The reconstruction in a documentary that adds something to the story is rare. Rare, in fact, that it doesn’t actively hold proceedings and requires actors to perform in front of viewers (usually in caveman skins or low-budget Tudorbethan costume) for viewers, something they could visualize perfectly and would have been better off doing that .
A deeply moving exception to this rule can be found in the new three-part documentary Aids: The Unheard Tapes (BBC Two). In the 80s and 90s, as a new and seemingly unstoppable disease devastated the gay community, volunteers for posterity began recording interviews with the men infected with what would eventually be identified as the HIV virus, and with their friends. The tapes are now archived in the British Library and have never been broadcast before. In the documentary, actors walk up to them. What sounds like a terrible gimmick on paper works beautifully, bringing you closer to appreciating all that was lost as the crisis unfolded and the government’s indolence demanded that ordinary people stand up and do extraordinary things to protect themselves and others. to rescue.
It starts in 1982, a time when – like the voice-over of Russell Tovey notes – the legal age of consent for gay men was 21, you could be fired from most jobs if you were “out”, and gay bars still operated with darkened windows for fear of the homophobia that was rife. Not that we needed to be reminded. This is not ancient history.
Homosexuality had been officially decriminalized for 15 years, but arrests for gross indecency had tripled. The state wants what it wants. “I had to lead a double life,” says David, are recorded words performed by Alan Turkington. “I knew very well that I could end up in jail. That’s what I thought.”
“It was a fact of life,” we hear Pete say through actor Willie Hudson, “that most people didn’t like poufs.”
Then, in London, Heaven opens – the largest and most unabashed gay nightclub this septic island has ever seen and an oasis of freedom, within its four echoing walls, of fear. Attendees and later activists Rupert Whitaker and Martyn Butler remember it as “Amazing…enchanting” and “the first time we had a place of our own.” Interviewee John (Luke Hornsby) had a particularly wonderful time full of coke and champagne as a “Heaven babe”, complete with a lively anecdote about what happened when you had the champagne. The exuberance and excesses of the time, as many point out, were partly a reaction to the oppression and oppression in their daily lives. “Having sex with a lot of people was an act of liberation, of resistance,” someone says. He also adds, “It was a tremendous amount of fun.”
This first episode takes us through the terrible ending of that fun. Professors Anthony Pinching and Jonathan Weber explain how they started bringing together a scientific cohort to study the pattern of infections and cancer lesions that started to appear in the UK, as they had done in the US. Terrence Higgins, the famed bartender and “terrible dancer” at Heaven, became one of the first to die of AIDS in this country, and Whitaker, Butler and Nick Partridge set up a trust in his name as part of the growing grassroots response to the crisis.
The rest of the series takes us back to 1995 and the emergence of the first successful drug treatments for HIV and AIDS, through the tireless work of gay men and lesbians to combat the prejudices that hindered progress, to care for the sick, those who those in power and educating the public about safer sex – all while grieving countless personal losses. These stories have been told before. But while the inaugural broadcast of the unheard voices of those who were there, and who are no longer with us, is the USP, the documentary is also notable for being the first to tell this story with a sense of the joy previously present. were AIDS. It celebrates the hedonism of the lifestyle that was said to “cause” AIDS rather than feeling the need to ignore it. This new brazen honesty marks more than anything how far we’ve come since 1982. It tells a story of sorrow, pride and hope, one bringing relief to the other, to make a beautiful testament to all and everyone who has gone before.