“To be given a project of this scale as a first one, my God, can it get any better than that?” asks Omari Douglas.
At drama school, Douglas and his friends would make a big event of watching Cucumber, Russell T Davies’ exploration of 21st cenutry gay life. Now, the theatre actor has landed his first ever TV role as one of the lead characters in Davies’ explosive new drama, It’s A Sin, and he couldn’t be more excited.
“It’s Russell T Davies, he has such an iconic body of work,” he effuses. “And, of course, we're representing a very important community at a very important time. So, it's a huge, huge honour to have been a part of it.”
The series follows a group of queer friends living in London over ten years in the 80s, as a deadly unknown virus threatens to rip through the community. The first ever British TV drama to centre on the AIDS epidemic, It’s A Sin is as much an exuberant celebration of queer resilience as it is an elegy to the crisis’ tragic reality.
Douglas plays Roscoe Babatunde, a fiercely independent party boy who undergoes what the actor terms a ‘butterfly transformation’, from quietly bopping to disco tunes on his building site to tearing up London’s club scene. “Roscoe does things on his own terms. He lives via a very bold freedom of expression, and I was really excited by that,” Douglas says. “He’s like a flare.”
Ostracised by his religious Nigerian family, Roscoe forges a new one with the friends he meets in London. “The characters are all so vibrant. What’s so amazing is that there’s such a spectrum in terms of how they choose to express themselves,” Douglas says.
There’s the effervescent young actor, Ritchie, played by Years and Years frontman Olly Alexander; the shy Welshman of Savile Row, Colin (Callum Scott Howells); the emboldening ‘mum’ of the group, Jill (Lydia West); and the handsome heartthrob, Ash (Nathaniel Curtis).
Christening their home the ‘Pink Palace’, the friends host riotous house parties brimming with drag shows, sex, and sweaty dancing to 80s pop bangers.
As the decade stretches on, however, the devastating virus casts a dark shadow over the gay community. It's a Sin captures the crisis with endearing humanity, often bringing you to the brink of tears before delivering a searingly funny one liner.
“The series walks such a good line, because I guess that is the reality of it, in a way, the funny moments which tiptoe into the tragic,” Douglas says.
“The days were so up and down, one minute we were filming a party scene and the next minute we’d be filming in a hospital,” he continues.
“We formed such a family. In between takes all we could do was have a laugh, because you didn't want to be all over the place.”
The series boasts a star-studded cast, including Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard), Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) and Stephen Fry as Arthur Garrison, an MP who enjoys a dalliance with Roscoe.
Sharing scenes with someone as renowned as Fry would be an intimidating task for any newcomer, but Douglas’ first scene with the cultural icon was particularly daunting.
“The script said, ‘Roscoe whispers something so filthy in Arthur’s ear’, and the director Peter Hoar told me to come equipped with something genuinely shocking. On my first day, my first encounter with Stephen Fry, to have to launch into that…” he laughs. “I spoke some probably unrepeatable things in that moment. But Stephen is such a great sport. We had a brilliant time.”
It’s A Sin is a rare example of a period drama set within living memory for a whole generation of viewers, and Douglas valued the testimonies of those who had experienced the epidemic first-hand, including his castmate.
“[Stephen] was sharing all of these completely fascinating stories, and some were really harrowing because he lived through that experience," Douglas says. “That's what's so amazing about being part of the show. This is a period piece which is still accessible and relatable, and people have so much knowledge of it.”
"[The AIDS crisis] shaped the LGBT community, it's part of the tapestry, so we have to honour that"
From documentaries to journals to playlists, discovering the influential role of black queer figures during the 80s was a crucial part of his preparation.
“Roscoe doesn't really conform in any way. He's a bit punky, he’s a bit fabulous, but I didn't want to think of it as just some novelty thing. It isn’t,” he explains. “Russell had made this amazing character and those people were very visible back then.”
“Black queer people in the UK made such a massive contribution to the cultural landscape at the time.”
He cites Claire Lawrie’s documentary Beyond: There’s Always a Black Issue, Dear, as a key part of his education. The film profiles figures in the black LGBT community who had a revolutionary role in forging Britain’s nightlife scene in the 80s.
“I think we're so used to seeing queer figures now in a present-day context, in drama and fiction,” he explains. “These trailblazing people have always been present. They’ve not just evolved now; they've always been there. Seeing that visibility just kind of brought it home to me.”
Without the other distractions of life in lockdown, Douglas hopes viewers will be able to really engage with It’s A Sin’s momentous historical subject matter.
“There was a very specific narrative that played out in the UK, distinct from the one in the US; the effect [the AIDS crisis] had on the British public and the way it was handled by this country,” he explains. “So, I hope it’s a big learning experience for people.”
“I think it’s something that feels like a duty to keep informing myself of,” Douglas says. “It’s shaped the LGBT community, it's part of the tapestry, so we have to honour that. And I think the series does honour that.”
It’s A Sin begins on Friday 22 January on Channel 4 at 9pm, with the full series available to watch on All4 after the premiere.