Long-Term Survivor Jonathan Blake Takes Us Behind the Scenes of the New Film Pride to Talk About Real-Life Activism
by Dann Dulin
“AND THE OSCAR GOES TO…”
Yep, it’s that time of year again when the film community honors their peers for their ace performances. If I had that wee gold buff man in my hands, I would award Best Picture to Pride.
A main character, “Jonathan Blake,” is also a real person. Based on true events, the film chronicles the 1984 coal miner’s strike in Wales and a group of London-based gay and lesbian activists who try to bond with the strikers as fellow victims of an oppressive system. It’s about time true stories emerge and our history books are rewritten.
The activists establish the organization LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) and raise money to support the miners and their families. The dramedy explodes when a busload of gays arrive at the tiny Welsh village of Onllwyn. The residents’ reactions range from bewilderment to outright hostility.
Some of England’s finest thespians give stellar performances in the film and there’s some new American talent, as well. Brit Dominic West, who
portrays the colorful Jonathan, is an entrancing scene-stealer. In a pivotal moment, he gives a thunderbolt performance with his dazzling footwork on top of tables boogying to the disco hit, “Shame, Shame, Shame” by Shirley & Co. It transforms the local crowd, proving that music can surpass all preconceptions.
In a recent interview, Dominic said, “Jonathan’s probably the most heroic figure I’ve played because he doesn’t have a dark side. He was the second person to be diagnosed HIV-positive in the U.K. and since then he has flown around the world, having his blood examined by scientists. I was a bit nervous because he’s such a great man. I didn’t want to blow it; I didn’t want to do something cheap.”
Indeed, in 1982, thirty-three years ago, Jonathan was diagnosed as HIV-positive. The film presents the character Jonathan as the second person to be diagnosed in London, but Jonathan points out that each hospital had its own numbering system. Who knows who actually was the first or second person diagnosed?
In early 1982, before his diagnosis, Jonathan pursued an acting career while waiting tables at Joe Allen in Covent Garden. He believes that he contracted HIV on a visit to San Francisco, where he frequented the bathhouses. Several months later, his lymph nodes were swollen. He visited his doctor, who diagnosed his condition as syphilis. She referred him to an STD clinic. There, he had a biopsy of lymph nodes taken from his upper arm and the result came back HTLV3 (positive).
“This was a shock…,” sighs Jonathan, from the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills after the Los Angeles premiere of Pride, as if he encountered the trauma that very day. “Having lived in New York City in the early seventies and visiting friends in San Francisco, I was well up on what was happening there. Hearing this news meant I had a terminal diagnosis. It was a death sentence.” Soon after, Jonathan attempted suicide. “Being anal in nature, though, I could not completely go through with it. I couldn’t bare the thought of someone having to clean up after me. So I decided to live.”
He became an activist. At a protest of “Gays for a Nuclear Free Future” he met a teacher, Nigel, who became his partner. They have been together for thirty-one years. (In Pride, “Jonathan’s” partner is named “Gethin.”) Through Nigel, Jonathan joined LGSM.
Jonathan learned after his diagnosis to keep busy and maintain an interest in life. He volunteered for a number of drop-in centers like The Landmark in Brixton, where he worked as a driver for clients who had hospital appointments. He delivered hot meals to clients in their homes and he volunteered at Lighthouse South, part of the Terence Higgins Trust (THT), an all-encompassing HIV/AIDS organization. In 1996 he was poster boy for THT’s first prevention campaign aimed at gay men in the U.K. “I remember walking into the Clapham North Tube station, where the platform is a central island, with long walls on either side that were plastered with huge billboards of myself. I turned and tailed directly out of there!”
Jonathan attended London College of Fashion and earned a degree in tailoring. “I figured I’d be dead before I finished the courses but decided to attend in order to keep my mind off my illness.” In 1987, the English National Opera hired him to work in its wardrobe department. He took medical leave in 1996 when he developed internal shingles on the phrenic nerve. He hiccupped for ten days!
In the early days of the epidemic, Jonathan refused to take AZT and his decision proved to be fortuitous. The experimental drug, a failed chemotherapy drug, did not work as prescribed for everyone. “I knew several guys who took this drug and they are now dead. I am still angry with GlaxoSmithKline,” he says, theorizing that the high doses prescribed were more about creating a return on investment than treatment science.
Over the next several years, Jonathan had several opportunities to try other drugs, but flatly refused. It wasn’t until he left the English National Opera that he considered giving them a try. Unable to find a doctor he liked, he stumbled upon Dr. Chris Taylor at King’s College Hospital. He’s still Jonathan’s doctor. At that time, Dr. Taylor recommended the new combination therapy, and put Jonathan on d4T, ddI, and nerivapine.
Unable to work, Jonathan found Zen by gardening. He created his first garden in 1985. Today, he continues gardening around his and Nigel’s home in South London. They live in the Lesbian and Gay Community section of Brixton Housing Cooperative, a registered public housing project. (Nearby is Poets Road, where Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton once resided.) Jonathan sows his talents throughout the grounds of the housing property, as well.
Dressed nobly in a leather kilt which he designed and wore to Gay Pride in the mid-nineties, Jonathan is extremely proud of Pride, though the film has brought up some bizarre feelings.
Dann Dulin: How are you embracing your new fame?
Jonathan Blake: Dann…[he wobbles his head, his face aglow in sheer surprise] I never expected this at sixty-five! It’s utterly surreal. It’s a whole new world. But I’ll be honest, I’m really enjoying it. If publicizing Pride can make people think how “normal” HIV is, then I’m very happy. What I love about screenwriter Stephen Beresford’s approach to my HIV is that it’s so matter-of-fact. “Jonathan” is not a desperately sad person or a victim. He’s portrayed as someone who just happens to have HIV. There’s no blatant insistence, but it’s weaved throughout the film by many aspects of my character; Mark’s former boyfriend comments, in an understated way, that he has AIDS; there’s a “Get Tested” poster in the bookshop, and a bigoted AIDS advertisement on TV.
Jonathan, what do you think of Dominic West’s portrayal of you in the film?
I’m very happy with it. The “Jonathan” he plays, though based on my story, is not historically accurate. It’s Stephen’s creation. If I could have danced like Dominic does in the film, I’d have been a very happy gay boy! [A few liberties are taken in Pride and some characters and scenes are fictionalized.] I was campy, though, and loved to dress up in different personas such as Che Guevara, or my Dirty Dancing look, or my Les Mis outfit.
Did Dominic consult you?
I only met Dominic once. Stephen Beresford phoned me one day to say that the director and the actor who was portraying me wanted to meet. We
scheduled for the next afternoon, teatime. I had time to bake a Lemon Drizzle cake. After all, you can’t have guests to tea with no cake! The following day, Stephen showed up and a short time later Matthew [Warchus, the director] arrived. Dominic West was standing next to him. Matthew made the introduction. I was gobsmacked! I had watched The Wire avidly and loved him as Detective McNulty. We all sat down and had tea and cake. Matthew asked many questions and Dominic listened.
We eventually went out to my pride and joy, my garden. There, Dominic and I chatted. I told him a little about being HIV-positive. He’s very easy to talk to, really charming, and a pleasure to be around. Days later, Nigel and I went to the Pride set when they were shooting the “Pits & Perverts” scenes. That was a great day because Sian James [one of the miner’s wives] was there too. It was wonderful being there with her.
Was there much talk of AIDS during the LGSM days and did anyone think of devoting time to this disease?
AIDS and HIV was a fact of life. We all knew people who were becoming ill. In those days, there was very little to be done by way of medication. AIDS was an epidemic, huge and terrifying. The miner’s strike was more accessible. Whole communities were having their hearts drawn out of them and we could do something about that. In a way, it was displacement therapy.
What did you learn from your LGSM experience?
I don’t think I could have answered this question back then. It’s taken thirty years on to realize that the glory of it was the coming together of such diverse communities. It was amazing and what came out of that is fantastic.
Soon after the miner’s strike, you began working with the English National Opera. Tell me about that.
I love opera—like any self-respecting queen. I must tell you, while I was waiting to be interviewed in the men’s workroom with my portfolio in hand, I spied a note on their notice board. It was a letter from St. Mary’s Hospital Paddington thanking all the workroom for their support of Peter, one of their men’s cutters who had just died from AIDS. I decided that was where I wanted to work because if I got ill, as I surely would, they’d understand.
In 1996 you left the English National Opera because of illness, and this is when you first began drug therapy.
I had no energy. I would peel myself out of bed and onto the sofa. Then I’d flip into another chair then go back to bed. Within three weeks after starting the meds, I had boundless energy.
After the first year, the pills started giving me dreadful peripheral neuropathy, especially in my feet. The pain from even a bed sheet was too much for me. The medication had inflamed the nerve endings.
I am now on an unusual daily dual combination of one darunavir 800 mg and ritonavir booster 100 mg, plus two abacavir 300 mg. To dull the pain of my neuropathy I take gabapentin three times a day. The pain has never gone away.
As a long-term survivor, what’s your advice to someone who is diagnosed today?
As a long-term survivor, my advice would be to get as much information as you can handle. Confront your fears and take the medications because there are now many more to choose from. Above all, embrace…your…life. Once I was given some sage advice: plan my day so that I would not get bored and give myself at least one treat every day. For myself, I like to keep as active as I can. Since turning sixty-five, I have taken up swimming, which keeps me fit.
What is your input on the current HIV-prevention campaigns?
Any campaign needs to recognize what target group they are trying to reach.
Information is key and it should be clear and concise. Too often it’s not.
Has there been anything positive that has come out of being HIV-positive?
It has been an extraordinary journey. I have come in contact with some very wonderful, special, and supportive people. I’m very fortunate in that I was born in the twentieth century in the U.K., where we have a National Health Service and where education is free. I am truly blessed!
What will you do once all the Pride hoopla settles down?
Well, it has been an honor and a privilege to be a part of Pride. Once I settle back into my normal life, I will continue to be active, tending my garden, being involved with the community in which I live, caring for friends, and enjoying my relationship with Nigel.
Any regrets, Jonathan?
I wish I had learned to cherish life before I was diagnosed…and how very precious that gift is. [He pauses, thoughtfully tilting his head, and glances away.] I am having an extraordinary life, flourishing in my post-HIV diagnosis.
Dann Dulin interviewed Dick Donato for the December 2014 cover story.