Aids: The Unheard Tapes ends on a wonderful revelation

Aids: The Unheard Tapes ends on a wonderful revelation

For those of us who witnessed the arrival of AIDS in this country, the series AIDS: The Unheard Tapes (BBC2) was always uncomfortable.

It was based on taped interviews collected by the British Library. We may have to wait a little longer for similar interviews collected from Irish institutions to be made available to the public.

Just kidding; the Irish never do something so devastatingly simple and important as charting the reactions of their ordinary citizens during a national or international crisis. We are too busy queuing at Dublin Airport.

However, the interviews, mostly with gay men, began in 1982. The tapes have never been aired before and they were lip-synched by actors in front of the camera. This could have been sticky, but it worked beautifully.

The prejudices that AIDS sufferers face was embodied here by a young heterosexual woman who, after her diagnosis, was what we would now call her own mother’s ghosting.

The third and final episode set us in 1992 and approached some sort of AIDS treatment and used a lot of words that hadn’t been heard in over 20 years.

Words like Retrovir, the brand name of AZT, a cancer drug that seemed so promising. What hopes we had for that! AZT was approved for use after a study in just 200 patients. It was useless to people who had progressed to what was then called “full blown AIDS.”

Too toxic for cancer patients, it was prescribed in high doses and the side effects were brutal. “I believe the doses given have killed more people than HIV,” said George Hodson calmly. His partner Sam had been on AZT for six months when he died in George’s arms.

Act Up and Outrage were other words we hadn’t heard in a long time. These were the campaign groups formed by gay men to shame governments and get some kind of action. In Paris, on December 1, 1993, they covered the obelisk on Place de la Concorde with a giant condom. The protests were fun; they were photo opportunities; They were, as one man pointed out, a model for many disability protests to come.

It quickly became clear how the AIDS crisis had changed our culture in some surprising ways. A group of young men like that, having to attend so many funerals, was bound to result in a lot of very specific last requests. Sir Nick Partridge, a British activist, spoke of how AIDS had revolutionized funerals: “Of course there had to be a disco song.”

AIDS also looked back to World War II: young men dying in large numbers, knowing that it wasn’t a matter of if, but when they would die. George Hodson’s unit at London Lighthouse Hospice had 12 beds. A candle was lit whenever someone died in the unit. When he came out of his room one morning, he found three of them burning.

In another way, AIDS anticipated the Covid epidemic. Do all viruses, as a contemporary voiceover put it, resemble “a spiked golf ball”? There was the same frantic rush for a cure. In the end there was none, just management: in this case, a three-drug cocktail, bless him. “Protease inhibitor” was another term that was a thing of the past.

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Of course, millions never made it to the bizarre funerals, the triple drug cocktail and the ecstasy tablets in the clubs. “The clubs were our cathedrals,” says one contributor.

Some of us know wonderful people, funny people for whom treatment came too late. So our guess for watching Aids: The Unheard Tapes was that all those voices belonged to the dead. Not so. In a marvelous move, the programmers replaced the young actors we had seen on screen with the real men who have now grown old. In fact, it was very moving to see how old they had become.

Only John Campbell, whose diagnosis was only 20 years old, did not show up. He had been fired from his job as assistant hotel manager and devoted himself to the protests and parties. He didn’t die until he was 39, which was his own brand of triumph. As a revealing homage to this history project, he played the tape of his interview at his funeral.

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Then there was the twelfth, broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on Tuesday evenings. There had been controversy when the channel refused to provide live coverage of the traditional Orange Marches after two summers tainted by the pandemic.

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The BBC has decided not to broadcast the Orange Marches live this year

GB News stepped in to fill the gap and its coverage was presented live by Arlene Foster. A solid one in Belfast BBC Newsline The reporter asked a member of the crowd what was wrong with suspending live coverage when everyone could attend their local parade, of which there were so many. “There are people in the houses,” he said. One cannot contradict that.

Several representatives from Loyal Orange Lodges (it turns out “LOL” has a much older meaning) said they didn’t mean to offend anyone. As a Taig, I’m personally not offended at all. Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say – although the music is pretty monotonous.

Babies banging toy drums adorned with Union Jacks, mobility scooters amid the marching bands and commentator Helen Mark in a white cardigan at the scene of the Battle of the Boyne – all is well away from the bonfires. There were bands from the Republic although the parade was in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal last weekend. “It’s much more relaxed,” said one official. Thank God.

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