Balance sheet – the panic and prejudice of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s | Television

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Bn 1981 AIDS was in Britain. Forty years later, World AIDS Day offers us an opportunity to look back and take stock, and gives television the opportunity to make a documentary in which a specific issue reflects the evolution of mores of society.

Episode one of Positive (Sky Documentaries), a three-part timeline of the AIDS era, takes us back to a time when enough people did not know enough, with fatal consequences. The theme is one of uncertainty, fear and a painfully slow learning process. Archival footage vividly recreates the atmosphere of a London gay scene that had just kicked in when a shadow loomed over it, and the program does well to highlight historic moments of interest. Among them was a 1981 Time Out article titled Scourge of the Gays, as doctors tried to figure out exactly what this new disease could be; the BBC 1983 Documentary Horizon Killer in the Village (available on iPlayer), which described the outbreak in the United States; and the conference held the same year at Conway Hall in London, organized by the Terrence Higgins Trust, where the severity of the crisis was exposed.

There is plenty to do which means every minute is precious. So it’s frustrating that the first episode feels like you’re listening to someone who has so much knowledge to pass on that they keep stopping to digress. The two interviewees from the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard telephone service – which served as a sort of cross between Citizens Advice, Siri and NHS 111 – are ideal witnesses to how the perception of AIDS has developed among gay men, but whether we need the level of detail they provide is questionable. Likewise, the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign is an instructive moment in ’80s British history and has personal significance for one of the main contributors here, activist Jonathan Blake, but is probably not essential. to the global history of AIDS in Britain.

The result is an hour of television that oscillates between informative and anecdotal, and sometimes seems impersonal when you want it to be activist. One enters a program like this with just anger at hand, prepared for stories of lives and loves cruelly torn from the grasp of innocent people. There’s surely more to come next week but, for now at least, that emotional impact is diluted by Positive’s efforts to diligently document every social and scientific development.

Just as the sheer tragedy of the situation is a bit underestimated, so too is the injustice. The guilt of social conservatism and Thatcherian politics is not identified, perhaps because the program invites the great conservative Norman Fowler to analyze it. “Politicians don’t like sexual illnesses very much,” Fowler says, as if he was an impartial commentator and not the man who served as Secretary of State for Health and Human Services between 1981 and 87. He stands. slips into the passive voice of the politician when he discusses how AIDS has been turned into a weapon by homophobes: “It was not the plague of homosexuals… it was a disease that applied to everyone, and it This is how it should have been recognized from the start.

This classic mistake of making documentaries – trying to include a wide range of voices but in doing so allow people to let loose – is repeated as we hear the fudgey mea culpa of the former Sun Garry columnist ” Poofs! »Boisseau. “Thinking back to the 1980s, I don’t think any of us can be so proud of what the popular newspapers wrote,” he says.

Nonetheless, the fact that the press has the power to stir up moral panics against vulnerable minorities – still, sadly, relevant in 2021 – is well done. Other thornier aspects of the epidemic also have modern resonance. Looking at Positive in the Covid era, when adherence to basic public health guidelines is somehow furiously controversial, it is fascinating to hear Reverend Richard Coles recall that Terence Higgins Trust volunteers were considered as “the ghost of the party,” spoiling everyone’s night out when they first gay bars handed out leaflets to raise awareness about safe sex.

There are signs that Positive will become a fierce celebration of how a community suffered terrible loss but survived it, with solidarity and tolerance ultimately overcoming prejudice and ignorance. Blake is of course not a random choice of interviewee: he was among the first men in Britain to be diagnosed with HIV, and he’s still here to tell the story. And, even when not perfectly told, the stories of AIDS and how it has changed Britain must be heard.


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