The real Jill from It’s A Sin has spoken about the ‘fear and shame’ of the AIDS crisis
Jill Nalder says she was ‘constantly helping friends’
Every single character in It’s A Sin is so phenomenal it’s hard to pick a favourite, but Jill is definitely a strong contender. The character of Jill is based on the real life Jill Nalder, a friend of Russell T Davies who is the creator of It’s A Sin – and Jill Nalder features in the series, playing Jill’s mum.
Jill has already spoken about how she was involved in fundraising for research around AIDS, and how she visited victims of the disease in “endless hospital visits” so she could offer them support, care and company, “taking the place of a family member”. Jill Nalder said It’s A Sin is “loosely based on a lot of people’s lives, and Russell’s own interpretation of the era”, and Lydia West, who plays Jill in the series, said it was an “honour” to play her.
Now, Jill Nalder has spoken to Metro about her experiences of the 1980s AIDS crisis, saying she “totally identifies” with the character Jill and what she goes through in It’s A Sin.
Just like in It’s A Sin, real Jill Nalder says the AIDS epidemic was shrouded in ‘fear, secrecy and shame’
A key theme of It’s A Sin is shame – gay men were subjected to shaming and homophobia, and unfortunately this isn’t just reserved to the 1980s – it still happens today. Jill Nalder says the two words she thinks of when she remembers the crisis are “fear and secrecy”.
“Fear of the impending loss of dearly loved friends, of illness and stigma, of any cough or skin blemish and of telling a family their son was dying of AIDS when they didn’t even know he was gay,” she says. “The secrecy and shame of it all forced so many to hide their illnesses in plain sight.”
Jill Nalder was ‘constantly helping friends’ in hospitals
In the show, Jill is a fierce ally who tries her best to support those with AIDS, whether they are her friends or total strangers. Jill Nalder was the same, and spent a lot of time helping people who were victims of the AIDS crisis. She says she was “constantly helping friends”, taking them to hospital and doctors appointments.
She spent time “trying to find some fun in a sea of heartbreak”, remembering taking a friend to hospital, who was very ill – he was underweight and pale, but still smiling. They joked about what to name his two remaining T cells – part of the body’s immune system, healthy people should have up to 1,600 of these cells.
When watching It’s A Sin, something that struck many people is how those with AIDS were taken away in secrecy, some dying without their friends knowing – and Jill Nalder says this is really like what happened. Her first friend died of AIDS in the early 1980s, and then “life began to change”. She told Metro: “Gradually, we’d hear strange whispers of people moving out of London and going home. Then we’d find out weeks or months later they’d died. That’s when I realised this was serious.”
Victims faced homophobia and stigma, as seen in It’s A Sin
The secrecy and stigma also forced people to use fake names out of fear, as several It’s A Sin characters do during hospital appointments. Jill says many people who went for HIV tests gave made-up names “because they were scared it’d stay on their records, even if it was a negative result. They didn’t want to risk not being able to get a mortgage or a loan so they’d make a name up.”
Jill remembers trying to track down one of her friends, believing he’d been taken into hospital but not knowing what name he would have given. It took her over an hour of calling various London hospitals from a phone box to find where he was.
‘They deserve to be remembered with pride’
Jill spoke about the “happy” but “emotional” time on set, and the “overwhelming” response to the story she feels is “so important because it is real history that needs to be told”. Those who lived during the AIDS crisis “deserve to be remembered with pride”, she says. “The LGBTQ+ community ought to be remembered as trailblazers because not only were they fighting for their lives, they were medical guinea pigs – sometimes taking 30 pills a day just to survive.”
Jill Nalder is an actress who’s been in loads more besides It’s A Sin. She and some friends set up West End Cares, and would put on cabaret shows to raise money for AIDS research, the NHS, and Crusaid, a hardship fund. “Through bucket collections and amazing themed nights and competitions, we collectively raised millions and it was lovely to see everyone coming together,” she says.