AIDS: The Unheard Tapes

In this piece, The Lug intern Charlotte Stobart considers the powerful use of oral histories in the BBC2 docuseries ‘AIDS: The Unheard Tapes’, drawing on work by Newcastle Oral History Collective Associate Wendy Rickard.

In June and July 2022, BB2 broadcast a three-part docuseries, called ‘AIDS: The Unheard Tapes’, created by Mark Henderson and produced by Wall to Wall Media. It was unique, in that it foregrounded personal testimonies, recorded during the AIDS epidemic, which spanned from the early 1980s until the mid-1990s. The audio was used directly, with the narrator’s voices lip-synced by actors to create a cohesive and personalised audio-visual experience, using technical expertise which The Telegraph praised. These historical testimonies were combined with modern interviews from British activists, scientists, doctors, and nurses who lived through the crisis. The Independent commented on how touching it was to have seen some of the young men from the historical testimonies grown old. Audience reception has been favourable, the series has 9.2/ 10 stars on imbd, and in March 2023, it has received 4 award nominations to date (including for a BAFTA Specialist Factual and a Royal TV Society Award). The Guardian remarked on the beautiful approach, which enhanced audience understanding and perception of the tragedy.

Image credit: John (Luke Hornsby) in AIDS: The Unheard Tapes. Photograph: Production/ BBC/ Wall to Wall Media Ltd

Many testimonies for the series were taken from The Hall-Carpenter Oral History archive, a major collection of over 100 interviews relating to the British gay and lesbian experience, from 1985 until the early 1990s. Margot Farnham, whose voice can be heard as an interviewer in ‘AIDS: The Unheard Tapes’ played a key role in organising and conducting interviews. The collection was donated to the National Sound Archive in 1989 and is currently stored as part of the British Library’s Oral History Collections. Due to the timeframe in which interviews were conducted, some of them heavily feature HIV, from those living with it directly, or experiencing it through loved ones. Some of the interviewees featured in these series have since died.

Some of the interviews were also taken from the HIV/ AIDS Testimonies, a collection of 30 life story interviews of people living with HIV/ AIDS, recorded by Wendy Rickard and Babs Gibson from 1995 until 2000. Their voices are also heard in ‘AIDS: The Unheard Tapes’. These interviews were revisited in 2005: as many people were reinterviewed as possible, with loved ones filling in the gaps where possible when people had died. Life stories are powerful, they capture richly detailed, relevant, and powerful biographies, and in this case they serve as a reflection of the time, the uncertainty and fear, and lack of knowledge and trust.

Image Credit: George Ure as Tony in AIDS: The Unheard Tapes: ‘documentary-making from the heart’. BBC/ Wall to Wall Media Ltd

Oral histories are an important tool to highlight difficult and complicated histories, especially in cases like this, where they are used to empower silenced and marginalised voices. In an interview for The Big Issue, Wendy Rickard said that oral histories allowed the preservation of people’s words, for a future which was more willing to hear them. Wendy also pointed out that usually oral histories are accounts of 70-year-olds who have lived long, full lives, and that the younger voices in these accounts are starkly different. The reason that this series has resonated so much with people is its intimate, unapologetic, and human nature, the personalisation of experiences which are sometimes lost in the scale of massive events, such as epidemics. Other series like ‘It’s a Sin’ have helped to reawaken the British public awareness of HIV, and through series like ‘AIDS: The Unheard Tapes’, this awareness can be enhanced, in an empowering, sensitive, and moving way, foregrounding voices which have long been silenced.

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