Right time to remember the forgotten epidemic

Jose Catalan and Damien Ridge watch Channel 4's 'It's a Sin'.

Russell T. Davies doesn’t do happy endings. His five-part series ‘It’s a Sin’, shown weekly on Channel 4 from 22 January, covers the first 10 years of the AIDS epidemic in the UK. It follows the lives of a group of young gay men, their friends and families, as news of novel mystery disease starts to filter out through gay networks, the mainstream press, and then explodes in front of a largely unprepared and uncomprehending society.

While the series cannot be described as happy in a conventional sense, it is full of laughter, sex, and fun, as well as loss and pain. The tears are mainly shed by the viewers at home, if these reviewers are in any way representative. It is however remarkable in showing the resilience and strength of individuals, communities, and families facing an evolving HIV epidemic. These human stories – as this authentic, masterful piece of television shows – could not be heard by everyone 40 years ago, especially by the parents of many young men. 

The series follows mostly the lives of three engaging 18-year-old gay men, Richie, Roscoe, and Colin, discovering their sexuality, abandoning their narrow worlds, and escaping into the bright lights of London. In the process, they discover sex, new communities, and friends – in fact, creating their own families of choice. It is the ordinariness of these young people’s lives that makes them so striking: there are no heroes, no successful activists, celebrities, or scientists, just people – initially somewhat self-absorbed – trying to make sense of a life that becomes increasingly more complicated as the episodes progress.

A threat hangs over the characters from the first episode: could life come to an abrupt, perhaps even agonising end? There is a disturbing randomness to the way AIDS strikes down different characters. Acquaintances and friends ‘go home’, to use the euphemism of the series, to the bafflement and unease of their friends and colleagues. The main characters are soon heavily drawn into this unlucky roulette. Anticipating who will become ill or worse, and when, adds to the dramatic power, and the distress that many viewers, including ourselves, were left with. 

As we argue in our new book HIV in the UK: Voices from the Epidemic, it was along with allies like the wonderful Jill in the series, that gradually this world began to change for the better. While initially allies were thin on the ground, and ignorance and a collective lack of humanity ushered in the beginning of the epidemic, powerful stories emerged about the involvement of the affected communities. Along with activism and sensitive care from healthcare workers, improvements were on the horizon, including medication, prompting one of the participants in our book to declare, 'I now believe in miracles’. These stories continue to move us, sparking an outpouring of compassion that was in short supply back then. 

Themes familiar to us now in our Covid world are clearly visible: myths about the origins of the mystery disease; the void created by lack of information and confusing messages filled with misinformation; political incompetence; stigmatisation; initially unprepared health services; uncertainly about treatments; and guilt and shame, amongst many others. But most powerfully, horror at the unexpected and unwanted death of people at what should be the very start of their lives. For a death-denying society, these obscene and unnecessary deaths provoked powerful responses, not just of sadness and grief, but also of determination to fight for justice against discrimination and for the well-being of all people affected as well as their families.

As the epidemic progressed and worsened, further creative responses to memorialise and celebrate the lives of those who hadn’t survived became part of the process. SILENCE=DEATH, and so our stories sparked life itself. Developing death literacy, the ability to acknowledge, face and discuss death, and as a result better value life, was an obvious creative consequence. The TV series shows the beginnings of the positive community responses of families and friends. Perhaps this is the only sign of a happy beginning, if not happy ending, at this early stage of the AIDS story. Communities came together to fight for and support those who became ill, as well as their families and friends, planting the seeds of significant shifts in public attitudes to sexuality and the affected communities to follow as the decades progressed. Appropriately, government and authority figures do not get much credit in the series, symbolised by the fate of Margaret Thatcher as fantasised by Davies. The performances are all excellent, but the tour de force of the acting of Keely Hawes in the final episode is something to watch out for.

Perhaps Russell T. Davies could be persuaded to chronicle in a new series the following 20 years of the HIV epidemic, and draw parallels with our current pandemic. We are yet to learn many of the lessons of HIV, and the national calamity of the current pandemic will surely provide ample material.

- Jose Catalan and Damien Ridge are, together with Barbara Hedge, the authors of HIV in the UK: Voices from the epidemic (2021), Routledge, which examines the epidemic from the accounts of those who were there. See also Lessons from the 'forgotten epidemic'.

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