TV

Aids: The Unheard Tapes – stories from the heart of a crisis

A new BBC documentary gives voice to those at the centre of the Aids epidemic. Pioneering oral historian Dr Wendy Rickard, who conducted the interviews, explains why it's so important they are heard.

Pete (Willie Hudson) in Aids: The Unheard Tapes

Pete (Willie Hudson). Hear Pete's story in Aids: The Unheard Tapes on BBC2 / iPlayer. Image: BBC/Wall to Wall Media Ltd

As the Aids crisis in Britain grew in the mid-1980s, pioneering researchers conducted audio interviews with gay men and their friends, producing an archive of frank, intimate discussions of life at the heart of the Aids epidemic. They have been in the British Library ever since.

Now, an innovative, important new documentary brings this real-time oral history project to life as young actors lip-sync to the original recordings. The effect is hugely powerful.

Aids: The Unheard Tapes, which airs from Monday 27 June on BBC2 at 9.30pm, covers the period from 1982, when the first cases of a mysterious and deadly virus hit the gay community through to 1997, when combination therapy revolutionised survival hopes for people with HIV. Oral historian Dr Wendy Rickard conducted many of the original interviews…

The Big Issue: Why was it so important to create this oral history archive?

Dr Wendy Rickard: As one interviewee said, oral history made it possible to “get into the closet with people”. It offered a way to carefully respect the wishes of the speakers, to preserve their words for a time when they might feel OK for people to listen to them. It was a way to value their stories and save them for the future. And elevations in people’s self worth by doing it were potentially a bonus.

Oral history gives you direct, unapologetic language, uncluttered by professional health, science, media and big pharma agendas. It challenges concepts of people with HIV being remembered only as objects of medical curiosity or as pitiable victims of disease or any other of those depersonalised, soundex coded, scientific records we have of people. And of course privacy and confidentiality were important, but it seemed to me that blanket privacy policies were also silencing people. The British Library were absolutely brilliant at helping us out of those ditches, to do something quiet but, it turns out, pioneering.

What are your abiding memories from conducting the original interviews?

Cycling round with a tape recorder, going to people’s houses, prison cells, university residences, homeless shelters, temporary housing association flats, voluntary agencies – wherever people were, we went there and recorded. We sat at their feet and listened intently for hours, sometimes long into the night, nudging them with a well-phrased question when needed. And helping do the shopping, get the prescription, feed the cat, hang the washing, fill out a form. And then having pauses when people were too unwell or visiting them in hospital or the hospice to carry on recording if they were bored or just to chat. So basically a whole range of things modern research protocols probably tell you not to do.

They had to get wise swiftly, before dying too young

Dr Wendy Rickard

What do we learn by listening to contemporary or near contemporary interviews about the Aids epidemic and its impact?

It was important to me at the time to only interview people with HIV, to make their voices the loudest.

Like all oral history, empowerment is key, generating from within communities the authority to explore and interpret their own experience, experience traditionally invisible in formal AIDS history because of predictable assumptions about who and what matters (doctors, scientists, drugs, money). By listening to these interviews now, we learn what happened to individuals, how raw it felt.

We learn what people were wearing, what happened to the last boyfriend, lots about sexual practices with this one and that one, why night sweats are crap, how to come to terms with gay domestic abuse, how best to padlock yourself to Westminster bridge on a protest, how to cash in your pension and live large, how grim day time TV and loneliness can be, what family means and what happens if you wash coffee grains down your sink every day. We learn how weird it is to plan your own death, how shocking when others die and you don’t. And so very, very much more.

For those who lived, both they and we learn how narratives have changed over time. Tony says he’s been back to the archive to listen to his own interview, to remember.

How important is this (brilliant, innovative) series – coming in the wake of It’s a Sin – in terms of educating and informing people about Britain’s Aids crisis?

It’s a Sin did a great job of waking the public up to HIV again. By using life stories, this innovative BBC series now follows and gives agency to people with HIV to tell their own story in their own words –its hard hitting, genuine and charming. It walks a nice line on big topics like tragedy and the culpability of Thatcherite politics. And it does not dilute loves and lives wrenched from people and its compelling and deeply moving to watch, so I hope it helps with educating and informing people in a refreshing new lip synching way.

It also opened a worm can about making sure everyone who features in the series was OK with their voice being heard like this, or their loved ones were. The series producer and director have been really commendable in their efforts to handle that side of things.

It’s 50 years of Pride in London and the 40th anniversary of the death of Terrence Higgins. How vital is it that we learn lessons from the past and preserve histories, especially as so many people who would have now been elders of the LGBTQ+ community were lost to Aids?

Absolutely vital. Look at the prejudices emerging again around monkey pox. Think of the children growing up with HIV, some of whom are themselves LGBTQ, whose parents are perhaps lost in old stigmas and harsh daily realities. There are glaring gaps in losing all those would-be elder voices, all that wisdom, all those rich ideas, that daring, that charm, that beauty, that presence, that experience of horrors and those ways of dealing with blatant injustice.

To have captured something of the essence of LGBTQ people who died (and those from other communities, as we did not just interview gay men) feels radically important and a huge privilege. It is unusual for younger people to record oral histories. It’s conventionally the preserve of those over 70 who have lived long and full lives. AIDS changed lots of things, including oral history. Does it sound stupid to say I think in a way we have got an idea of those elder voices to learn from, in the archive, in concentrated form, in their refreshingly youthful accounts, because they had to get wise swiftly, before dying too young. The BBC series has been great to get some of those voices out there in an absorbingly creative way.

Aids: The Unheard Tapes airs on BBC Two from June 27 and iPlayer

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