In the run-up to World Aids Day on December 1, The Argus looks back at the history of the HIV/Aids epidemic in Brighton, some 40 years after the virus was first detected in the city.

We spoke to Simon Fanshawe, comedian and one of the founders of the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall, about his memories from the height of the epidemic and how people came together to support those living with the virus.

Some four decades later, Simon Fanshawe still remembers the exact moment he first heard about Aids. He was close friends with a scientist and he arrived at his house for dinner one evening in the early 80s.

He said: “My friend opened the door and he was ashen-faced. He said ‘I’ve just read this article in the New Statesman about this gay cancer’.

“At the time, it was called gay-related immune deficiency - Grid.

“He was absolutely shocked and I remember the rest of the evening was spent in a peculiar chill, not really knowing what to think.”

Simon, 65, didn’t want to believe the news at first.

He said: “I thought ‘come on, cancer can’t attack a sexual orientation’.

“It felt very much as if we were under siege. It was terrifying.”

The Argus: Simon Fanshawe in 1985Simon Fanshawe in 1985 (Image: Argus archive)

At the time Aids reached Brighton, Simon, who lives in Kemp Town, had started to make a name for himself on the comedy scene, appearing at the Edinburgh Festival and on the Channel 4 comedy stand-up show The Entertainers.

Outside of his burgeoning career, Simon recalled how omnipresent the virus was.

“It was everywhere - every club you went to was collecting money, there was safe sex advice, there were leaflets everywhere," he said.

“You could not ignore it and most people I knew took it very seriously.”

He also drew a comparison to the recent Covid pandemic in the conversations people had around intimate relationships.

Simon said: “We used to sit around, in a similar way to Covid, trying to almost ‘risk assess’ what we could and couldn’t do.

“'Is oral sex alright? Can we do that? What does the science say about that?' A lot of conversations were like that, it was bizarre.”

He was among those to get involved in the Sussex Aids Helpline, which provided advice for those worried about or affected by HIV and Aids.

Simon reflected on his memories of one of the founders of the helpline, Graham Wilkinson, who died of Aids in 1990.

The Argus: The Sussex Aids Helpline offered advice and support for those affected by the HIV/Aids epidemicThe Sussex Aids Helpline offered advice and support for those affected by the HIV/Aids epidemic

He said: “Graham was marvellous - he was a really disagreeable person in so many ways, he was incredibly bad-tempered, but at the same time he was completely wonderful.

“He was amazing, he was one of the absolute leaders and fought for resources.”

Simon explained that there was an “extraordinary” response from activists, who helped fill the initial void in providing support for people living with HIV/Aids.

He said: “People went from flinging feather boas over policemen to this extraordinary response.

“Activists simply kitted themselves with the knowledge because no one gave a f***.

“They didn’t care if we were dying, so activists and doctors developed great expertise.”

In 1986, then-health minister Norman Fowler implemented a government-led drive to educate the public to the dangers of Aids.

Part of this effort was a campaign called Aids: Don’t Die of Ignorance, which saw television adverts and leaflets posted through every door in the country.

The Argus: Leaflets were posted to every household in the country in 1987 warning about the dangers of AidsLeaflets were posted to every household in the country in 1987 warning about the dangers of Aids (Image: Crown copyright)

While critics have suggested the campaign has helped foster stigma against those living with HIV, Simon said that such an approach led to a wider conversation around the virus.

He said: “We used to joke about our granny getting a leaflet about getting Aids, but it made it easier to talk about and that was important.

“Notwithstanding all the prejudice and stigma, it nonetheless created a national conversation and infection rates in Britain were lower than they were elsewhere.

“Norman Fowler is an unsung hero in all of this - he had become a global expert on Aids and convinced the government and Margaret Thatcher that it was important to have that conversation.”

While Simon says he was somewhat fortunate in that few people he knew died of the virus, he said other friends of his “spent most of the 80s going to funerals”.

“It was so tragic - it was a f****ing death sentence, that was what was so awful in those days,” he said.

Looking to the present, Simon finds life today as a complete contrast, with people now able to live happy and fulfilling lives with HIV.

He warned against complacency, however, and encouraged people to be certain of their status.

“My view is that everyone should behave as if everyone is HIV positive, in the same way you would with any other infectious disease, and take precautions accordingly,” he said.