Jimmy Somerville … a vital figurehead. Photograph: Clare Muller/Redferns
Another activist, Ash Kotak, recalls an action involving the singer Jimmy Somerville, who was a vital figurehead, championing and funding the cause. He chained himself to railings at the House of Commons. “I asked him: ‘What was that like, Jimmy?’ He said: ‘I rather liked it.’”
Their collective humour, though, can’t mask the intensity of feeling of the time, and the fraught, divergent reactions it prompted. In 120 BPM, there is a scene in which a man, having helped his lover die, almost immediately has sex with another activist in the deathbed. “There was a sense of things you did that, looking back now, may have seemed quite weird,” says Nutland, “but when I watched that scene, I was like, yep! You fucked the grief out.”
Also ringing true in the film are ecstatic scenes where the characters go out clubbing; dancing to the era’s classic house music. Many activists said that it was just a bit of fun, but also a means of survival – intense fun for an intense time. It is one of the few facts that everyone agrees on.
Because there were downsides. Many activists recall Act Up being mired in arguments and discord. While the groups were ostensibly democratic, this could mean it was, at times, hard to agree on what to do. Tatchell says that the group benefited from its “accessibility and spontaneity”, but some are more ambivalent. “They would have said it was an open democracy, but it was pretty much a meritocracy, plus who shouted the loudest,” says Power. Others say it was shambolic.
In short, a British 120 BPM would look the same, but different. Despite this, there were subtle and important differences between Act Up in different countries. Britain was, everyone agrees, relatively lucky to have the NHS, which reacted well to the crisis – for this, and many other reasons, people never mobilised around the movement in quite the same way as in the US or France. It could even be just a matter of national temperament, the Brits opting to be less politicised and more focused on things such as providing care. However, most do believe that Act Up in Britain paved the way for more “respectable”, or at least organised, advocacy groups to make their case in the corridors of power. Tatchell calls them “the shock troops in the battle against HIV”.
The London branch fizzled out in the 90s, thanks to disagreements over their methods, on whether to take corporate money and where the fight should go next after treatment started to become available. A nadir for them, says Nutland, was when members trashed a stall set up by the Terrence Higgins Trust at an international Act Up meeting in Amsterdam in 1992 – they disagreed over whether lesbians should use dental dams during sex. “I also think one of the problems was that we never spent any time doing any medium- to long-term thinking,” he says. Everyone was just young and angry, he says. And many thought they would soon be dead.
Yet the Act Up London group was revived in 2012, facing new challenges: the rise of infection among certain minorities; the ongoing stigma for those infected; and the urgent need to save the NHS, as services face continued cuts.
The new Act Up still carries out actions – they dumped half a tonne of manure on the doorstep of Ukip’s headquarters after Nigel Farage said that people with HIV should be barred from entering the UK. “The gravity of the situation demands a grassroots, mischievous, creative, disobedient, fantastical group,” says Dan Glass, who pushed for the revival. “We have other groups, but we need to be on the streets.”
Others feel the fight is best fought elsewhere. Nutland has instead cofounded Prepster, which advocates the use of PrEP, a drug that has had startling success in cutting down rates of HIV infection. In a landscape transformed by the internet and social media, he argues, street actions still have a place, but it needs to be a lot more strategic, and fit alongside what else is happening.
Lisa Power tends to agree. But what even makes a good activist, anyway? She pauses. “You need to be a bit of a drama queen – but not too much.” Whether “too much” of a drama queen is a paradox, she doesn’t explain. But the activists in 120 BPM, scrapping and screaming for their lives, would definitely have something to say.