They were images ingrained in the minds of everyone who lived in the 1980s – dark TV ads featuring tombstones carrying the chiselled words: AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance.
But despite its shocking nature, the Government’s campaign to combat HIV, which was unveiled exactly three decades ago, played a huge role in stopping the disease from spreading in the UK.
The unlikely union between Conservative ministers, medics and gay rights groups is one explored in a TV documentary, Epidemic: When Britain Fought AIDS.
Shown tomorrow as part of Channel 4’s 50 Shades of Gay season to mark the 50th anniversary of the part decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, the moving insight includes contributions from fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier to TV star Paul O’Grady.
It also features Lord Norman Fowler, the Health Secretary who tirelessly in the battled against AIDS. But he revealed he also had to battle Tory Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
“She said to me: ‘Norman you mustn’t been know just as the Minister of AIDS.’” said Lord Fowler, now 79. “What she meant was: ‘Why don’t you go and do something else other than this?’ because I was spending a great deal of time on the subject.
“It was a moral question (for her) that homosexuality is wrong that family life is the only thing that matters – that was very close to what Margaret Thatcher herself felt. I don’t think she ever changed that view.
“We did try to have a ministerial broadcast and she vetoed that. She said: ‘I didn’t have ministerial broadcast on the Falklands War I’m certainly not going to have one on AIDS.’”
Lord Fowler also revealed that Mrs Thatcher believed that the safe sex message in the TV and newspaper adverts, as well as the leaflets which were posted to every household in the country, would actually have the opposite affect.
“Her initial attitude was that if you had this advertising you’re going to teach a lot of young people things they never knew about,” he said. “Although it was a warning, the implication of what she was saying was that people would actually start NOT using condoms.
“But we had a conversation with the chief medical officer (and) her attitude eventually changed to one of acceptance. She wasn’t a fool. But, frankly, she didn’t have a great deal of sympathy for the subject.”
The documentary, directed and produced by James House, shows how the AIDS epidemic emerged in Britain in the early 1980s, a decade when the country was still a relatively conservative, sheltered nation.
The threat of a disease, which was still a virtual death sentence, was a bombshell for the country, and one which brought out the best and worst in humanity.
In December 1986, James Anderton, chief constable of Greater Manchester police said that gay people, drug addicts and prostitutes who had HIV/AIDS were “swirling in a human cesspit of their own making.”
Some religious leaders also fought the safe sex message and were keen to maintain the consensus that gay people weren’t equal members of society.
But this backfired spectacularly, and when the rates of HIV infection started to fall, the raised profile of gay communities also ushered in a new era of acceptance and respect.
Many campaigners in the gay community now believe that without AIDS we might not have had gay marriage equality today.
Lord Fowler says: “The attacks there were on the gay community, of which there a lot in that period actually helped because the British public are quite fair in their judgements.
“There was one lord who advocated everyone with HIV should be isolated and sent off to an island somewhere. But then you had people saying not only does that not makes sense it’s inhumane and ridiculous. It was the same with the chief constable of Manchester and his famous attack.
“They were totally counterproductive. In fact understanding and sympathy among the wider general public actually increased.”
Epidemic: When Britain Fought AIDS is on More 4 on Sunday July 9 at 10pm.
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