Life seemed full of adventure in 1980 when Jill Nalder moved aged 18 from Swansea to study drama at a college in north London. She soon found herself at the centre of a racuous friendship group of fellow drama students, most of whom were gay men. She remembers the glamour of cabaret and showtunes nights; dancing in glimmering discos to Soft Cell and Annie Lennox. But most of all, she remembers the freedom.
“I had a fantastic bunch of friends. We had fun, we loved it; dancing, partying,” recalls Nalder, now 60.
Then, she sighs, “everything changed”. It started as whispers. Rumours travelled over the Atlantic of a “gay flu” from San Francisco that struck men down in their prime. It left its victims weak and emaciated, Nalder heard, and caused painful dark lesions to break out across their skin. Her friends became scared to hug or to share cups; some men were dying alone because their families were too afraid to be near them.
Soon, Nalder was at the bleak crux of the Eighties Aids crisis, supporting her friends as they died around her. She helped them with their medicine each morning, and lifted them off the floor when their legs buckled. Her story has inspired a character of the same name (played by Lydia West) in Channel 4’s devastating new drama, It’s A Sin, written by Russell T Davies, Nalder’s friend of nearly five decades. The character is written as a tribute to the quiet, undemanding army of women who supported Aids victims through their loneliest hours – a group often overlooked in official histories of the epidemic which tend to focus, understandably, on the plight of gay men, about 10,000 of whom have died of Aids since 1981 (and still make up 53 per cent of new HIV diagnoses).
Jill “stood at the heart of the storm,” Davies has said. “She went to the funerals and the marches. She held the hands of so many men. She lost them, and remembered them, and somehow kept going.”
An actress who has spent most of her career in theatre, Nalder shared with Davies – who she met at a youth theatre in West Glamorgan – the full story of her life in the Eighties, to help with the beginnings of his script. Then, in late 2019, she was delighted to receive a phone call from him offering her a cameo as Jill’s mother.
It was startling to watch her own youth portrayed so vividly on screen, she says (her character is the only one based on a real individual, rather than an amalgamation of several). One particularly moving scene shows her character walking through an Aids ward – a dark reminder of the long, sorrowful evenings she spent in London’s Middlesex Hospital, or at the Aids unit at the Chelsea and Westminster, at the bedsides of her closest friends, holding their hands until they died. By that point, some were only six stone, with no hair.
“That scene was absolutely evocative for me,” she tells me over the phone from her cottage in Cambridgeshire.