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The Original Shock of AIDS in “It’s a Sin”

For anyone who was of prime-time-television-watching age in the nineteen-eighties in Britain, the opening scene of episode four of “It’s a Sin,” the Russell T. Davies drama that comes to HBO Max this Thursday, is likely to revive an indelible cultural memory. The story centers on a group of friends living together in London during the first decade of the aids crisis, and, in the scene in question, the household is watching a television broadcast of what became known as the “Don’t Die of Ignorance” advertisement. The spot, just under a minute in length, was directed by Nicolas Roeg, who had been chosen for what one of the partners of the advertising agency responsible, TBWA, later described as his “doom-and-gloom sci-fi aesthetic.” It begins with a volcanic eruption, then progresses to an image of an electric drill bit, and then a handheld chisel and hammer, cutting through what is revealed to be a tombstone bearing the single word “aids.” A narration was provided by the actor John Hurt. “There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,” he says. “It is a deadly disease, and there is no known cure.” The voice-over goes on to state that the virus could be passed via sexual intercourse with an infected person. “Anyone can get it, man or woman,” Hurt continues. “So far, it’s been confined to small groups. But it’s spreading.” The message concludes: “If you ignore aids, it could be the death of you.”

The spot, officially known as “Monolith,” was created at the behest of Norman Fowler, who was the health minister in the Conservative government. A leaflet was also distributed to every British household that provided more detail about the virus and the known modes of its transmission: the exchange of bodily fluids through sex, or through the sharing of intravenous needles. There was some dissent in the heights of government over whether such a widespread public-information campaign was necessary or wise. Among those who objected to a broadly targeted approach was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had already balked at Fowler’s plans to place detailed public-health warnings in the Sunday newspapers. In documents that have been made public only in recent years, Thatcher is revealed to have been concerned “that the anxiety on the part of many parents and teenagers, who would never be in danger from aids, would exceed the good which the advertisement would do.” As Fowler recounted in his memoir “aids: Don’t Die of Prejudice,” which was published in 2014, Thatcher was concerned that the print advertisements were too explicit in their definition of what she characterized as “risky sex.” According to Fowler, “her fear was that young people would in some way be contaminated by this knowledge.”

Despite Thatcher’s cavils, the campaign went ahead, and the spot was broadcast, along with another, also directed by Roeg, which showed an iceberg with the word “aids” carved into its submerged mass. The ads were measurably effective, including upon the behavior of those teen-agers whom the Prime Minister would have preferred to keep in ignorance. In one data point, condom sales in the U.K. grew by more than forty per cent between 1986 and 1995. (Condoms with the memorable brand names Two’s Company and Forget-me-not were also distributed free from N.H.S. clinics and were, in certain student households of the time, collected by the handful and kept around the place in jars, like candy.) The message of the ads was elliptical but unmistakably alarming: Fowler told reporters at the time that public education was “the only vaccine we have.”

As Davies illustrates in “It’s a Sin,” the ignorance that allowed H.I.V. and aids to spread was both individual and societal. The show, which has been broadcast to great acclaim and record-breaking viewing figures in the U.K., vividly evokes the deficit of information available to the most vulnerable populations early in the epidemic. Jill, a drama student played with warmth and sensitivity by Lydia West, is desperate to educate herself about the peculiar sickness that is beginning to blight her circle of friends, mostly men and mostly gay; she asks her doctor for help, only to have her concerns brusquely dismissed. Ritchie, her best friend, who remains closeted in his family home in the provincial Isle of Wight but is gloriously liberated among his newfound peers in London, insists that the early warnings of what was still sometimes being called grid—gay-related immune deficiency—are overblown and homophobic. In a bravura early sequence, Ritchie, who is played by the singer Olly Alexander, is shown surrounded by a group of friends as he progresses through bars and streets, caustically enumerating the implausible rumors: “They say it affects homosexuals, Haitians, and hemophiliacs—like, there’s a disease which has targeted the letter ‘H.’ ” Ritchie’s outburst ends with him spinning deliriously on the dance floor of Heaven—a celebrated night club, and another “H”—to the throbbing sounds of what alert viewers will recognize as “Do You Wanna Funk,” the 1982 hit by the disco star Sylvester, who died from complications of aids in 1988.