Although Russell T Davies’ landmark masterpiece It’s A Sin features an array of established top-drawer actors including Keeley Hawes, Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry and Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander (relishing the role of a lifetime), it’s largely unknown, talented and up-and-coming newcomers in that are at the centre of the action, in a flatshare dubbed The Pink Palace, and do a sterling job of making you feel like you want to be part of their gang. Here’s what you need to know about the It’s A Sin cast. Altogether now: La!
Plays: Roscoe Babatunde
Why he’s so great: As Roscoe flees his staunchly religious household, and his parents who are hell-bent on driving the gayness out of him even if it means returning to their native Nigeria, Roscoe unapologetically dons his sister’s mini-skirt and crop-top and delivers a defiant, quotable kiss off to his dumbfounded family (and one aunt who’s living for the drama): “I’ll be going now, so thank you very much. And if you need to forward any mail, I’ll be staying at 23 Piss Off Avenue, London W-Fuck”, before cat-walking into a new life with an assured strut that makes Naomi Campbell look like a shuffling bag lady in mismatched flip-flops. Whether it’s delivering waspish one-liners or adding more than merely milk to Margaret Thatcher’s coffee (possibly the most political piss anyone will take in their life), Roscoe is an instant icon and Omari Douglas’ glorious portrayal shows us the full range of emotion behind the brittle peacocking façade. It’s little wonder spirit animal Boy George gave his seal of approval, tweeting: ‘OK, Roscoe is ruling my life!! Yes, yes, yes!” Staggeringly, this is Douglas’ first on-screen role, after working in theatre – although a special production of Rush, a gay love-triangle comedy, for BBC’s Culture in Quarantine series, which sees him reprise his role from the play’s earlier run, is available on iPlayer.
How much did It’s A Sin teach you about the Aids crisis of the ‘80s?
Omari Douglas: “From the minute I knew I’d be doing this, I dove into it and it was overwhelming. One of the reasons I’m glad we’re doing this is we’re so used to shows and films about Aids from the American narrative, and this is a British perspective and quite different, and how Thatcher’s Britain wasn’t a particularly great time to be gay. What’s brilliant is being able to pass this story on to our generation.”
Do you feel privileged to be part of Russell T Davies’ lineage of landmark gay dramas (that includes 1999’s groundbreaking Queer As Folk, 2001’s underrated Bob & Rose, and 2015’s Cucumber)?
“Yeah! It’s such a canon of work. I was five when Queer As Folk came out, but I remember the adverts and going: ‘Oooh, what’s that?’ My real entry into his work was Cucumber. It came out when I was in my last year of drama school and it was an event in our flat – we’d all schedule it, squash up on the sofa and watch it together.”
Callum Scott Howells
Plays: Colin Morris-Jones
Why he’s so great: Anybody who’s binged It’s A Sin need only hear the name ‘Colin’ to be suddenly surrounded by a moat of their own tears. Nicknamed “Gladys Pugh” (the Welsh character from ‘80s sitcom Hi-de-Hi! played by Ruth Madoc) by the Pink Palace gang, loveably sweet-natured ingénue Colin arrives in London from Wales to take up a Savile Row tailors apprenticeship under the tutelage of a sleazy boss. In episode three, actor Callum Scott Howells expertly takes your heart, puts it in a NutriBullet, and hits purée – as It’s A Sin delivers its first true emotional stop-the-clocks moment. Surprisingly, this is Scott Howells’ first on-screen credit (although he appeared on stage in Matthew Bourne’s Lord Of The Flies and Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver!), and he filmed It’s A Sin while studying at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
How much did you know about the Aids epidemic of the ‘80s before It’s A Sin?
Callum Scott Howells: “What’s really important is we’re telling this story now – particularly for my generation in Wales. We don’t talk about it enough. I was never taught about it in school, and I didn’t know about it until I turned 18/19 and left home for drama school – and spoke to people about it. Even then, I had to seek out the information. Hopefully, young people are going to watch the show and realise how this affected so many people. Doing this as well, we’ve been blessed with having amazing older actors like Stephen Fry in the cast that we can talk to about their experiences and the friends they lost.”
Would you like to see it taught in schools then?
“Definitely. People see the gay community as big, colourful and vibrant, but there needs to be more understanding of the struggles and what our community has been through. If I had been taught this at school, I would have been blown away to know what I would have gone through if I grew up in the ‘80s.”
How does it feel to be part of Russell T Davies’ lineage of landmark gay dramas?
“I wasn’t born when Queer As Folk came out, but I grew up watching Doctor Who, which is a different strand of his work. So it feels amazing and brilliant.”
The show honours the memory of those lost by highlighting the joy, humour, fun and energy they had. Did that feel important?
“Completely. Because this community is so joyful. We’ve filmed in Manchester and walking down Canal Street, it’s multi-coloured and there’s drag queens, youth, energy and vibrancy. That goes for our boys [in the show] – they’re so young and fresh and experiencing things for the first time.”
Plays: Jill Baxter
Why she’s so great: Based on a real-life friend of Russell T Davies (actor Jill Nalder, who plays her mum in the show), aspiring thespian Jill is the first in the Pink Palace to stand at the storm-front when the Aids crisis looms. The ultimate selfless ally, she acts as a maternal Wendy figure to the flat of Lost Boys. Lydia West’s scene with Keeley Hawes, as her best friend Ritchie Tozer’s (Olly Alexander) mum, in the final episode is a masterclass; like watching the acting equivalent of a heavyweight boxing match. West isn’t a complete unknown, she played technology-obsessed “transhuman” Bethany Bisme-Lyons in Davies’ 2019’s dystopia Years and Years, but her future is definitely starrier than her past. She’s set to appear alongside Uma Thurman in TV thriller Suspicion and Celine Dion in the romantic drama Text For You.
Your co-star Olly Alexander talked about watching Queer As Folk in secret at 14 and it helping shape him as a gay man. Is there a sense this could be a similarly important drama to young queer people?
Lydia West: “Completely agree. Even though the Aids epidemic only happened relatively recently in the ‘80s, I didn’t know as much as I know now after researching for the show. It’s important that we remember those we did lose and raise awareness for the prejudice around the disease, which still stands. For 14-year-olds today, I think it’s going to be educational. But it’s important to note that it’s not a sad story. It’s fun, youthful, energetic – everything great in life which we connect to.”
There’s never been a UK drama about Aids on this scale before, and Jill is based on a real person. Does that come with a responsibility to get it right?
“Yeah. It’s a period drama, so we’re recreating a period of time that actually happened so there’s a humungous pressure in the sense that we want to be as truthful and as honest to the time and to the characters, because it’s a sensitive subject. Because we’re not just creating something entirely fictional, it feels like it has a huge weight of importance – and as an actor, that’s what you really want to do.”
How does it feel to go from the dystopian future of Years And Years to the real past of It’s A Sin...
“I’m a Time Lord! The roles are so different that I haven’t thought about the time-period, I’m more focused on the character. But again, the writing is just phenomenal – you connect with each character, and know their friendships, relationship and nuances straight away. It’s a beautifully human drama.”
It seems like the cast got on like a house on fire too…
“It was instant. The first time I met Olly was in a singing rehearsal and I was nervous because I didn’t want to sing – because I was singing with a singer! Because it’s such a sensitive subject, it helps that we all get on and trust each other so well. There’s no egos. We feel like a team and know that without one of us, the whole ship would sink.”
Plays: Ash Mukherjee
Why he’s so great: As Ritchie’s calm, sensible and faithful friend, and occasional lover, Ash not only gets to educate on the importance of douching (“You need a good wash OK?”) but also delivers one of It’s A Sin’s most pointedly political moments – an evisceration of Section 28, the reviled law that forbade “promoting” homosexuality. He’s portrayed with aplomb by screen newcomer Nathaniel Curtis, who was hot off playing Romeo in Shakespeare in the Garden’s production of Romeo And Juliet before It’s A Sin.
There’s never been a UK drama about Aids on this scale before. How important to you was it to get that right?
Nathaniel Curtis: “With having such an incredible script, it takes the pressure off us a little bit. We’re all trying our hardest to make sure we’re portraying the truth that our characters have to live through, which is horrific. Speaking to friends who were alive in the ‘80s, it was terrifying and our characters are so young, and they’re trying to find their way in the world, and this happens and it’s scary. But there’s a confidence that comes from knowing everyone – the writer, the producer, director, etc – are handling it in the most beautiful respectful way.”
Did you all end up best mates?
“We have so much fun. We’ve been told off for having too much fun! We went and danced in each others’ trailers every morning, and went out for dinner every night. The subject matter is so sad and devastating and obviously being able to support each other when things are difficult and being able to celebrate when things are difficult, has really helped.”