Aids: The Unheard Tapes review – tragedy and joy from voices no longer with us

This powerful documentary, based on recordings made by those caught in the first wave of HIV, is remarkable in its celebration of a hedonistic lifestyle shaped in part by a homophobic society

Rare is the reconstruction in a documentary that adds anything to the story. Rare, in fact, that it doesn’t actively hold up proceedings and require actors to perform (usually in caveman skins or low-budget Tudorbethan costume) for viewers something they were perfectly capable of visualising and would have been better off doing so.

A deeply moving exception to this rule is to be found in the new three-part documentary Aids: The Unheard Tapes (BBC Two). In the 1980s and 90s, as a new and apparently unstoppable disease ravaged the gay community, volunteers began to record for posterity interviews with the men infected with what would eventually be identified as the HIV virus, and with their friends. The tapes are now archived at the British Library and have never been broadcast before. In the documentary, actors lip-sync to them. What sounds on paper like a terrible gimmick works beautifully, bringing you closer to appreciating all that was lost as the crisis unfolded and government inertia demanded that ordinary people step up and do extraordinary things to save themselves and others.

It begins in 1982, a time when – as the voiceover by Russell Tovey notes – the legal age of gay male consent was 21, you could be fired from most jobs if you were “out” and gay pubs still operated with blacked-out windows in fear of the homophobia that was rife. Not that we needed reminding. This is not ancient history.

Homosexuality had been officially decriminalised 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, his taped words performed by Alan Turkington. “I was very aware I could end up in prison. That was what I thought of.”

“It was a fact of life,” we hear Pete say via actor Willie Hudson, “that most people didn’t like poofs.”

Then, in London, Heaven opens – the largest and most unapologetically gay nightclub this septic isle has ever seen and an oasis of freedom, within its four reverberating walls, from fear. Attendees and later activists Rupert Whitaker and Martyn Butler remember it as “Amazing … entrancing” and “the first time we had a place to call our own”. Taped interviewee John (Luke Hornsby) had a particularly wonderful coke-and-champagne-fuelled time as a “Heaven babe”, complete with a vivid anecdote about what happened when you finished the champagne. The exuberance and excesses of the time were, as many note, partly in reaction to the suppression and oppression in their daily lives. “Having sex with loads of people was an act of liberation, of defiance,” says one. Also, he adds, “It was a huge 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 to gather a scientific cohort together to study the pattern of infections and cancerous lesions that were beginning to appear in the UK as they had done in the US. Terrence Higgins, famed barman and “terrible dancer” at Heaven, became among the first to die from Aids in this country and Whitaker and Butler set up a trust in his name which later became the first charity in the UK set up in response to the HIV epidemic.

The rest of the series will take us up to 1995 and the emergence of the first successful drug treatments for HIV and Aids, via the tireless work of gay men and lesbians to combat the prejudice that was hampering progress, to care for the sick, lobby those in power and educate the population about safer sex – all while grieving multitudinous personal losses. These stories have been told before. But although the inaugural broadcasting of the unheard voices of those who were there, and who are no longer with us, is the USP, the documentary is also noteworthy for being the first to tell this story with a sense of the joy that was present before Aids. It celebrates the hedonism of the lifestyle that was then said to “cause” Aids rather than feeling the need to ignore it. This new, unashamed honesty marks more than anything how far we have come since 1982. It tells a story of grief and pride and hope, each one throwing the others into relief, to make a beautiful testament to everything and everyone who has gone before.

• This article was amended on 30 June 2022. An earlier version wrongly included Nick Partridge among people who set up the Terrence Higgins Trust. It also said that the trust was set up as part of a growing grassroots movement, when it was instead a vanguard in Aids/HIV activism.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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