Putting 'AIDS: The Unheard Tapes' in context
Mary Stewart, Lead Curator of Oral History, gives more information on the interviews used in a new BBC documentary series.
Broadcast tonight on BBC2 is the first in a three-part documentary series entitled AIDS: The Unheard Tapes (27 June, 9.30pm BBC2). The series is a powerful showcase of selected recordings from the British Library’s extensive collection of oral history interviews with people living with HIV and those directly affected by the HIV epidemic. All three episodes will be available on BBC iPlayer.
AIDS: The Unheard Tapes uses personal testimonies to tell the story of the HIV epidemic in the UK from the early 1980s until the mid 1990s as experienced by the UK’s gay community, tracking a similar time period to the award-winning 2021 Channel 4 drama series It’s a Sin. Alongside new filmed interviews, each one-hour episode forefronts testimony from the British Library’s oral history collections recorded in the 1980s and 1990s. The documentary uses the audio from the archived interviews with each narrator's voice lip-synched for television by an actor. Sadly, many of the interviewees whose powerful testimony features in this series have since died.
Which oral history collections are featured in the documentary?
The programmes use selected interviews from two pioneering oral history projects, one recorded in the late 1980s and another from the mid-1990s onwards. Both were archived at the British Library for long-term preservation and public access.
The Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project features over 100 interviews conducted from 1985 until the early 1990s with gay and lesbian people in Britain. The testimonies contained in this rich and diverse collection were recorded as the HIV epidemic unfolded, so many of the interviews have stories from people living with HIV or from those who saw its effects on friends and their communities. Researcher Margot Farnham played a key role in organising and interviewing for the project and in the publication of two books* based on the testimonies. Margot’s voice features as one of the interviewers in AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.
HIV/AIDS Testimonies is a collection of life story interviews with people with HIV and AIDS recorded by researchers Wendy Rickard and Babs Gibson. 30 interviews were recorded between 1995-2000. In 2005 Wendy and Babs returned to re-interview as many of the original participants as possible, adding to the collection a second set of interviews capturing people’s experiences in the intervening decade. Where interviewees had since died, recordings with loved ones were made, where possible. The voices of Wendy and Babs also feature in AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.
What makes these collections stand out?
The power of life stories
The recordings in these collections are long and in-depth life stories in which the interviewees were asked to reflect on the entirety of their life experience: childhood, education, family, work, their social lives, communities and their relationships. This means that each recording captures a rich audio biography of the narrator in their own words recounting their experiences in vivid detail, drawing us into their emotional world, their humour and their turn of phrase. The documentary has, of course, used excerpts that are relevant to each interviewee’s experience of HIV, but the testimony is so compelling because it is drawn from the long life stories held in the archive. These interviews are a powerful reflection of their time – when knowledge of HIV had to be built from scratch and the prospect of effective treatment was at best experimental. This means that the recordings capture the uncertainty and emotion of the era, when no-one knew what the immediate future would hold.
Archiving the material for future listeners
The researchers leading these projects worked from the outset with the oral history team at the British Library to archive these frank and in-depth interviews (led by Curator Rob Perks, who worked at the Library 1988-2021). As with all oral recordings, each interviewee decided when and how their interview was made available, but everyone was interviewed in the knowledge that their recording would one day be publicly accessible. Many interviewees placed no restrictions on public access and these interviews have been accessible in the Library’s Reading Rooms for decades. There are still a number of interviews that are currently closed at the interviewees' request, and the Library will make these powerful recordings available to researchers in the future as soon as the access restrictions cease.
Without the Library's commitment over 30 years ago to archive and provide public access to these highly sensitive interviews there is little chance that they could be used in this documentary series. The production team at Wall to Wall Media listened to many hours of testimony in the Library’s Reading Rooms, selecting the material that they wished to broadcast. Where possible all of the interviewees or their loved ones were then re-contacted to ensure that they were happy for the audio to be broadcast.
What other oral history material is available at the British Library on HIV in the UK?
It is vitally important to recognise that this documentary series and the interviews selected to feature in it represent only some of the communities and individuals affected by HIV in the UK. This diversity of experience is reflected in the other testimonies held in the HIV and AIDS Testimonies collection and also in the wider body of material archived and made accessible by the Library’s oral history team – work which continues today.
Here is a brief overview of the oral histories of people living with HIV, or working in HIV specialisms, within the British Library collections. You can search the detailed catalogue records for all of the interviews on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. There are search tips available on the British Library website. The Library's Listening and Viewing Service can provide assistance and information on how to listen to recordings.
Invisible Women: Positively Women HIV Interviews is a collection of 16 oral history interviews with women living with HIV. The interviews reveal how HIV has affected them socially, at work and in their family lives. The project was carried out by Positively UK as part of a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2007 and 2008.
Imagining Patient Zero: interviews about the history of the North American HIV/AIDS epidemic is a collection of 50 interviews recorded by Richard McKay between 2007 and 2008 as part of his research investigating the concept of ‘patient zero’ and the early years of HIV in North America.
Haemophilia and HIV Life History Project and HIV in the Family: an oral history of parents, partners and children of those with haemophilia and HIV comprise nearly 80 interviews and document the history and lives of those living with these conditions, as well as the experiences of the families of those infected. Extracts from both projects are available on the Living Stories website. These powerful oral history interviews are being used in the ongoing Infected Blood enquiry.
Listen here to interviewee Paul reflect on recording his story about living with haemophilia and HIV:
Paul interviewed by Sian Edwards, 2004, Haemophilia and HIV Life History Project C1086/12 © British Library
The AIDS Era: an oral history of UK healthcare workers is a collection of interviews with 61 healthcare workers who cared for people with HIV at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. Jane Bruton, an interviewee and one of the project leaders, is also interviewed for AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.
Geraldine was a staff nurse and then the Community Liaison Nurse on the HIV ward. In this clip from her interview she talks about the vital role of volunteers in the 1980s and 1990s:
Geraldine Reilly interviewed by Fiona Clampin, 2018, The AIDS Era: an oral history of UK healthcare workers C1759/51 © British Library.
The oral history team are absolutely delighted to be currently working with CHIVA: the Children’s HIV Association on their interviewing project Positively Spoken. The project team are recording 50 interviews with young people about their experiences of growing up with HIV. The project is participative and includes peer interviews. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Positively Spoken is gathering powerful testimonies from young people, many of whom are speaking on record for the first time about their experiences of living with HIV.
Making AIDS: The Unheard Tapes possible
The production company for this series, Wall to Wall Media, liaised extensively with the oral history team as we worked through the permissions, rights and ethics for each recording considered for broadcast. This has been supported by colleagues from the Listening & Viewing Service, Soundcopy Service, Sound Licensing team and British Library Press. Both collections featured in the documentary have been digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, so thanks are due to the UOSH team and project funders the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Considerable thanks are also due to Wendy Rickard, Babs Gibson and Margot Farnham for their collaboration and consultation.
Finally, and most importantly, a massive thank you to all of the interviewees, interviewers and project leaders for their time, effort and generosity in helping the Library build and provide access to such an amazing array of personal testimonies.
Find out more
The Library’s LGBTQ histories web resource highlights material from across the collections. From Tuesday 28 June 2022 visit the Treasures Gallery in St Pancras to see the new case ‘Proud Words’ which showcases newspapers, books, leaflets and manifestos authored by LGBTQ+ people in the 1970s and 1980s - creating and claiming words for their community.
*Walking after Midnight: Gay Men's Life Stories (The Hall Carpenter Archives, 1989).
*Inventing Ourselves: Lesbian Life Stories (The Hall Carpenter Archives Lesbian Oral History Group, 1989).
Margot Farnham and David Ruffell, ‘Scenarios of Departure: the AIDS Paintings of David Ruffell’ in Ecstatic Antibodies, Resisting the AIDS mythology, edited by Tessa Boffin and Sunil Gupta (Rivers-Oram Press, 1990).
Wendy Rickard, ‘HIV/Aids Testimonies in the 1990s’ in Oral History, Health and Welfare edited by Joanna Bornat, Rob Perks, Paul Thompson and Jan Walmsley (Routledge 2000), pp 227-248.
Richard A McKay, Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic (University of Chicago Press, 2017).