"Russell has created something that's not just a queer drama. It's a show about love, hope, dreams and ambitions."
Russell T Davies' new Channel 4 drama It's A Sin, is not only one of 2021's most highly-anticipated new shows, but easily Russell's finest work to date - which considering he's the man responsible for Queer As Folk, Cucumber, A Very English Scandal and Years and Years - is quite the claim to make! But that's because I truly believe it to be true.
Full of joy, heartbreak and love, It's A Sin, follows the story of a group of friends who begin a new life in London in 1981. Strangers at first, these young gay lads, and their best friend Jill, find themselves thrown together and soon share each other’s adventures.
Growing up in the shadow of AIDS, in a decade which changed everything, they're determined to live and love more fiercely than ever. Together they endure the horror of the epidemic, the pain of rejection and the prejudices that gay men faced throughout the decade.
Starring alongside the likes of Keeley Hawes, Shaun Dooley, Lydia West and Olly Alexander are Callum Scott Howells, Omari Douglas and Nathaniel Curtis - each making their television debut, in roles which are bound to define their career.
21-year-old Callum from Wales, plays Colin Morris-Jones, a quiet, unassuming, boy from Wales, who becomes an apprentice on Savile Row who starts a new life in London. Ahead of this Friday's launch, I caught up with Callum to find out more about working on such a special series.
This is your first TV break and it was supposed to be shown last year. What was 2020 like for you?
It's just been crazy, really. Like you said, it was meant to come out last year and it was all really exciting but then everything just stopped. I was also meant to be doing a play and that got put on hold.
By the end of the play, this show was going to be coming out so everything seemed to have been timed perfectly. But then obviously once all this madness struck, everything took a turn.
I remember being in the make-up truck when we were filming and everyone was talking about this virus in China and we all assumed there'd be nothing of it. The next thing you know, literally a month later, we're in lockdown. It was absolutely mad!
So it's been a crazy year, but I tell you what, I got a dog out of it and it was the best thing to do!
Is television an industry you've wanted to get into for a long time?
Absolutely, but to be honest, when I was early on in drama school, it was something I thought would come later in my career. I don't really know why, but if I'm being honest, I never thought I'd be good enough. I never thought anyone would want to cast me for television.
But like everything, it's about the right timing. It's about a role that comes along that is right for you and when I first read Colin, I never thought I'd be the right person for it - but I just felt an overwhelming urge to want to play this role. It felt really close to me.
As first parts go, you seem to have really hit the jackpot with Colin. What was your reaction when you got told that you'd be playing him?
It was the day after my recall. I was visiting my old school and it was really nice because all the teachers make a fuss of you - and I thought the earliest I'd know anything was at least a week after.
Anyway, my phone went in my pocket and it was my agent, so I answered it and at this point I was in my old Head of Sixth Form's office, and my agent asked me if I was sitting down - and I said "I'm not sitting down but tell me anyway" - and then I was told about the offer. Honestly, I was just over the moon.
I left pretty much straight away and drove back to the house, to be there for when my parents came back from work and I just remember screaming at them!
How would you describe It's A Sin?
It's a story about five friends who all fall in love with each other. They fall head over heels for one another, really. It's about them finding each other, forming a family of their own and going on a journey of discovery together.
Of course in this mad decade, so many things happened - some for the worst, some for the better - but I feel like for this group, a lot of what they had to deal with was very challenging. By the end of the series we all hope that you just fall in love with the characters and I think that's what Russell (T Davies) hopes as well.
We want you to remember these people because they represent all those that we lost 40 years ago.
Did knowing quite how much this story meant to Russell T Davies, add any extra pressure onto your performance?
Oh my gosh, absolutely. But at the same time you want the pressure because you're part of something that is not only really important to Russell but also to so many other people. People are still alive today who lost friends and family and loved ones. So it's for them. The show is for them.
From the beginning, we knew that and that we felt that pressure, which is why we wanted to fill the show with so much love and joy. Really, these people had no idea what was around the corner. Nobody knew what was coming.
I hope, in years to come, people watch It's A Sin and remember the lives that were lost. I feel like television is a lasting format. It's there forever. I hope people use the drama to remember those we lost because we worked really hard, and I know it means so much to Russell.
There are moments of real joy in the series, but also moments of real sadness, which feel authentic to that time and that experience. Would you agree?
Absolutely. I think it's brilliant. It's that classic thing, we could get hit by a bus tomorrow and we wouldn't know about it right now. So because you don't know that, you just live for every minute. You enjoy everything as it comes.
That's the mindset we wanted to adopt in the show. Like now, with Covid, we didn't know what it was at the start. We were going about our lives like normal, and it was only when we knew the facts that we actively became scared of it.
I think it's similar (to Covid) - it's not absolutely the same - but it's similar in the sense that there were rumblings of something happening, but you just think nothing of it. Only when it hits home do you truly understand how serious it is.
As you mention, there are parallels with Covid - even though it's not the same. Do you think though, that the pandemic will inevitably change the way people react to It's A Sin?
I think so. We all know now what it's like to live in a time where there's a pandemic, a virus that's killing people - we all know what that's like now. My generation do anyway, because I wasn't around in the 80s to know what that was like.
I hope people relate more to it than they might have done before. I believe they would have done anyway but I do hope people can now connect to it on a deeper level. I really do hope that because Russell has created something that's not just a queer drama. It's a show about love, hope, dreams and ambitions. And how some of them happen and how some of them don't because their lives are cut off too early.
Your character is so loveable. You instantly fall in love with him. But there's also an innocence about him isn't there? How would you describe Colin?
I think that's it. Colin wants to just have fun. He meets this group of people and just loves them, he thinks they're amazing. In episode one when he says "I could see myself working here in 10 years time" I think that's true. For Colin, he just wants to surround himself with great people and people who love him for who he is.
It's probably something that he's never had before in the valleys. I think his mother loves him and his family adore him, but perhaps in Wales he didn't feel like he could express himself fully, whereas London is that place for him.
It's in London that he meets Henry - Neil Patrick Harris' character - who is a big part of Colin's journey.
Completely. Henry is a huge influence on Colin. And because you mentioned him there, what was it like working with Neil Patrick Harris?
It was incredible! I met him about three days before we started filming, we had a week together. Neil was so generous and so kind. He's a friend for life for me now. He's so brilliant.
He's a magician! He can do things on camera that I don't think I'll ever see people do again. He's so charismatic and so incredibly talented that I will cherish that week I had with him for the rest of my life.
It feels like we all know a Colin, would you agree?
Absolutely! I know so many Colins in Wales. He's that boy who's got this little secret that he's quite scared to tell people. He can't wait to get out. He can't wait to move somewhere where he can fully be himself and express himself.
I don't think that's necessarily just a Welsh thing though. I think that's a universal thing. It's a small town thing. Coming from a small town, it's difficult, it's hard - it comes with its own challenges.
Obviously moving to a place like London which is so culturally diverse, so vibrant and colourful, of course you're going to see him more comfortable to express himself and I think that's the story here. It's about finding somewhere that feels right.
Roscoe and Ritchie are more outgoing though than Colin aren't they? Why do you think they form such a close friendship?
I think Colin looks up to Roscoe and Ritchie. Roscoe in particular, because he's so resilient and comes from a really tough background where to be a homosexual is up there with rape and murder. I think that's why they get along so well and Roscoe will always stick up for Colin and always remembers him.
Also, they both from come very different backgrounds to all the other characters. Ritchie comes from a very conservative background. Lower middle class. But then again, they all just love each other because they're in this place where they can fully accept one another.
We all got on so well in real life too. So scenes where we where just meant to be having fun, just came so naturally. A lot of us were doing it for the first time and in such an important drama so we had to really commit to these roles.
Any standout scenes in the series?
There's a scene with Juan Pablo and Henry, when we're at the dinner table and Henry's calling out for dinner. That scene spoke so much to me as a person anyway, but to play it with Neil Patrick Harris and Tatsu (Carvalho) who's a big Brazilian actor - there was something on that day that made it really special.
We all cried that day. It's a beautiful scene where they share stories about times gone by and Colin was there to hear the stories about two people that found love in the most difficult of times. I think there's something so magical about that.
When I rewatch the series now, when it comes out on Channel 4, I hope that scene really sticks out again because I just loved it. It was fabulous.
You mention rewatching it when it's on. Have you seen the show already or are you waiting for it to be on?
Yeah I have! Russell sent it to us. We would all have loved to be together to watch it at a screening, but because we weren't able to do that, Russell sent us all a link and we watched it. I hate watching myself back, but watching the show back as a whole, I just sobbed.
Episode five, honestly just finished me off. I couldn't breathe. I was finding it hard to breathe it was that upsetting. When people say "It took my breath away" this literally did that! I feel like Keeley Hawes and Olly (Alexander) and Omari (Douglas) and Lydia (West) and Shaun (Dooley) were formidable in that episode. How strong they were to do those scenes.
It's just a pleasure to be part of a show which is filled with so many amazing talented actors. I think that's me as an actor, I just love watching people and learning from them. It's so important to admire people's work and I'm a big admirer of a lot of people's work in this show. More than anything, I just feel very privileged to be a part of it.
What's the biggest thing you've learnt, filming It's A Sin?
That's such a good question. I think the biggest thing I learnt, was more than anything, to just bring as much honesty to a performance as you can. Playing Colin, I couldn't bullshit anything. Everything had to be embedded in honesty and we had to go there.
I think being part of an important story in particular, you have to go there because it's important. It's going to mean a lot to people.
Having that in mind, going there and being present and really immersing yourself in the story is something that I think I've learnt. Probably from Neil (Patrick Harris). Every time he delivered. It was never a dull take with him. Every take was just on the money.
What's next for you?
I had a play at the National Theatre called Romeo and Julie, that was meant to go ahead last year, but obviously it didn't. They're looking at some time later this year, so hopefully that'll happen. And there are a few things maybe in the pipeline that I still haven't heard about yet... so who knows?!
The rest is to be decided, but I really hope the play happens at some point in the next year because it's a fantastic play by Gary Owen, another Welsh writer.
It's A Sin begins Friday 22nd January at 9pm on Channel 4 with all episodes available at launch