‘I hope young activists will take heart’: Sir Nick Partridge on Aids: The Unheard Tapes

Partridge, the ex-chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, discusses the new documentary charting the Aids epidemic in Britain.

Aids: The Unheard Tapes began this week on BBC2. The powerful but also strangely hopeful three-part documentary series charts the Aids crisis in the UK.

The series is built around a pioneering oral history project that ran from the mid-1980s, as researchers interviewed gay men and their friends, producing an archive of frank, intimate discussions of life at the heart of the Aids epidemic.

This innovative documentaries bring the real-time history project to life, young actors lip-syncing to original recordings with many of the original interviewees no longer alive to tell their own stories. The effect is hugely powerful.

It airs 40 years to the week from the death of Terry Higgins – popular barman and DJ in the Heaven nightclub, renowned dancer, purveyor of the latest music from the gay scene in the US, and one of the first people in the UK to die with Aids in July 1982.

These are interviews with people without the luxury of hindsight, without the reassurance that by 1997, combination therapy will save and extend the lives of so many people diagnosed with HIV. Broadcast alongside new interviews with scientists, activists, doctors and nurses who were there at the time, it serves as testament to a community working together to raise awareness and fight prejudice, while desperately searching for ways to combat this devastating virus.

Sir Nick Partridge is interviewed in all three episodes of the documentary. He remembers the time well. In 1982, Partridge became the first paid employee of the Terrence Higgins Trust, the charity formed by Higgins’ former partner Rupert Whittaker and friend Martyn Butler to personalise and humanise Aids following his death, and went on to serve as its chief executive from 1991 to 2013.


Here, he talks about Aids: The Unheard Tapes, and shares his memories of the early days of the epidemic in the UK…

“It is interesting that 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Gay Liberation Front Pride march in 1972 and the 40th anniversary of Terrence Higgins Trust and Terry’s death,” says Partridge.

“That 10- or 12-year period after 1972 was a period of growing exploration for lesbians and gay men, when we felt confident enough and determined enough to take to the street and demand to be treated equally in front of the law.

“Heaven opened in November 1979. I first went at the beginning of 1980. I’d never seen so many gay men in the same place at the same time. And enjoying themselves. It was so much fun – Heaven was exciting, and it was vibrant. At the time, all the gay bars had blacked out windows or were down in basements.

“So this was a period of great possibility. But it also was a time when the number of arrests of gay men increased after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. So there was still a lot to be done.”

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Partridge recalls the homophobia he encountered at work at the time.  

“I was working at Rank Xerox in the early 1980s and when I took my boyfriend at the time to a work social do, the following week, it was made clear to me that my fast-track graduate management career was not going to go ahead as planned,” he says.

“There were no employment rights for gay people at that time.

“I took the opportunity to go to Amsterdam for a couple of years, which was hugely exciting. Amsterdam at that time was an oasis of tolerance and liberalism. It was there that I first read about Aids and realised in 1984, that if I was going to do anything about that I needed to come back to London.

“I volunteered at the London Gay Switchboard – soon to be London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. And that’s when I met pretty much all the people who are in the first episode of this documentary.”

Watching the new documentary and hearing the voices of so many of his friends, many of whom did not live into middle age let alone longer, brought back so many memories for Partridge.

“It was very moving and extraordinary seeing people and hearing voices from 35 years ago,” he says.

“We spoke differently in those days. Language changes over time. And the circumstances all of us were living in, with the fear and concern about our own health and that of our friends and neighbours about what was going to happen means that much of that testimony at the time is very raw.

“For me, the most moving thing was seeing David – the artist with round glasses and the moustache. In 1987, I ran the People With Aids Support Group, which was the first of its kind in Europe. And David was a member. So I knew David very well. I met his children. And I remember his funeral very clearly.

“So to suddenly see him again, and to hear his voice and what he was thinking at the time was extraordinary and very moving. It’s one of those lesser told stories that for gay men of David’s age in the 1980s, many had been married and many had children.

“So to see him with some of his art, on the set the actor was speaking his words from, was tremendous – to reminded me of David and his joie de vivre and the incredible way he lived through his own illness and supported many other people to live as well as they could with AIDS in the late 1980s.”

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This was an era in which many gay people feared that hard-won freedoms and legal protections were once again under threat.

“At that time, many of us were really fearful that the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality would be rolled back, that we would be made illegal again,” recalls Partridge. “Section 28, which passed through Parliament in 1988, was an element of that re-criminalisation. Janet Green, who you see in the documentary, and myself were the two first full time members of staff at the Terrence Higgins Trust. 

“We were employed on a grant made by Ken Livingstone at the Greater London Council. Westminster City Council took them to court to try to prevent that grant being paid because they just thought it was too radical.

“So it was a real hand-to-mouth existence. In the previous 20 years, for the first time in human history, sex had become much safer – it becomes safe for women because of the contraceptive pill, it had become safer across the board because of antibiotics. You’d seen the swinging 60s, the disco 70s and then bang. At the beginning of the 1980s, sex suddenly became seriously dangerous again.

“And that changed people’s view and behaviour. The Terrence Higgins Trust led the way in campaigning on safer sex. We were always sex positive, saying sex is good, sex is really important, but we have to do it safely.”

The new documentary comes in the wake of the 2014 film Pride, which told the story of the mutual support network that existed between the gay community and striking Welsh miners in the Eighties, and Russell T Davies’s Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin, which dramatised the era.

“This documentary is a hugely important complementary piece to It’s A Sin which had the drama, the energy things you can do, within a work of fiction,” he says.

“To have lived through so much illness, so much tragedy, and yet also so much energy and determination, and campaigning and activism and love and compassion is extraordinary – it was an extraordinary time. The documentary, over its three episodes, brings together the personal, the political, the scientific, the medical in a really clear and concise way. It goes from 1980 through to 1997 and the arrival of highly effective combination therapy.

“I hope that young activists of today will look at that and take heart from how much can change by communities coming together. So it’s a story of an awful lot of heartache and tragedy, but it is also a story of remarkable achievement and change.”

Aids: The Unheard Tapes airs on BBC2 and iPlayer from 27 June. Find out more about the Terrence Higgins Trust here.


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