Beyond the tombstone: how British TV responded to the AIDS crisis

Forty years after the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, curator Simon McCallum charts the unfolding of the crisis through the (mis)information spread by – and challenged on – our television screens.

It's a Sin (2021)

In January 1987 the distinctive tones of actor John Hurt began to emanate from television sets across the land, overlaying the sinister imagery and soundscapes of a new advertising campaign. “There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,” he warns, as industrial drills explode a rock face and a monolithic tombstone emerges, carved with that feared and misunderstood acronym, AIDS. “It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure…” 

Formally titled ‘Monolith’, this short, sharp shock and its sister film ‘Iceberg’ launched a £5 million cinema and TV campaign led by advertising mastermind Sammy Harari, funded by the Department of Health and accompanied by a leaflet sent to every household. “If you ignore AIDS it could be the death of you,” concludes Hurt with the campaign’s key strapline: “Don’t die of ignorance.”

Yet this was the government’s first significant attempt – building on a print campaign launched the previous year – to raise public awareness about an epidemic already wreaking havoc in parts of the population for some 5 years. 

The language of the campaign marked a positive turning point in its acknowledgment that “anyone can get it, man or woman” – far from the ‘gay plague’ touted by rabid tabloids. Yet with a perceived threat to the ‘wider’ population spurring authorities into belated action, the ads also reflect the marginalisation of minority groups across mainstream British media throughout the early stages of the epidemic (“So far, it’s been confined to small groups, but it’s spreading”). 

Those small groups, casually bypassed as mere collateral damage, were already in big trouble by 1987. While gay men were by some margin the UK’s worst affected and most demonised demographic, no strangers to being treated as expendable, HIV (the virus causing AIDS) impacted others, including Black African people, haemophiliacs, heterosexual women, IV drug users, sex workers and trans people.

The arrival of Russell T. Davies’ acclaimed Channel 4-HBO series It’s a Sin – the first major TV drama to truly centre the story of the early epidemic in the UK – has sparked a wave of shared memories, emotions and intergenerational conversations, not least in the LGBTQ+ community. This belated moment of rediscovery and catharsis prompted me to revisit British television’s original response to the crisis, primarily through programmes preserved and digitised by the BFI National Archive. Hundreds of current affairs shows, investigative documentaries, fundraising specials, campaigning and artists’ films touching on HIV/AIDS were broadcast on terrestrial channels between the virus’s arrival on our shores in the early 1980s and the arrival of effective combination therapy in the mid-1990s – an exhaustive history this is not. But I wanted to look beyond ‘that tombstone ad’, now ingrained in our cultural memory, and dig a little deeper. 

Though scientists have since traced the emergence of HIV/AIDS much further back through the 20th century, the crisis as we know it began when the first reports of a mystery illness hit the US press in mid-1981. At the epicentre were those communities fomented by the gay liberation movement of the 1970s, primarily in San Francisco and New York City. What initially came to be known as GRID – Gay-Related Immune Deficiency – did not make an impact in the mainstream British media for some time; even the fledgling gay press struggled to obtain accurate information.

On television, an early landmark was the BBC Horizon special Killer in the Village. Broadcast in April 1983, the programme laid bare the terrible situation facing gay men in New York’s Christopher Street neighbourhood – site of the Stonewall riot of 1969 – and questioned Britain’s preparedness. Several people in the UK had already died from AIDS-related causes by this point; the first, a 49-year-old man who was a regular visitor to the US, died at London’s Brompton Hospital in December 1981. 

Bright Eyes (1984)

By late 1984 a public ‘AIDS scare’, fuelled by widespread misinformation and misreporting, had taken hold among the British public. Popular current affairs series and more niche programming strands across BBC, ITV and Channel 4 began to engage with an issue prompting furious debate on and off screen.

Channel 4 broadcast an opening salvo from queer activists in December 1984: video artist Stuart Marshall’s polemic Bright Eyes drew parallels between increasingly virulent AIDS stigma and historical persecution of homosexuals. In November 1985’s A Plague on You, made by the BBC’s Community Programme Unit for its Open Space strand, Marshall joined fellow members of the Gay and Lesbian Media Group to explain the negative impact of media scaremongering on both sufferers and the public at large. Before his own death from AIDS in 1993, Marshall would document the work of activist group ACT UP, challenging government inertia on both sides of the Atlantic, in Over Our Dead Bodies – shown in Channel 4’s dedicated LGBT strand Out in August 1991. 

Over Our Dead Bodies (1991)

While those most affected by HIV/AIDS were rarely granted a significant platform on primetime television – and were understandably reluctant to waive their anonymity given the febrile media climate – an early advocate appeared in the form of Bill Ayers. In February 1985 Ayers appeared in AIDS: The Victims (broadcast in Thames’ TV Eye slot), meeting junior health minister John Patten, who agrees to shake his hand.

The same month, Ayers featured in a segment in chat show Daytime, and appeared in another TV Eye (AIDS and You) in November that year. Ayers’ courage in speaking his truth as an unapologetic gay man living with AIDS is striking, as is the programme’s respectful approach when contrasted with the baldly homophobic headlines spat out by Fleet Street (Ayers also spoke to The Sun).

LWT’s Weekend World produced several reports, including The AIDS Scare – Fact and Fiction (February 1985), with The London Programme also reporting on discrimination against gay people. Yorkshire TV was forced to hire a temporary venue for a September 1985 edition of its discussion programme Where There’s Life, when technicians at its Leeds studio refused to work with HIV-positive guests.

The plight of haemophiliacs was covered in several of these early TV reports, including Bad Blood, a July 1985 special for the BBC’s World in Action on the threat to blood supplies imported from the US. HIV was a factor in the contaminated blood scandal, the consequences of which resound well into the 21st century.

The specific needs and experiences of people of colour living with HIV were rarely represented, one exception being Thames TV’s community action series Help!, which looked at the impact of AIDS on ethnic minorities, as well as carers and children, in 3 episodes broadcast in March 1987. 

AIDS: The Last Chance (1986)

Flagship ITV current affairs series This Week stepped into the fray in October 1986 with AIDS: The Last Chance, a special report broadcast across 2 weeks. The ‘last chance’ here refers not to gay men, all but dismissed as a lost cause, but the heterosexual population, with the suggestion that 1 million could be infected by 1990. AZT, touted as a wonder drug in medical trials but which proved toxic in high doses to many people with AIDS, is also discussed (and was later investigated in 1987 Heart of the Matter report Dicing with Death). Any concerns over civil liberties are brushed aside as a ‘balanced’ studio audience votes for compulsory screening and identity cards. 

The programme is also notable for the appearance of a 19-year-old Sinéad O’Connor in a mesmerising mocked-up ad for ‘Prophyltex’ extra-strong condoms – an urgent provocation at a time when condom advertising was still banned on British television. O’Connor was one of countless women from all walks of life who provided much-needed support in the fight against AIDS, and against the pernicious strain of ‘morality’ that had hindered swift decisive action at every turn. Questions of morality and ‘permissiveness’ infiltrated TV discussions time and again, with gay men and occasionally drug users the prime targets. 

The government AIDS campaign itself came under the spotlight, with Weekend World reporting on its imminent launch (The AIDS Campaign and the AIDS Generation, December 1986). Channel 4’s Diverse Reports offered a fascinating insight into the challenges faced by its creative team (AIDS: The Ads, March 1987), who voiced their frustration at the limitations stymying a clear and effective safer sex message.

Though it’s thought to have had an impact on the transmission of HIV and other STIs, the campaign’s oppressive, fear-driven message, compounded by years of irresponsible coverage in many national newspapers, created undue panic and anxiety for many people at very low risk of contracting HIV. The London Programme reported from hospitals inundated by the “worried well” demanding tests (see May 1987’s Is It Time to Stop the AIDS Panic?). Later ads in the campaign, which ran into the early 1990s, took a less oblique approach than ‘Iceberg’ and ‘Monolith’, focusing more explicitly on condom use and introducing occasional dashes of humour and levity.

The main channels instituted their own dedicated strands for disseminating up-to-date HIV/AIDS statistics and information, including Channel 4’s AIDS Brief (1987) and AIDS Now (1988). An episode of the latter (Quest for Control, January 1988) posed questions around control and containment measures that echo a more recent pandemic – mandatory testing, policing international borders, and the issuing of ‘AIDS-Free’ cards.

AIDS Update (1990)

ITV deployed the magazine format with AIDS Update, broadcast annually from 1988 to 1992 as a 5-part series around World AIDS Day on 1 December. Presenters Muriel Grey, Ruby Wax – and Sinéad O’Connor – introduced the latest AIDS research and more personal stories about life with HIV. Issues tackled included HIV transmission in prisons, how to teach schoolchildren about AIDS, and the often overlooked experiences of HIV-positive women. The growing problem of transmission among injecting drug users was also addressed, with AIDS activists on the front line in New York passing on lessons learned.

Between 1993 and 1995 LWT broadcast 3 World AIDS Day editions of its Speakeasy youth magazine show, with studio discussion and location reports aimed at encouraging condom use among an audience producers seem to have assumed was straight. 

British television would also deploy its rookie fundraising skills for the cause. From ITV’s First AIDS in February 1987 to Live at Lighthouse in January 1995, celebrities were corralled and awareness was raised. LWT broadcast highlights from the AIDS charity concert at Wembley in April 1987, and Channel 4’s Hysteria 2, broadcast on World AIDS Day 1989, closed with a performance from Tina Turner herself. In November 1990, Channel 4’s The Media Show went behind the scenes of charity music project Red, Hot + Blue, with Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Jimmy Somerville and Neneh Cherry. In 1987 Somerville had re-joined Bronski Beat for a special charity concert at Brixton Academy, later broadcast by LWT’s Cue the Music in December 1991.

Red, Hot and Blue (1990)

No discussion of the AIDS crisis in Britain can ignore the infamous piece of legislation passed by Parliament in May 1988. Section 28 of the Local Government Act forbade local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality or the teaching in schools of its acceptability “as a pretended family relationship”. At a stroke, a generation of LGBT children were denied appropriate sex and relationship education; indeed their very existence was denied.

In the months before the bill passed it was discussed, often in the context of AIDS, in several TV programmes. In This Week report Back in the Closet (January 1988), LGBT campaigner and future Stonewall co-founder Lisa Power suggests that the ultimate aim of those behind the legislation was to “re-criminalise homosexuality, and possibly lesbianism for the first time”. Weekend World followed with Homosexuality – Back to the Straight and Narrow?, featuring an extraordinary studio debate in which Stonewall’s Jennie Wilson rebuts right-wing historian Paul Johnson’s suggestion that that “violent promiscuity [is] endemic among homosexuals” and responsible for AIDS. Incredibly, Section 28 would not be fully repealed until 2003, but it had served to galvanise the LGBTQ+ community from its very inception.

The Toughest Job in Medicine (1987)

For every crank or homophobic pundit gifted a TV platform from which to pontificate, there was a level-headed clinician or community spokesperson ready to seize every scrap of screen time to debunk and demystify; to take the higher road. As well as Power and Wilson, regular ‘talking heads’ throughout this period included Professor Michael Adler of the Middlesex Hospital, where the first specialist AIDS unit was opened by Princess Diana. (The work of Adler and his team is captured in The Toughest Job in Medicine, an April 1987 edition of This Week.) Or Tony Whitehead of the Terrence Higgins Trust, named for the London barman who in 1982 became one of the first people in the UK to die of an AIDS-related illness. To them we owe our thanks. 

Echoing the halting progress across the Atlantic, where Hollywood and the major television networks largely ignored the unfolding catastrophe until the late 1980s, British film and TV dramas on the subject were thin on the ground. The first significant productions shied away from depicting those members of the LGBTQ+ community then worst affected, favouring a narrative of heterosexual men contracting HIV through illicit or transgressive sex with women. Central’s 1987 4-parter Intimate Contact, written by Alma Cullen and directed by Waris Hussein, follows a straight businessman who contracts HIV from a female sex worker; HBO later broadcast a re-edited version in the US. BBC Screen Two play Sweet as You Are (1988) placed a university lecturer in a similar predicament following sex with a female student. The moralising and finger-pointing infiltrated all corners of mainstream media, which dictated that blame must be apportioned.

David Cook’s Closing Numbers, commissioned by Channel 4 for World AIDS Day 1993, represented a shift away from unhelpfully alarmist scenarios towards some sense of understanding and nuance. Discovering her husband is bisexual and may have been exposed to the virus, Jane Asher’s naive housewife finds herself on a journey of (self-)discovery, eventually taking on the role of ‘buddy’ to a dying, ostracised gay man (played by dancer Nigel Charnock).

More overtly personal queer stories emerged with Howard Schuman’s Nervous Energy (BBC Screen Two, 1995), starring Alfred Molina as a Glasgow man returning home to break the news of his diagnosis to his family; and My Night with Reg (1997), adapted for the BBC by Kevin Elyot from his hit 1994 play. Elyot’s later Channel 4 drama Clapham Junction (2007) would explore – to disturbing and controversial effect – the lingering ramifications of the AIDS era’s legacy of shame for a disparate group of mostly closeted gay men. 

Efforts to introduce the topic to new audiences included a 1993 storyline in ITV series Children’s Ward, whose writers included Russell T. Davies. But arguably the drama with the greatest impact on the British viewing public was BBC soap EastEnders’ long-running HIV storyline. Perhaps partly as a result of the homophobic backlash against the soap’s first gay character, played by Michael Cashman from 1986 to 1989, it was written for the heterosexual Mark Fowler (Todd Carty), but it did tackle the widespread ignorance and stigma around the disease. Following his return to Albert Square in 1990, Fowler reveals that he has contracted HIV from ex-girlfriend Gill (who later dies of AIDS-related illness); he faces prejudice from neighbours who scrawl “AIDS scum” on his wall, and is persuaded to have counselling with the Terrence Higgins Trust. A year after the character was written out in 2003, Fowler dies of complications from AIDS – off screen.

Relax (1991)

Among the artists’ film and video work peppering the TV schedules, in 1988 Channel 4 arts show Alter Image featured Neil Bartlett’s powerful monologue ‘That’s What Friends Are For’. Hugo Irwin offered a riotously queer and subversive account of living and dying with AIDS in Safe in the Arms of Catastrophe (1993), made for BBC disability strand From the Edge; Irwin died before its broadcast. And the agonising, then drawn-out wait for the results of an HIV test was given dreamlike form in Chris Newby’s BFI-funded short Relax (1991), later aired twice on Channel 4. 

Alter Image (1988)

We cannot forget the great queer artist and activist Derek Jarman, whose decision to go public after his diagnosis in December 1986 made him the most prominent HIV-positive cultural figure in Britain. Among many TV appearances, Jarman gave a warm and witty interview to Jeremy Isaacs for the BBC’s Face to Face strand in March 1993, by which time his health was deteriorating rapidly. Made as blindness encroached, Blue – his angry, beautiful testament to life and love in the time of AIDS – premiered on Channel 4 and BBC Radio 3 simultaneously on 19 September 1993. Jarman died exactly 5 months later, but not before appearing on daft Channel 4 special Camp Christmas: his frail presence amid the bonhomie a characteristically defiant reminder of those living with or lost to AIDS

2021 marks the global 40th anniversary of the epidemic. In the UK much has changed since the era depicted in It’s a Sin and these glimpses into the archive. The message today is that someone living with HIV and on effective treatment cannot pass it on. Yet as western countries take steps to eradicate HIV/AIDS over the next decade, the need remains for vigilance, and to support those around the world without access to healthcare and information. Though far from analogous, the COVID-19 pandemic has offered an unexpected lens through which to revisit this earlier crisis, prompting long overdue conversations and exposing those it had passed by to a lesson from history.

Many of the titles mentioned in this piece are available to view free in the BFI Southbank Mediatheque’s extensive AIDS on Screen collection, with a small selection available in BFI Player’s LGBT Britain collection

The Terrence Higgins Trust offers support, advice and information on HIV and sexual health. Visit The Terrence Higgins Trust website, call THT Direct on 0808 802 1221 or email

Watch for free on BFI Player