When the AIDS virus made its way to the United Kingdom, the joyful liberation of the early ’80s queer scene in London swiftly came to a shocking halt. That’s the gist of It’s a Sin, the five-part Channel 4 and HBO Max co-production that is now available to stream.
In It’s a Sin, the viewer follows a group of friends living together in a London flat they’ve dubbed the Pink Palace. Ritchie, Ash, Roscoe, Colin, and Jill, each with a differing perspective on the experience of being queer at the start of the AIDS crisis in a country with a conservative government (at the time led by Margaret Thatcher) and flocking to a big city where they can simply be themselves, together. A chosen family, their dynamic is so convincing that after watching the series, you might find yourself uttering “La!,” a sing-song in-joke the pals trill at each other that remains endearing throughout the show.
But amid the numerous drunken nights out on the dance floor, tragedy lurks around the corner, until it inevitably makes its way into their home and claims the lives of at least one of their own. (This is the point at which it is required for you to stop reading and come back after you’ve seen all five episodes lest you find yourself totally spoiled on the way this show ends.)
Each performer holds their own in this life-affirming historical account of a turning point in global culture, but it is 21-year-old newcomer Callum Scott Howells who brings a remarkable sensitivity to the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed character of Colin, a neophyte tailor on Savile Row, who at first forms a friendship with an older gay coworker (played by Neil Patrick Harris), and eventually moves in with the Pink Palace crew. It was a dream for the Welsh actor plucked straight from drama school to work with Harris, one of his idols. “I used to stream the Tony Awards in my bedroom at stupid-o-clock because over here, I was hours ahead,” he joked one afternoon on Zoom from his home in Wales. “In a way, I didn’t really have to act opposite him because I was so in awe of him anyway.”
As a child, the actor’s parents allowed him to test out his interests, ranging from soccer to performing, like “trying loads of different bites of different cakes.” (He loved football and still watches it all the time, he just “can’t play it, I’m rubbish!”)
Howells also said he was a big fan of Doctor Who, which introduced him to the work of It’s a Sin creator Russell T. Davies. (Davies was a part of the 2005 revival of the classic British sci-fi series.) “I used to get all my cuddly toys on the sofa and we all used to watch it together when I was younger,” he said. While he was training at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, his agent sent him a few episodes of It’s a Sin; he auditioned, and while he was visiting his old comprehensive school (the Welsh equivalent of high school) he got the call that he had been offered the part.
Colin’s naïveté and sweet disposition are central to his storyline as the innocent one in the friend group, and unlike some of his friends, he comes from a home where his mother accepts his queerness without question or judgment. It’s a thrill to watch Colin stay true to himself while slowly opening up to this new world. “Colin is from the Valleys in Wales, but that represents any small town, a town where everyone lives similar lives,” Howells explained. “He makes the decision to move to London and work in a tailor shop. He’s lived a simple life with his mom, gone to school, finished his A-levels. I just wanted Colin to be about the innocence. He’s the wide-eyed, always absorbing everything person,” he said. It should be noted, though, that the actor doesn’t equate cutesy innocence with vacancy; he imbues the character with plenty of emotional depth.
It’s a Sin takes place during a time when so many others wrongfully thought that the spread of AIDS throughout a predominantly gay demographic was some form of moral or cosmic retribution; that makes it all the more upsetting to see Colin, someone who is thought to not have any sexual encounters throughout the series, meet his fate. He dies of AIDS toward the final episode, and even for those who have seen some of the more classic expositions of the subject in film or television, the way Colin’s death is portrayed is brutally tragic and a little bit surprising.
“Neil’s character Henry Coltrane is like a guardian angel and feels heaven sent, but to meet the Pink Palace friends, that’s his access point into this world of acceptance, where he’s looked after,” the actor said. After being locked up in an isolating Welsh hospital room, where AIDS patients were left alone to die, Colin’s friends take legal action to move him to a hospital that will give him proper care. “I think the most heartbreaking aspect of it all is when his mother is in front of the doctors and the policeman says it’s a ‘gay disease’ and it’s associated with people who ‘choose’ to live that way,” Howells said. “But all she wants to know is if her son is healthy or if he’ll live. She doesn’t care about who Colin loves. Bless Colin, he had nothing to worry about.”
Howells turned to a BBC documentary about AIDS sweeping through Greenwich Village called Killer in the Village, in order to find his access point into the character’s demise. “The documentary team covers a lot of different patients. With Colin’s storyline, there’s the dementia aspect of it. There’s a character in the documentary who is experiencing memory loss and having nonlinear thoughts, and he dies halfway through, and later on they dissect his brain. You can see in the brain a Karposi Sarcoma lesion,” he explained. “When I see visual things, it’s big for me, and that’s my way in. I wanted to do that man who died of this horrific disease justice. I wanted his story to be told. The ‘real Colin’ for Russell is probably different and based on people he knows, but for me, Colin is those men who died, not just in the U.K., but in Greenwich Village, too.”
So far, It’s a Sin seems to be a catalyst for off-screen conversations about HIV/AIDS education and reframing our understanding of history. It would be impossible to watch the series and not see some of the parallels between the government’s response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the start of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s. But as of early February, the show has broken records in the U.K. Over 6.5 million viewers have streamed the series on Channel 4, and it was reported that there’s been a “four-fold increase” in those signing up to get tested for HIV. Howells hopes that his portrayal of Colin on the record-breaking series will translate to the viewers in United States. “I never thought I’d ever be in anything on HBO! Even just to be involved in a small part, I feel bloody grateful,” he admitted. “I’m thankful somebody loved me.”
Throughout the pandemic, the effervescent actor has been quarantined at home in Wales, learning to cook, practicing Yoga with Adriene, and cheering on his favorite football teams. He’s eager to get back to work, though. “I love any character that’s based on a true person. That stems from my love of films like that, too,” Howells said, citing Erin Brockovich as an early favorite. “Even though Colin’s not based on a specific person, there are so many people that he is based on, so I’d love to play someone based on someone real, or a role filled with tricky things,” he explained. “To be honest,” he said with a laugh, “I’ll take anything where someone will ask me!”