In many ways the story of my dear friend Paul Dangerfield was the springboard for the making of this film.
Paul was one of the funniest, kindest and gentlest men I ever met in my life. I had met Paul at University and we bonded very quickly to become what I had hoped would be a life-long friendship. Paul struggled at university and after with personal relationships too and I was forever helping him through both. When we graduated, Paul was seemingly foundering once again but I helped him get his first job at Gatwick Airport and he seemed set! In 1984, aged 24, we holidayed together on what was a magical trip – both of us at the height of our game and so very happy. So much so, we quickly booked another holiday on our return.
The following trip was however not the same at all. Paul seemed to have run out of steam, was sleeping a lot, pensive and constantly making excuses for not going out to party. Although I would not know for another ten years or more, Paul had been diagnosed with HIV. In the time-line of the history of HIV and AIDS, Paul’s journey was near the very start of the pandemic. Ignorance and fear of the virus was rife.
Paul moved to Brighton and its gay scene and continued to work for a time, but once opportunistic infections took hold, he gave up work and led a quiet life, though I visited often.
In 1995, Paul told me he was HIV positive and this explained so much of his odd behaviours over the years. He had decided he would fight the virus with all manner of holistic remedies and even once combination therapy became available, refused it blankly. He watched his friends in Brighton die one by one, including a boyfriend, the first real love of his life I think, who after just a few months developed dementia and slipped quickly away.
In time, Paul’s health deteriorated too and I began to watch his demise along with so many other friends and acquaintances, including Nick and Reg whose photos are on this web site. I’d regularly visit Paul while he had respite several times at the Sussex Beacon. Paul loved being there and found so much comfort. He had a ‘Buddy’ too that was an important factor for day to day support.
There are sadly so many upsetting stories about Paul’s final years, including allegedly inappropriate behaviour towards him from both a dentist and a priest. Paul had been one of the first in the UK to test positive and for so long he carried what must have been frightening information about his condition in silence, too afraid to share it even with his closet friend.
In his last year, Paul became increasingly needy and I would drive between London and Brighton to look after him and try to bring some fun into his life, until one day he called me to say he had been given three months to live. I didn’t believe him and told him I would be down in a week after he came out from further respite.
A short time later I called his home to find no reply. I called the Beacon who were cagey about giving me information as I wasn’t a relative but they did say he ‘wasn’t there’. It was puzzling but I guessed Paul had returned to his home in Wales as he often did.
A week passed and then I had a call from his brother in Wales telling me Paul had died. I was naturally devastated but only concerned in that moment when the funeral was. He told me that Paul was already buried and apologised I had not been told. It was a gut wrenching piece of information, only eclipsed by Paul’s death.
I called the Beacon again and said I knew that Paul had died but wanted to know what had happened. They told me he awoke one morning, poured himself a Bacardi and coke, sat in a chair by his bed and lit a cigarette, then quietly passed away. I found great comfort in that at least.
Much of Paul’s experience, and mine at that time, must have been shared by so many others, maybe better or maybe much worse and it got me thinking: what was the real story of HIV and AIDS in the UK.