TELEVISION / Front-line troops of hedonism remembered

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The Independent Culture
I ONCE heard a story - a pre-Aids story - about a gay London man whose file at the sexually transmitted diseases clinic was too fat to fit through the clerk's window slot. He wasn't abashed by this but almost proud - to him that unwieldy wedge of case notes were battle honours in a war fought for sexual freedom. They were also evidence of the seemingly irresistible power of modern pharmacists, who could heal the front-line troops of hedonism in a matter of weeks.

'It was heaven,' said a New York gay in The Plague (C 4), recalling the heady pleasures of the Seventies. 'It was obscene in its sheer volume and beauty . . . a sexual smorgasbord like the world has never seen.' When Selma Dritz, a San Francisco doctor, noticed a sudden leap in the number of cases of amoebic dysentery among gay men she first assumed that a restaurant on Castro Street, the city's gay district, must be responsible. In fact it was the smorgasbord and last night's opening episode of this four-parter on Aids was about the long and difficult process of finding that out.

The problem was that the disease appeared to display the moral principles of a vengeful and homophobic preacher. Having experienced, for a tantalisingly brief time, the luxury of guiltless sex, many simply refused to accept that their sexual behaviour might have such terrible consequences. Others feared the worst. One man, who reeled off his own list of curable infections as if browsing through a medical dictionary, recalled reading the first news of the mysterious illness in a newspaper; 'a sexually transmitted disease that's fatal,' he thought, 'now there's going to be hell to pay.'

Anne Moir and George Carey's account of this fall from heaven to hell was careful and restrained in its devices. It was, said one medical researcher 'the whodunnit of the century' and there was, reasonably enough, a flavour of that in the script and direction. Aids first showed itself like a serial killer does - it was selective in its victims, repetitive in the identifying clues it left behind - and the film nudged you towards the metaphor (using spooky John Carpenter-style music on the soundtrack) without forgetting that government indifference, gay defensiveness and social prejudice had assisted in the early deaths.

They also coloured the film, as you might use a wash of watercolour, with images that weren't literal illustrations of what was being said but emblems for the emotional undercurrents of the story. 'They were baffling and somewhat scary,' one doctor said about the early cases as the film cut to pigeons startled into a darkening New York sky, an image that provided a little model of panic and dread for the viewer. A silhouetted workman dangling from the Brooklyn Bridge gave a twist of precariousness to a standard establishing shot while a simple picture of dead flowers in a hospital jug ended a sequence in which a weeping man recalled the death of his lover (Terrence Higgins, in fact, only the second British victim). It might have been trite but it wasn't - balancing between literalism and a traditionally poetic symbol for the waste of youthful death. The effect of this was a little undercut by more conventional wallpaper shots - the cliches of freeway traffic and telephone jabbing fingers - but never fatally. The Plague does a difficult job with decency.

In the Red (BBC 2), which can be seen on the five nights between now and Budget day, takes six ordinary people from Bristol and asks them to explore the intricacies of the nation's economy. They have to think of ways of knocking pounds 5bn off the budget deficit of pounds 50bn and are trundling around talking to pundits and stockbrokers in an attempt to work out how. The economic question that came to my mind was why the BBC had hired a 50-seater coach to transport six people, which may betray a slight drifting of attention. It may strengthen (and it's worth watching to find out) but last night the sums just didn't add up - instead of subtracting jargon and mystery you ended up with confusion multiplied six times.

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