Love, Loss & Life: Real Stories From The AIDS Pandemic

Love, Loss & Life: Real Stories from the AIDS Pandemic: Kelly Hunter

March 18, 2023 National HIV Story Trust, Anita Dobson, Elexi Walker Season 1 Episode 6
Love, Loss & Life: Real Stories From The AIDS Pandemic
Love, Loss & Life: Real Stories from the AIDS Pandemic: Kelly Hunter
Show Notes Transcript

“It was profoundly moving that a bunch of people, pilloried by society and told that AIDS was their own fault, were utterly non-judgmental themselves.”

When Kelly Hunter’s close friends in the theatre began dying of AIDS related illness, she put her career on hold for two years to volunteer with the Terrence Higgins Trust. She used her theatrical contacts to raise money for AIDS charities and was the driving force behind some of the most memorable fundraising initiatives of the late 1980s.

This podcast series features stories taken from our first book, a collection of essays, reflections, and testimonies also entitled ‘Love, Loss & Life’ which you can buy here.

An audiobook is also available here.

Visit the National HIV Story Trust website

Unknown:

Love, Loss and Life. Real stories from the AIDS pandemic. This is Kelly Hunter MBE's story read by Elexi Walker with an introduction by Anita Dobson.

Anita Dobson:

Born into a theatrical family, Kelly Hunter made her debut on the London stage in 1979 at the age of 17, in the original production of the musical Evita. Over her career, she has appeared in leading roles in musicals and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, as well as acting on television and in films. She began working with autistic children while she was at the RSC and founded Flute Theatre, her own theatre company to bring Shakespeare to children who otherwise would have little access to the arts. She has developed her own technique, the Hunter Heartbeat method, a series of sensory and communicative games, based on the essence of Shakespeare for autistic people to play. As well as winning awards for her theatre and radio performances, she was awarded the MBE in 2019 for services to theatre. When Kelly Hunter's close friends in the theatre began dying of AIDS related illness, she put her career on hold for two years to volunteer with the Terrence Higgins Trust. She used her theatrical contacts to raise money for AIDS charities, and was the driving force behind some of the most memorable fundraising initiatives of the late 1980s.

Elexi Walker:

I'd made a lot of gay friends in the theatre, and before long, everyone began to hear whispers about AIDS, and sensed the beginning of fear, which only seemed to make some people party harder. Tuesday night was straight night at the gay club Heaven under the arches of the Embankment. So everyone from the West End shows, straight and gay, would head there after the curtain went down, and dance until dawn. But the nearer the illness came, the less easy it was to have conversations with people about it. My closest gay friend was Geoffrey Burridge, an actor who was in Emmerdale and Blake's Seven, and the film An American Werewolf in London. He became very ill, and I remember seeing the fear in his face. When he died, it was the most seismic event in my life. I was only 23 and I'd had some success in West End musicals. After Evita, I played Sally Bowles in Cabaret, but it meant nothing to me after Geoffrey's death. I felt I owed it to Geoffrey, to put my career on hold, though my family told me I was making a terrible mistake and give all my time to volunteering with the Terrence Higgins Trust. Doing that seemed so much more real than my life in theatre. On the top floor of the building in the Gray's Inn Road, where the Trust had its offices, a self-help group for men with HIV called Frontliners was based. I grew to know them all well. Many were too ill to work and had difficulty getting benefits. But they were a lovely bunch of people, warm and funny, full of gallows humour. I have never laughed so much as when I was with them, or cried as much. Almost always camp as Chloe, they loved feather boas, and played It's Raining Men all the time in the office. There was just one straight guy, an Irishman called John Mordant. He had been a heroin addict who picked up HIV through sharing needles, and somehow blended into THT in a state of panic, never having met a gay man in his life before. But I loved the way the gay men took him in as a brother and didn't judge him at all for his lifestyle. It was profoundly moving that a bunch of people, pilloried by society, and told that AIDS was their own fault. were utterly non judgmental themselves. It's a lesson I've tried to adopt in my own life ever since. When any of them died. It was devastating for the group. I went to 15 funerals in the space of nine months. Many of them had been shunned by their own families thrown out onto the street. So they were making their own family among themselves as gay men do. I wanted to use my theatre connections to raise money for them. So that winter, 1987, I and some theatre friends went round all the stage doors and organised a charity gala called Sing-a-thon, where the West End shows came together on a Sunday for a whole day singing and dancing. Everyone was happy to give their time and do their 10 minute slot. It sold out very quickly. But I thought we could go further to try and reach the kind of people who wouldn't go to theatres. I came up with the idea of enlisting a load of celebrities to take over the Piazza at Covent Garden with all its shops and restaurants and pubs ,for a day. We called it Shop Assistants. And it took nearly a year to organise. When I first approached the shops and pubs in Covent Garden, the majority gave me a flat No, no way did they want to be associated with this gay plague, as one put it. We were dealing with a huge amount of fear and homophobia. But I was itching for a battle. I wanted to make a difference, and I wasn't going to take no for an answer. I made them all hear my story about myself and Geoffrey, how I'd given up my career to do this, and that it was everybody's responsibility to help us. I had a wonderful team of friends helping me, a remarkable bunch who have gone on effectively to run British theatre between them. J. Walter Thompson, the big ad agency, designed and printed a poster for free. We had the whole cast of EastEnders pulling pints in the pubs. Boy George in a rock garden. Jonathan Ross in Paul Smith clothes shops. Kate Bush was there. Harry Enfield did his Loads of Money comedy routine. We ended up with about 250 celebrities helping that day across the whole Covent Garden area. Boy George was wonderful. People wanted his autograph, but he refused to sign unless they donated money. And he made sure each of them went away with an information leaflet about HIV. That same year 1988 I instigated bucket collections in all the Western theatres on World AIDS Day, 1st December. After the curtain call, whoever was the show star would bring one of the Frontliners group on stage, introduce them, and they would tell their story. They were nervous, of course. But the cast always treated them like royalty. I spent most of that year it seemed counting coins and cash. Once I and a volunteer were driving to the Barbican with a car loaded with heavy buckets of coins. And a policeman stopped us. He made us open the boot took one look and the eyebrow went up. We explained who we were and what the money was. I don't think he could decide whether to believe us or not. So he insisted on coming to the Barbican with us to check we hadn't nicked it. After two years, I suppose I'd burnt myself out and lost the energy and spark that had fueled me. One of the Frontliners saw how drained I was and sat me down with a cup of coffee. Kelly, he said, I saw you as Sally Bowles in Cabaret. You have a talent most of us would give our left arms for. Don't you think it's time to go back to doing what you do so brilliantly. Singing and dancing and acting. I assured him my place was there raising money, but couldn't stop thinking about what he'd said. Two months later, when he died, I started to feel it was time to go back to my career. I wonder if we'd be able to do today what we did then. We see so many horrors every day in the news that too many of us have compassion fatigue. People have lost sight of the bigger picture. They obsess about themselves and their rights instead of thinking about their responsibilities as individuals to help others. Everything happens through the filter of social media. And if someone gets involved with a cause, they immediately get trolled as interfering do gooders. But those life lessons I absorbed as a young woman of 23 working with those wonderful men have stayed with me ever since and inform how I live my life. I think of them all now and remember what we achieved together.

Unknown:

Thank you for listening to this story from Love, Loss and Life, a collection of stories reflecting on 40 years of the AIDS pandemic in the 80s and 90s. To find out more about the National HIV Story Trust, visit nhst.org.uk. The moral rights of the author has been asserted. Text Copyright NHST 2021 Production Copyright NHST 2022