How set design could make or break a narrative

“You did know it was special because of the script but the reception it’s had is phenomenal, it really is,” says Luana Hanson, production designer on Russell T Davies’ landmark Channel 4 series, It’s a Sin. For the rare few that missed it, the five-part series was an emotionally charged retelling of the HIV/AIDS crisis that swept through queer communities in the 1980s, covered from the perspective of five young characters finding their feet in London over the course of 11 years. (Suitably, it has recently received 11 Bafta nominations.) “I mean, obviously the topic was very personal to Russell because it’s his story. To me, those sorts of projects are always made far more special than ones that are fictitious, because he could really relate to it.”

A student at the time of the crisis, Hanson also had her own catalogue of references for that time and place, which helped to formulate the world-building seen in the series. Her student accommodation, for example, informed how she tackled the ‘Pink Palace’ – the nickname for the home of the show’s five protagonists, Ritchie, Roscoe, Gill, Colin and Ash. Though Davies wanted the flat to be a real location, nothing suitable could be found in Manchester, where the production was shot.

As such, they built their own set inside an old school, which allowed them to go to town in creating the worn feel of the characterful apartment. “We really wanted to do that beautiful layering of the [wall]paper, and things like that,” Hampson says, “and you get so restricted sometimes on location in terms of what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do.”

Top: drawing of the Pink Palace kitchen in It’s a Sin; Above: living room set at the Pink Palace. All images courtesy Luana Hanson

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