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In an exclusive with THTVJ, Jonathan Blake (one the first people in London diagnosed with HIV) describes the harrowing authenticity of Channel 4’s most watched drama series in history, It’s a Sin and how the show brings much needed awareness to the ‘forgotten, epidemic.’

Russell T Davies’ captivating drama It’s a Sin comes to an emotional end today with its final episode airing at 9pm. If you’ve been following along at the steady pace of Channel 4’s weekly instalments you’ll know by now that the fate of one of its beloved central characters, Ritchie, is looking pretty dicey. Just to recap for those of you who have yet to dive into this harrowing watch, It’s a Sin follows the lives of a group of friends, four fabulously gay men and their best friend Jill, during the 80s. Living and learning to embrace their sexuality comes at a perilous time for these four men as the AIDs epidemic ravishes London claiming the lives of loved ones and endangering theirs. As the show comes to a close Ritchie, having contracted the virus, is determined to survive against all odds. Real-life HIV survivor Jonathan Blake is devastatingly familiar with Ritchie’s predicament having been one of the first in London to have contracted this life-altering disease. In an exclusive interview with the Hungry TV Junkie, the 71-year-old reveals how the ‘death-sentence’ diagnosis changed his life and explains why It’s a Sin is a vital watch for the 21st century.

Jonathan Blake opens up about the painful experience of watching It’s a Sin. Picture credit Jan Tom Dingley

Russell T Davies’ captivating drama It’s a Sin comes to an emotional end today with its final episode airing at 9pm. If you’ve been following along at the steady pace of Channel 4’s weekly instalments you’ll know by now that the fate of one of its beloved central characters, Ritchie, is looking pretty dicey. Just to recap for those of you who have yet to dive into this harrowing watch, It’s a Sin follows the lives of a group of friends, four fabulously gay men and their best friend Jill, during the 80s. Living and learning to embrace their sexuality comes at a perilous time for these four men as the AIDs epidemic ravishes London claiming the lives of loved ones and endangering theirs. As the show comes to a close Ritchie, having contracted the virus, is determined to survive against all odds. Real-life HIV survivor Jonathan Blake is devastatingly familiar with Ritchie’s predicament having been one of the first in London to have contracted this life-altering disease. In an exclusive interview with the Hungry TV Junkie, the 71-year-old reveals how the ‘death-sentence’ diagnosis changed his life and explains why It’s a Sin is a vital watch for the 21st century.

The Pink Palace Gang: From Left to right Roscoe, Ash, Colin, Jill and Ritchie centre – Picture credit Ben Blackall

I was blown away by the show It’s a Sin. I know, you’ve watched it a few times. What was your reaction to it?

I was really thrilled that there was a show that was about me, my life, something I can absolutely relate to, on primetime television, because there has been such silence about it. There was such stigma back in the day.

From your own experience of being a gay man living through the 80s. How much of It’s a Sin reflected what you had to go through?

Well in a way because they’re younger than I was when I got my diagnosis, I kind of relate to how it was for me when I was a student at drama school which was in the late 60s, early 70s. It was, it was an astonishing time.

There is this really beautiful moment where Ritchie’s on the ferry and his dad hands him the pack of condoms during the world’s shortest sex talk and Ritchie just tosses it over into the water. Was that reflective of the kind of attitudes towards sexual health amongst the gay community during that time since pregnancy wasn’t an issue?

Absolutely. I remember that when I was at drama school, I had contracted gonorrhoea. I had gone back to my parents for the holidays and realised that I needed to help. I went, maybe foolishly, but naively, to the family doctor. At that point [the age of consent for homosexuals] was 21 and because I was under age, he told my father. My father took me aside one day, and he said, ‘Jonathan look. I’ve heard from the GP that you’ve got gonorrhoea and you’ve been treated for it. You know, what you really need to do is to use condoms’ and he gave me a pack of condoms. Internally, I laugh because he thought I was heterosexual. I hadn’t at that point come out to them because I was still under age. So, I took them and I thanked him, but I just internally thought you don’t know the half of it.

So I guess when you saw Ritchie, you just thought, Ah, yes.

The fact that he laughs and then throws them over, I just thought, Yeah, okay.

Ritchie journey’s with his dad to London -Picture credit Ben Blackall

So, correct me if I’m wrong, but homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967?

July 1967. It was decriminalised but you had to be 21.

In terms of the characters within the show. A lot of them have their own personal journeys of what it’s like to come out to their parents, their family members, their loved ones. Did you feel a similar struggle coming out to your parents with homosexuality only recently decriminalised?

I have a younger brother and he already knew that I was gay. So that was all right. My elder brother and I we’re not on the same wavelength. I remember on the morning of my 21st birthday, we were all sitting around the table for breakfast, and I announced to them all that I was gay and my parents’ reaction was ‘oh, but we knew.’ Well, my response to that was ‘then why couldn’t you have told me? We could have done without all this subterfuge that was going on.’ My elder brother’s response was ‘I can just about deal with you but any of your friends I would smash their faces.’ And I just said, that’s fine. I think we will not speak.

What did it mean to you to have that support from your parents versus that reaction from your brother?

I mean, it was great. It was it was surprising, in a strange sort of way because I remember as a child, my mother talking about when she had trained the Cordon Bleu in Paris. She had shared a room with another young woman and this young woman kept leaving her presents under her pillow and my mother was terrified. She said that she was afraid she was going to turn lesbian. When you hear something like that, that somebody is terrified that they would turn lesbian you think they obviously don’t like lesbians, how on earth are they going to deal with the fact [that I’m gay]. I knew at a very early age, that I liked men and I knew that it wasn’t acceptable. So, it was extraordinary, they were always very, very good. And much later on, after my diagnosis, I had a relationship – which I still have (we live together) – they would come and visit me in London, and take me and my partner out for meals it was always, very, very easy.

Some of the characters in It’s a Sin were very, very accepting. Obviously, there were a lot who weren’t, but there was some who were and I wondered whether or not that was a true reflection of that period.

I think I was very, very fortunate in terms of them and their attitude. I mean, there are lots of people who have not had that experience. There was still a stigma about being gay and there are some communities which are better than others around accepting it but you sort of get on top of the whole thing of being gay. Then, of course, there’s now the fact that you have got this virus. I think that the way it’s portrayed is really interesting. I think it is challenging. It was a very difficult watch.

I can imagine.

I’d been asked if I would review it so I had seen this on the small screen of my computer and it was painful, but seeing it on the big screen of the television made it even more so. It was suddenly that it’s just bigger.

Was it the fact that it was so close to something that you had experienced yourself that made it so painful to watch?

Oh, yes and you remember the loss and it brought back all these things that basically most of us that have lived through it had kind of put away. It wasn’t that we’d suppressed them, but we put them away. You know, they were really painful years, those early years.

So, take me back because you were, only the second person within London to have been diagnosed?

Well, my number at the Middlesex Hospital was L1, London one.

So, you were actually the first?

I was the first of the Middlesex. Every hospital had different [system] so I don’t think they’ve ever done comparisons, but at the Middlesex Hospital, my number was London one.

At that time of your diagnosis, you were told you had a terminal illness. What was that like? To be to be in that mind frame, to be told that you have a disease that there’s no cure for, during a time where people were being villainized for having HIV.

I mean, at that point [1982], the vilification hadn’t really started. That came a bit later but I was completely winded. I went to James Pringle House, which was part of the Middlesex hospital and that’s how it all started. I was put into a side ward. In those days, if you were gay you were always put on side wards because they didn’t want the homosexuality to infect others. They do the biopsy; I have to wait for two days in the hospital to get the results. They come back after the second day and they then tell me that I have a virus. It is called HTLV three, there is no cure. They have nothing to help me. It is a terminal diagnosis. I have six months to live and that was that. Now I could go home. I mean, I was totally winded and confused and floored.

Had you had you suspected anything because from watching, It’s a Sin, I know there were rumours and reports and things going on in the USA.

There was and, and I had lived in New York in 1974 for 10 months, I had been to San Francisco in 1981. In February 81, which is actually where I eventually worked out, that’s where I met my virus. In the bath house in San Francisco because I’ve always liked bath houses but there really wasn’t a great deal that was being kind of spoken about: And of course, you have to remember that there were no mobile phones and computers, there was no easy access.

You couldn’t just hop on Google, could you?

No, you couldn’t. It was it was either by writing a letter or a postcard, or a telephone call. I mean, that was how one got information. So, it was really, really difficult. I remember getting back to my flat and basically just closing the door and just shutting down. I stopped contacting friends. I just stopped seeing people. It was wretched. In the December of that year, I was beginning to hear what was happening in states and the prospects were so awful that I just thought I can’t deal with this. I’m going to finish it. I decided that I was going to do it the Roman way. I was going to run a hot bath. I would take some pills. I would take some drink and I would just you know, slash my wrists and just bleed out. That was going to be it. The voice of my mother came in my head. ‘Jonathan, you clear up your own mess. You don’t leave it for others to clear up,’ and I thought ‘I am going to leave one hell of a mess. I can’t do it.’

When did you stop clock watching? When did you start to realise that you weren’t going to die from this disease?

Probably when I got to about 60.

Really?

I never thought I was going to hit 40 and I hit 40. I still didn’t think I’d hit 50 and then I hit 50 so I would say that it was round about once I hit 60, I thought maybe it’s not going to happen.

What do you think made your journey so different to others who, who weren’t quite so fortunate? Was it your lifestyle? Was it good diet?

I don’t know. I mean, I can only think that my parents must have given me a pretty strong set of genes. That’s all. I’ve never gotten to the bottom of this.

Ritchie journey’s with his dad to London -Picture credit Ben Blackall

So, take me, take me right back to the 80s, just before the AIDS crisis, and in between the point where homosexuality has been decriminalised.

It was fantastic, one was having a wonderful time. I used to do was work restaurants in between [acting] jobs. I and got a job [at Joe Allen’s restaurant]. It was fabulous because all your actor friends who were in shows in the West End, they would all come and eat at Joe Allen so you’d see your mates. What we used to do was, having finished at Joe Allen’s, we’d go down to Heaven or we’d go to Bangs, but mainly Heaven.

That’s similar to Ritchie’s lifestyle. He’d act and he’d do odd jobs in between. Between him and the character Roscoe they seem to be having like, a whale of a time living this fabulously, sexually explorative life. Was this glamorised? Or was this real life back in the 80s?

It was like real life back then for some people and for other people it wasn’t. Yeah. Of course, it’s glamorised, it’s for television and they’re packing it all in. They’ve got five episodes to tell a huge story. So, it’s ‘the best of’.

Well, by comparison, there was also Colin who, even though he was a part of that friendship circle, he didn’t live that life.

I loved Colin. You know, I really related to Colin. In 1967, when I went to Rose Bruford [college] I went to a digs just like him, and the landlady was the spitting image [of his] except she had dark hair, but the house was locked at 10 o’clock. I had a key.

A very similar set-up

It was just it was like, God, I know that situation. I mean,

I didn’t have the issue with their son but there was a resonance and then of course, when I was training at the London College of fashion, I did work experience at Savile Row. So, I have this incredible connection. Then of course, you know, being part of Lesbian and Gay Men Support the Miners* there was that Welsh connection and that my mother was born in Swansea.

*Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) was an alliance of lesbians and gay men who supported National Union of Mineworkers, particularly those in Wales, during the year-long strike of 1984–1985.

So, Colin was really quite reminiscent of a time in your life.

Yeah, I mean, I kind of felt like ‘I’m Colin’.

Whose death affected you most in the show?

Oh God. Colin’s did. You know? And Henry’s. That was just so wretched. I don’t remember there being locked wards, there probably were but it was just Henry was so lovely. Just as a character, and this rapport between him and Colin, when he comes and rescues Colin.

Before his tragic death, Colin visits New York – Picture credit Ben Blackall

Ritchie’s agent says something quite early on. She warns him not to go home like the other boys and of course she means those being taken home to die from HIV. There must have been so many situations like that where young men ‘went home’.

Yeah, who just disappeared. Or then you get that scene when they [Roscoe, Jill and Ash] go to the funeral, [where the lover of the deceased was not allowed to attend] and that was so true. That used to upset me. If we had had civil partnerships, back then none of that would have been able to happen. The fact that partners had no rights. They were turfed out of flats. If they bought a home with their lover, the families would take the home. It was wretched. So, seeing that was a hell of a rollercoaster.

After the AIDS and HIV crisis came about how did attitudes towards sex change because prior to that, protection and sexual health had been a bit lax.

It became, you know, really difficult. I used to find sex really, really difficult because I didn’t want to infect anyone. I loathed condoms with a vengeance I’ve never been able to deal with them. So, it was just really difficult. There were all these negotiations. In a way, I was lucky because I was in a relationship, it was an open relationship but I was in a relationship, so I wasn’t having to deal with the day to day nitty gritty of going out cruising and stuff but things were difficult. In 1996, the Terrence Higgins trust did a campaign aimed at that and it was the first campaign aimed at gay men promoting safer sex. God, it was extraordinary because I became this poster boy, I was on the underground on the buses. I remember walking into Clapham North tube station and There were three huge A-0 posters of me on the north facing wall, there were three huge posters on the south facing wall and I stood there and I thought there are one too many Jonathan Blakes here and I walked out.

It’s a Sin focuses on gay men’s experiences but obviously, HIV wasn’t just exclusive to the gay community.

Absolutely, I mean that’s one of the areas that I think is slightly worrying, in terms that you are left with the impression that this is a gay disease, and it isn’t, you know, anybody can be affected.

What happened to the heterosexual men and women, who caught HIV back then? Was it public knowledge?

No! I mean, that was the problem and that was what was really difficult. What had happened was that it was mainly gay men and lesbians who had created these various dropping centres. Terrence Higgins trust, London Lighthouse and so we were all there as part of it. Then gradually, there were the African women who were really affected and they were coming in. They found it quite difficult to begin with, because there were all these gay men and then you still had issues with people being very religious having absolute problems with homosexuality. So, this mix and finding one’s ways through, to get to know one another and bond and bind and share it was a really interesting sort of time. The heterosexual men really never got a look in. Then when you get the whole situation of factor VIII and haemophiliacs. [People being] poisoned by unpasteurized blood that’s come from America it gets very, very difficult.

But how was it kept so quiet that this was not just an exclusively gay disease?

I don’t know. I think because of the way that it was treated. You know, this country has never been good about dealing with sex. So, the fact that, you know, we were lambasted for having this virus, which, yes, could be caught sexually, but also, it was basically blood born and that kind of got lost. That’s really where the focus should’ve been but because we were deemed to have brought it on ourselves it all got completely confused. Then, of course, what then happened up until It’s a Sin was that it became the forgotten epidemic. Suddenly nobody was interested. There wasn’t funding going to it. I mean, it was really, really difficult. There is a hope that by 2030 we can actually end transmission.

That’s incredible.

And it is possible. We have effective medication. We have this one pill called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylactics) which, if you have an active sex life, you take it and that can stop an HIV from entering the blood. So, with that, and then with people being encouraged to test so that you get to know what your status is, because we have effective medication. In 2015 something like 100,000 couples we’re followed and there was no case of transmission between people with an undetectable viral load. Undetectable is like kind of 20 parts of virus per centimetre of blood. I mean, it’s like nothing. It just means that if you have an undetectable viral load, you cannot, I cannot pass my virus.

Jonathan has survived his ‘death-sentence’ diagnosis and now lives in a gay and lesbian community with partner Nigel – Picture credit Simon J Webb

You’ve gone from being highly contagious, handed a six months death sentence, to having a virtually undetectable virus. How does that feel?

Not being able to pass the virus; when I learned that in 2015, psychologically, it was just such a relief. I could have just ordinary sex. I didn’t have to worry about condoms. I could have ordinary sex and I could not pass the virus. I was no longer infectious.

That must have been an emotional moment for you.

Absolutely. Absolutely. There is this big campaign, ‘U equals U,’ undetectable, equals un-transmittable because that will also begin to help [tackle] stigma.

Do you think there still is that that deep rooted stigma now?

Yeah, I think there’s still a stigma. I think there’s stigma and shame and it’s all tied up but you know, the important thing is to talk about it. So, the very fact that you’ve got a television programme, that is raising the issues, and then people can be directed on where to go to get information bit by bit that’ll happen. But, you know, this ending transmission by 2030, requires that governments put funding in, that there is advertising encouragement to get people to test. People are being encouraged to test for COVID well, why don’t you also test for HIV? It’s literally a finger prick and, and within 10 minutes, you can be told whether you have it or you don’t, and if you have the virus, there is effective medication, and it is so non-toxic. Whereas in the early days, God the side effects were just dire.

You’ve watched the show a couple of times and I’ve spoken to many people who have just found themselves in tears. What do you think makes It’s a Sin such a powerful show?

Well because it’s based in truth. Once you’re engaged with those characters you can’t but journey with them. Then you’ve got to remember that for myself, who is living with HIV, and has lived with it, it unleashes just so many memories of what happened to friends or happens. There are some people, Rupert Whitaker [one of Europe’s longest surviving HIV sufferers] he still hasn’t seen it. He was interviewed on television and he can’t watch it, he needs to watch it with someone. It’s too painful.

It definitely is a different experience for an outsider – who has never lived through losing loved ones to the disease, never had to deal with the stigma of being gay or cope with the diagnosis of HIV – versus somebody who’s been through every aspect that the show is dealing with, trying to process their emotions while watching it.

But that is why it is such a good show, because it engages people. So, you’re you were engaged by it and the fact that even though that you’ve seen it the second time you see it doesn’t diminish, it’s like your gut is still wrenched at various points.

The final episode of It’s a Sin airs tonight at 9pm on Channel 4. All episodes are available to stream now on All 4.

Janet A Leigh

Janet A Leigh

For more on the latest food ,TV and Film news follow me on Instagram @The_Hungry_TV_Junkie

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