“Sex education is always trouble” The representation of sex education and HIV-positivity on the BBC’s Grange Hill
In 1990 the BBC broke new ground when EastEnder’s character Mark Fowler returned to the show much changed by his HIV-positivity. The storyline fostered intense media interest and research indicates that both HIV-awareness and HIV-antibody testing-rates increased as the storyline aired. 5 years after Mark’s storyline began, another BBC series picked HIV as a plotline: the long-running children’s drama Grange Hill.
The 1995 Grange Hill’s HIV storyline followed the impact of the death of Lucy Mitchell’s mother from AIDS-related complications. This representation of HIV-positivity served as more than mere dramatic effect; over the course of 5 key episodes, Grange Hill presented its audience with some of the factual and emotional realities of HIV/AIDS’ impact on family and friends, deliberately situating the disease within a salient familial context. Throughout the same episodes, sex education lessons are also represented, with their potential to cause controversy used to provide a further source of drama. The resulting episodes provide the historian with unique texts, not only are they rare examples of AIDS edutainment aimed at young adults, but as this paper will argue, they also represent a critique of government sex education policy.
This paper will explore and contextualise how HIV-positivity and sex education were represented in Grange Hill, revealing the didactic and political elements of the text, whilst demonstrating how the BBC deployed differing ideas of childhood and the child as vulnerable or agentic to create compelling drama, empower its teenage audience and critique government policy.