We have all been talking about “It’s A Sin” recently, the new drama of Russell T Davies followed the story of the 1980s, the story of AIDS, and showcased the joy and heartbreak of a group of friends across a decade in which everything changed. The series, which met a lot of recognition and popularity, portrayed the gay London as it was 2 decades ago. Ian Temple is a gay man who lived in London during this era and talks about how the series brought uncannily to life a friend of his who died 26 years ago. This friend is none other than the “real” Ritchie of the series, Dursley McLinden who is loosely portrayed by Olly Alexander.
Ian opened his heart to YASS and described to us how London was for gay men during the 1980s, how accurate the series was, what was the story behind the Pink palace and who was Dursley McLinden, the person on whom the story of Ritchie is based.
So, first of all, how do you identify?
As a gay man. And I’ve been out since I was at art college, which is many years ago. Now I’m in my 60s, so I guess I came out roughly when I was in my 20s.
How did you personally experience the AIDS epidemic during the 80s and early 90s?
This was very much my young years, as I was born in 1960, and the AIDS crisis started around the middle 80s. So, when I really started knowing what that was, I would be 25. At the beginning of the 80s, I was an art college student in Brighton and we began to hear about AIDS. I was out at college and I was beginning to find my way as young gay man, after having left a repressive boarding school. As a student, I was wanting to be myself and find myself, discover other gay men and I thought the best place was Brighton. Gay men before us, had not had a lot of freedom, as during the 60s we knew it was still a criminal activity being homosexual. So, in the 70s, gay activism sort of started, and through Stonewall, it was our generation, the generation who had the freedom to be gay, and to feel empowered and this seemed terribly exciting.
At that moment there was no Internet, no WhatsApp and all of that kind of stuff, so all we had was rumours and an unorganised press. So, we heard rumours of this “gay cancer”. Just like in “It’s a Sin”. In the beginning, I didn’t believe it. I just thought, it’s ridiculous, a cancer that can know whether you’re gay or not? How could an illness determine that? And I believed it was clearly just an anti-gay thing and it didn’t make any sense tool. In the beginning, HIV was linked to poppers, because at that time there was no real understanding of how the transmission took place. There wasn’t any sort of any information about what went on with what we had to do. At that moment, I decided I wouldn’t sleep or have sex with Americans, and that was it. I then moved up to London, and to the bright lights of bright city. And that’s when I really first started hearing about AIDS, there wasn’t the understanding of HIV, there was just this thing called AIDS, and, as you know it was dramatically illustrated with that famous tombstone advert that played in the early 80s, which struck terror into everybody, gay and straight. It was a very terrifying time to be gay.
The first death struck me. I was going to Heaven regularly, and Heaven was the focus of my life. Having moved up to London, it was a fantastic place and there wasn’t anything else like it. It was a mega club, and to see a mega club where there were that many gay people out and enjoying themselves and their new-found freedom, was exhilarating and fun. Before then, there weren’t any gay clubs. Most bars were held in secret. So, if you went to a gay pub, for example, normally the windows would be blacked out so the public wouldn’t see inside.
I remember the first gay pubs in Soho that opened. They had a big clear window in front of them and I thought “Gosh! That’s terribly brave to have a window that people would see you inside the gate”, because up to then it’d been very secretive. First time I really knew about AIDS, was when it was in the gay papers, including a gay magazine called “Him” and the Gay News. The information still wasn’t very clear, the doctors were learning as fast as we were, and there was not a lot being done about it in terms of the government or scientific community, unlike with COVID today. Partly because it was seen as a gay illness. And so, you know, they used to say things like, “Well, it’s just the gay people”.
The epidemic has been in my life since I was a young man coming out, so it seems so it’s always been part of my life.
Is the portrayal of London for a gay man during the 80s, according to what we see in “It’s A Sin” accurate?
Yes, it’s perfectly accurate. When I first started watching the programme, I was transported back to that world, instantly. Even the music in the show is fantastic. It was gay artists that were first coming out, it was just an exciting period to be gay. We had Erasure, we had Bronski Beat, we had Frankie Goes to Hollywood we had, Boy George. And we had a whole club scene with high energy music which was very much, our sound.. So, it was exciting and that is portrayed well in the series. And, these are young people who want to live their lives and want to enjoy their lives and are excited about gay freedom. And, unfortunately they’re the people who are in the in the shadows of what followed.
What’s your opinion about “It’s A Sin”?
I think it’s an incredibly powerful programme. I think Russell T Davis has been able to reach out to audiences who haven’t watched AIDS films before. Russell T Davis has been able to reach across the gay community into a much larger television world, and touch and affect people with the stories of these individuals. And what I find so effective is, they are based on individuals I know, and they’re based on friends I lost. So, you know, it just seems so powerful to me that their names are not lost and their memories are not lost.
Having said that, I wanted to ask you, I read online that there was a person called Dursley McLinden. Who is the real Ritchie from “It’s A Sin”?
Dursley was a friend of mine and what you said is true, and also, Olly in the series looks like him. I mean, he’s got the same look and the same energy. Dursley was an actor. He had come from the Isle of Man, a very repressive place, which is portrayed also in in the series. Dursley was very handsome. He was very flirtatious, he was very attractive and he was beginning to do extremely well in musicals. When I met him, he was in a musical called Follies. I also want to mention that there was such a place as the Pink Palace. Dursey didn’t actually live there at that time, but it was rented by Jill.
Dursley had been around the West End for a long time. He contracted HIV, just as the character Richie does. And, he was incredibly stoic and incredibly brave. He wanted to survive. He had a huge funeral, and his body went to the Isle of Man. His parents didn’t come to the funeral, which was more of a celebration. It was just the most extraordinary funeral I’ve been to in terms of what it was like. There was a black hearse carried by black horses through Compton Street and through Covent Garden, stopping in all those places and and bars where Dursley was known, to pay tribute to him in that way. Judi Dench was also there.
Did you personally know other women like Jill during that period?
Jill is not the only person that I happen to know. I know lots of women who just loved being in gay circles. Jill was one of these women, and there were other women like her who were incredibly supportive allies. Jill even after Dursley’s death continued to meet people who had been abandoned by their families. She is an extraordinary person.
Richie said before dying in the series that living in London as a gay man during the 80s was such fun. Do people really tend to forget about this?
It was both frightening and fun. It can be both at the same time. So, you knew that if you’re going into a sauna you were taking your life in your hands. It was risky for you, you calculated the risk. You would look at people thinking “are they safe, are they not safe?”. “Does he look healthy or not healthy because they had lost weight?”. You know all of that was kind of present in your mind. I remember in 18 months I went to 20 funerals. And the spirit that bought us into London and bought us into Heaven, and all of that extraordinary energy of gay people expressing themselves for the first time since activism first started, kind of became dangerous. It felt dangerous. The press was homophobic and abusive and the environment just didn’t feel supportive. Flirting was tricky because you had seen so many people die and it, it made you very cautious about flirting and dating. It felt like an enormous thing to ask somebody of their HIV status, because of your knowledge of what had gone before. Thankfully after 1996 AIDS did not become a death sentence, but before 1996 the average life expectancy of gay man with HIV was seven months.
How different was London life when you were a young gay man compared to now?
There was there was literally no internet when I was a young man at all. It just wasn’t any. Internet has changed everything. And not necessarily the better. In the old gay pubs, you could go in and you would meet all sorts of people, you know whether they were from upper class or lower class or rich or poor, or young or old, it was a much wider community than it is today. For some reason, the internet is kind of dividing people. Now, it is not as big mixing pot as it was when I was a young gay man, and the gay community is not as powerfully organised as it it seemed to be. In the past, we had something to fight for. Now, thank God, we are in a stage that a lot of the fight is over. We got marriage equality and rights, that we certainly didn’t have when I was a young man.
Do you miss these times?
I do, funnily enough. It sounds like an odd thing to say, but I look at the young generation of gay men, and it’s fantastic, it’s so easy to come out as gay, there’s much less judgement about being gay there’s not much stigma about being gay. But, there’s something exciting about that secret London world of my generation. When I first moved to London, knowing where this gay venue was, although we were discriminated against, there was something kind of exciting about that.
Talk to me about the Gay Men Chorus where you are part of.
Yes, I’m passionate and I have been supporting the Gay Men Chorus for the last 10 years. It provides an organisation, a community, which embraces the younger members, but we’ve also got people who are in their 80s, and this is quite extraordinary. And we also tell each other stories. And it feels very important to pass on gay history. And, above all, we are a fantastic community.