In Our Blood
In the '80s when the LGBTQI community was fighting for decriminilization, a new virus was beginning to take hold.
In between the old fax machines, Koala Blue jumpers and Saturday Night Fever perspex dance floors there’s a glimpse of Sweet & Sour on a TV screen in In Our Blood.
The nod to a past ABC musical drama highlights just how few there have been from the broadcaster (or anyone else for that matter). More on the musical elements later.
The 4 part drama from Hoodlum is set against the backdrop of the early HIV / AIDS epidemic in Sydney -and the corridors of Canberra- from 1983.
It was an era of Thatcherism, Reaganomics and the new Hawke majority government in which (fictional) Health Minister Jeremy Wilding (Matt Day) learns about GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiancy, the early term for the unknown virus which would grow to become HIV /AIDS.
His new advisor is the openly-gay David (Tim Draxl) who parties at Sydney’s Patches nightclub, a melting pot of liberation, hedonism, disco, sequins and passion, all overseen by local drag queen Patty (Art Simone). Away from the bars David lives with his Colombian lover, chef Gabe (Oscar Leal), when he isn’t flying to Canberra for work.
But overseas reports of a strange disease gripping homosexuals, Haitians and intravenous drug-users has David, and his minister boss, very concerned. While the Health Department, led by stuffy dept. head Clara (Anita Hegh), are dismissive of the obscure homosexual disease, the minister is not, eventually ordering a Task Force.
Such administration, at a time when the government is trying to roll out universal health in Medicare, does not come easily -especially when there are no votes to be won given homosexuality is still a criminal act in NSW.
The gay community, personified through characters such as lesbian activist Deb (Jada Alberts), girlfriend and teacher Michelle (Anna McGahan), busboy with angel wings Liam (Wil King), ‘queer Nun’ Tim (Ryan A. Murphy) and indigenous gay man Alsessio (Stephen Oliver), are busy protesting to police about decriminalising homosexuality. The last thing they need is a disease in America running rife amongst their own -especially when there is no clear information about how it is spread.
There is also local doctor Paul (Nicholas Brown) who warns, “Something is killing gay men. And until we do our own research we won’t know what it is.”
This tug of war -between liberation and a health crisis- plays out in Adriano Cappalletta’s script, directed by John Sheedy & Nicholas Verso. Production Designer Matti Crocker has filled the screen with colour, matched by 80s costumes and a soundtrack of songs including Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, Bros, Misex and Men Without Hats.
Ingeniously, the narrative weaves in a Greek Chorus of chameleon performers (Adriano Cappalletta, Nic Prior, Tomas Parrish, Alice Birbarra), who break the fourth wall imparting necessary history points to the viewer and, joyously, bursting into song. The weaving of these ’80s hits juxtaposed against the politics is one of the drama’s many pleasures.
So too is the shining performance of Tim Draxl as the defiant, proud young advisor determined to prevent the deaths of those he loves and those without a voice. Matt Day’s character is doubtless based on a young Neal Blewett, who was Hawke’s Health Minister. Here he advances “prevention, care, treatment, education, research,” and seeks bi-partisan support (“we all have a problem with Queensland” he is told).
That any federal government sought to partner with community groups for safe-sex outreach programs is extraordinary, and while we well remember the fear around the Grim Reaper campaigns, what Australia achieved when the rest of the world buried their head in the sand is entirely worth revisiting. If you enjoyed It’s A Sin from the UK this will win you over from the first frames.
While the musical inclusions are dynamic the piece could even do with more songs to fully embrace its theatrical style, rather than a fleeting inclusion, and a minister without a Prime Minister or Cabinet personified feels denied the levels of power to fully appreciate the context.
However ABC continues to highlight history and social turning points, and I’m hoping before the final credits roll its own Chair Ita Buttrose will also be recognised for her trailblazing role in educating middle Australia. Don’t miss it.
In Our Blood premieres 8:30pm Sunday March 19 on ABC.