This Friday there’s a special World AIDS Day show at the Two Brewers in the Club Bar from the DE Experience raising money for the National AIDS Trust. Dave Cross spoke to Jonathan Hellyer, the man behind the snarl, to find out more.
Hi Jonathan, why do you think it’s important for bars and clubs to organise World AIDS Day events?
I think venues have been focal points for unity and for fundraising over the years. World AIDS Day commemorates those we have lost to an appalling crisis and those still fighting it, and I think venues are places where people’s remembrance can be centralised.
Drag acts and cabaret stars have always been at the front when it comes to both campaigns for equality and charity events, why do you think that is?
Oddly enough, that’s actually how DE got started at the old Nightingale, Birmingham. I was asked by the then manager, George ‘Girty’ Bancroft, to host a charity night to raise funds for Birmingham AIDS Trust. We – everyone in the community – had to respond to the crisis unfolding amongst us. Increasing numbers of people we knew and loved and had grown up and come out with were dying miserable deaths and nothing seemed capable of stopping what was literally an onslaught. Performers have always motivated people with messages delivered via a public voice and persona, because if large numbers of people can listen to your performance, they’ll hear the things you say too. So we’re beautifully placed to confront stigma and bond in the face of adversity – and to quote Marc Almond in 12 Years of Tears, ‘There’s a lot of it about’. But let’s also not forget the laughs! When we’re in crisis, we need somewhere to go where we can forget that crisis. Drag acts personify a type of naughtiness and tongue-in-cheek that takes away unhappiness for – even if it’s only a temporary reprieve. While you’re laughing, you might forget how sad or scared you’ve been!
With PrEP and advances in treatment, do you think it’s dangerous to think that HIV is a thing of the past?
Listen, HIV/AIDS is not going anywhere any time soon and I know that very personally! Nowadays, pretty much anyone who can access PrEP or PEP can avoid infection, or if they’re positive, live long, normal, happy lives on ARV meds. But those advances, miraculous, unbelievable and wonderful as they are, haven’t removed AIDS from the world or from our communities. 56 Dean Street and places like it are working so hard and seeing mind boggling results in reductions in infection rates, but the hard times are still here. I see HIV/AIDS in the same way that I view civil rights – anyone who assumes all the hard work is done is dreaming. We have to fight for one another, here and everywhere in the world, and we cannot afford to imagine we are safe. The epidemic remains global – the fight remains global – and so must our response.
Edna is known for talking about almost anything… HIV can be a sensitive subject especially when you are playing to a gay audience at somewhere like the Brewers. As a comedian how do you approach something like this?
Edna is a clever girl. She knows where she stands and she’s able to tweak the audience’s reaction. Her message on Friday at the Brewers will be about coming together as a community to break down isolation and share love and fun. Most shows she performs are tempered with pathos and the will to make us laugh at ourselves – Friday will be no different. Edna knows that suffering and death are not funny; that’s no moot point. But how we live and how we love are things she uses to challenge us to laugh regardless of our pain. And yes, she can be a bad girl, but that doesn’t make her a bad person. Not so far anyway…
Are there any subjects Edna wouldn’t talk about?
Yes. Politics. It’s drab and boring and crap and pointless and she’s not clever enough to know anything about it. International relations sucks too. Unless you’re talking about… oh never mind.
Do you have a message from Edna for Boyz readers?
Well, to be fair, she’s very hard to track down. As you know, when she’s not performing, she runs a service ‘counselling people’ from a small bedsit in Bayswater. But she penned this on her break: “I’m thrilled to be on stage at the Two Brewers this Friday, World AIDS Day. Love, laughter and light are my themes and I want you to bring your love, your laughter and your light too. We’re also holding a minute’s hug to remember, and to warm away the chills of life. So come armed with a passion to party and a desire to raise funds as we raise the roof! Love you. See you there. Edna. XxX