entertainment

It’s a Sin gave Callum Scott Howells the Aids history lesson he never received at school

Exclusive: TV newcomer Callum Scott Howells is set to win viewers’ hearts as It’s a Sin’s wide-eyed Welsh outsider Colin Morris-Jones. Here, the 21-year-old tells Attitude about sharing his first professional TV scenes with Neil Patrick Harris and why Britain’s education system is “deeply flawed”.

2021-01-21

Words: Will Stroude

From Queer as Folk’s Vince (Craig Kelly) to Cucumber and Banana’s Dean (Fisayo Akindade), Russell T Davies has well-established a knack for creating endearing, loveable sidekicks as a foil for the more showy antics of his series leads – and audiences have long fallen harder for them than anyone else along the way.

In It’s a Sin – Davies’ powerful new five-part Aids drama due to premiere on Channel 4 this Friday – that character is Colin Morris-Jones, a wide-eyed Welsh teenager who moves to London to take on an apprenticeship at a Savile Row tailor and discovers the bright lights of Soho and the inhabitants of ‘The Pink Palace’ – Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Jill (Lydia West), Roscoe (Omari Douglas) and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) – along the way.

Less forthcoming for Colin are the actual boys themselves, but the shy teen’s position as a slight outsider, more than a little wet behind the ears when it comes to the frenetic ‘80s gays scene, makes him an instantly sympathetic character as viewers get to grips with the world Davies’ creations inhabit.

For 21-year-old Callum Scott Howells, who was still in his final year at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama when he landed the role of Colin, the chance to make your TV debut in a Russell T Davies drama isn’t something he took lightly – even if he was only born the year Queer as Folk came out (gulp).

Photography: The Other Richard / Design: Joseph Ryan-Hicks

“I was chuffed to bits, it meant the world to me,” gushes Callum as he meets with Attitude via Zoom just before Christmas. “I’ve always dreamed of working with Russell. I just missed the Queer as Folk wave – Doctor Who was my big thing with Russell. Years and Years I loved.

“I remember tweeting ‘Russell T Davies’ is a genius, this show is amazing’, and my agent was like ‘Well, Russell’s casting this new drama and I saw your tweet – would you like to go up for it? And I was like ‘Yeah!’"

South Wales Valleys-born Callum, who in real life is every bit as enchantingly earnest as his on-screen alter-ego, describes the atmosphere on set as “a bloody riot - too much of a riot sometimes”.

While much of the coverage of It’s a Sin has focused on its (frankly mind-boggling) status as British TV’s first drama to centre on the Aids crisis, there’s as much joy as there is tragedy over the course of the series.

Callum Scott Howells as Colin Morris-Jones in It's a Sin (Image: Channel 4)

“I’m really excited for people to see it and for people to go on a bit of a journey”, reflects Callum. “Because fundamentally, as well as being an ‘Aids drama’ it’s the story of these characters. Off they go to London and then the universe takes them on this existential journey.”

Of course, just as was the case for those who lived through it, there’s no escaping tragedy in It’s a Sin given the subject-matter. Did Callum know much about the history of the Aids crisis when he was cast?

“I think it was probably quite similar to a lot of people of my generation – I knew that it happened, [but] I had no idea really of how bad it was, because there was no sense of specificity with it,” replies Callum, his face turning uncharacteristically serious.

“You know, I never got taught anything about it at school – that’s obviously still the case – and it never got mentioned in sex education classes. We never talked about any of that, or the history. I mean, gosh, we never got taught about gay sex in my school, it was all just willies and foofies. It was absolutely ridiculous.

It's a Sin marks 21-year-old Callum Scott Howells' TV debut (Photography: The Other Richard)

“The education system in that sense is deeply flawed, and I’m not afraid to say that.”

He goes on: “Even Section 28, I wasn’t taught about that in school. I knew about Section 28 anyway – just because obviously, I knew about it myself through life –  but I really had to learn about Margaret Thatcher and that speech where she’s like ‘People think it’s their inalienable right to be gay’. I mean, f**k me. I had to watch that and I was like, I had no idea it was that bad… so from the off I tried my absolute best to throw myself into it.”

It’s a Sin stands as a powerful reminder of just what the LGBTQ community went through in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, as fear and death place a vice-like grip round the necks of people often already dealing with rejection and isolation. But during the filming of the series, no one could have foreseen that another global pandemic was looming – the global response to which would only serve to throw the comparative lack of public action during the early days of Aids into an even starker light.

“I have a memory of being in our trailer and we were talking to one of the make-up guys and we were talking about this ‘coronavirus’," recalls Callum, who lost two of his grandparents to Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic. "I remember the general consensus was ‘Oh, it’ll blow over, it’s one of those things and hopefully it’ll just die out’.

Callum Scott Howells as Colin Morris-Jones in It's a Sin (Image: Channel 4)

Of his grandparents' tragic passing, he says: “That happened really early on, which was a massive reality check. It was like ‘F**k me’.

“It’s just mad how these things come out of nowhere – and back to Aids, it’s like, one moment you’re talking about it… and then the next minute it affects people in their immediate circle.

“I think that’s how well Russell’s captured it – one moment things can be normal and the next it can all just come crashing down like a tonne of bricks.”

While 2020 was a year of personal tragedy for Callum, the arrival of It’s a Sin is set to ensure 2021 will provide the professional breakthrough most recent drama school graduates can only dream of – not many of his classmates can boast they’ve shared scenes with a bona fide Hollywood star like Neil Patrick Harris straight out of the gate.

Was it overwhelming to turn up to your first TV job knowing you’d be acting opposite a star of Harris’s stature that day? Or was he able to compartmentalise and treat him as simply ‘Neil from work’?

Neil Patrick Harris (left) as Henry Coltrane and Callum Scott Howells as Colin Morris-Jones in It's a Sin (Image: Channel 4)

“Neil from work?!” Callum howls in reply. “F**k, I wish I could’ve been like that. I mean, obviously I was sh*tting myself.

“I was told Neil Patrick Harris was playing Henry and I think I was literally like ‘That’s a lie, that’s bullsh*t’. I would never have imagined that Neil would have played the character. But it’s what Russell does, Russell loves the shock factor. Neil flew in a couple of days before we shot our scenes together and we met in Manchester and it was just amazing, we got along so well.

“I messaged him yesterday – he’s putting his big tree up right now for Christmas and I said ‘bloody hell Neil, that’s a big one’,” he grins.

Callum continues: “I remember in Manchester we were walking through the Christmas markets and people were going up to him like ‘Are you Barney [Stinson, from How I Met Your Mother]?! Are you Barney?!’ But obviously he’s so lovely to people and if people ask him for a photo or whatever he’ll always say yes, he’s really brilliant like that.

(Photography: The Other Richard)

"He’s been in the public eye since he was like, 14 [and] he’s had a crazy life but he’s really generous and I learnt so much from him… If I’ve learned anything from Neil it’s about nailing it from that first take – not in a really intense way, but just from really knowing what you’re about to offer.”

Full of praise too is Callum for “incredible” series lead Olly Alexander, whose return to acting in between topping the charts as frontman of pop trio of Years & Years is likely to help ensure It’s a Sin reaches out to those younger audiences perhaps unfamiliar with the dark realities of the Aids crisis.

“This is the thing, right now everyone’s talking about Josh O’Connor”, begins Callum. “Josh O’Connor’s my idol – God’s Own Country, The Crown – honestly the guy is an acting icon for me.

“Olly is up there with people like Josh. Olly is like a force to be reckoned with, he really is.”

Callum’s genuine enthusiasm for the relationships forged with his It’s a Sin castmates is a far cry from the vague platitudes usually offered up by actors about their co-stars during the lead-up to a series premiere – and viewers will be reassured to know that that same warm, enveloping off-screen energy has translated to the screen, too.

Callum Scott Howells (left) as Colin Morris-Jones and Omari Douglas as Roscoe Babatunde in It's a Sin (Image: Channel 4)

“At the end of the day, this show is fundamentally about a family - a family you choose,” Callum explains.

“I think that’s what it’s about for me, the show - it’ll always be about this amazing chosen family.”

There’s a poignant moment at the close of It’s a Sin’s first episode where Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin each explains where they see themselves in five years’ time. We wrap up our time with Callum by asking him the same.

After a moment’s hesitation, he replies: “Just to be comfortable. I don’t want a life of luxury.

"Similar to Colin in a way, I just want to be happy and comfortable - and hopefully still acting…”

It’s a Sin premieres this Friday at 9pm on Channel 4, with all episodes will be available to watch as a boxset on All4 immediately afterward. The series airs on HBO Max in the US later in the year.