexual etiquette, but soon he and Roscoe (Omari Douglas, for whom “fabulous” is faint praise) are rogering their way through gay London to a giddy soundtrack of Kelly Marie, OMD, The Teardrop Explodes and Soft Cell. A sex montage set to Hooked on Classics is especially delicious. But counterpointing all the mindless hedonism are rumours, faint and dismissible at first, of “this cancer thing in New York” affecting gay men. Scenes involving the progress of the virus, and health professionals’ confused attempts to combat it, have a sombre resonance.
The straights are routinely homophobic, when they’re not being racist. Other period touches are more amusing: smoking on the top deck, phones with curly wires attached to walls or in red callboxes on the street. Regarding the latter, Davies seems to have forgotten that even the most emotional phone calls were routinely interrupted by the beep demanding another 20p, and that no one ever, ever hung up before the money ran out.
Frivolous, bitchy Ritchie could easily be played as caricature, but Olly Alexander gives him a magnetic charm. Keeley Hawes is oddly cast as his frumpy mum — like Aphrodite in a pinny — but he had to get those razor cheekbones from somewhere. Callum Scott Howells is painfully affecting as sweet, shy Colin, who finds work in Savile Row, and an ally in the form of debonair tailor Mr Coltrane (Neil Patrick Harris). Tragically, not all these beautiful creatures are going to make old bones. I was in bits by episode three, so you have been warned.
On Channel 4 and All4 from January 22 at 9pm