It’s one thing to chronicle the Aids outbreak of the early Eighties and the ensuing public health panic. But to do so in an entertaining fashion while never downplaying a generational tragedy is a particularly impressive achievement.
Epidemic: When Britain Fought Aids (Channel 4) was, at one level, a serious tribute to the doctors, activists and politicians who confronted an ignorant nation with the grim reality of a then-untreatable condition. But, with sparky narration from Julie Walters, the documentary also took us back to the world of cheesy pop, terrible haircuts and light-hearted historical moments from the decade (such as Clive Sinclair welcoming the first C5 electric buggy off the production line).
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There was also much evidence of over-the-top bigotry which, in retrospect, seems heartbreaking. Comedian Paul O’Grady remembered performing at a gay club that was raided by police wearing rubber gloves as protection against HIV.
As the extent of the Aids crisis became clear, senior politicians hesitated to approve a public information campaign. Norman Fowler (Secretary of State for Social Services at the time) recalled, with visible frustration, a reluctance to confront the looming public health disaster. The fear was that, by highlighting the dangers the disease posed to the gay community, impressionable citizens might be seduced by the lifestyle.
Common sense prevailed in the end and, by 1986, Britain was leading the way with a Government flier campaign which soberly set out the facts about HIV and Aids (accompanied by a less sober television campaign chock full of Hollywood explosions). As more than 20 million leaflets with the slogan “Aids: Don’t Die of Ignorance” were pushed through letterboxes, there was a surprise upside, according to this documentary: many closeted gay men across Britain were empowered to finally open up about their sexuality.
Indeed without the crisis, Rupert Whitaker (co-founder of the Terrence Higgins Trust) suggested, the present era of tolerance towards sexual minorities might never have come to pass. Aids forced society to see that homosexuality was not some hidden menace.
Of course, it would be too glib to describe this as a happy ending and Epidemic did not present it as such. Nonetheless, Channel 4 is to be commended for gleaning something celebratory from one of the darkest chapters in modern British history.