As Stepehn Fry's two-part documentary begins on BBC2 tomorrow, the actor reveals to Emma Pomfret how being a 'normal gay' probably saved his life.

COMEDIAN Stephen Fry tells me he was lucky to escape the onset of the early Aids epidemic with his life. "At one point it felt like I was going to a funeral every month, it seemed endless," he reveals. I suppose it's my good fortune that I was never really involved in the kind of casual pick-up world that a lot my gay friends were at the time, because if I'd been a more 'normal' gay, so to speak, the chances are that I wouldn't be here now.

"Sadly, that's how it was then - if you had Aids any time during the 80s it was effectively a death sentence," he adds gravely.

Following on from his widely acclaimed series, The Secret Life Of The Manic Depressive, and to mark the 25th anniversary of Aids charity The Terrence Higgins Trust, Stephen tackles the largely forgotten world of HIV and Aids in BBC2's new two-part documentary, HIV And Me.

"It's always good to make television that you can feel really proud of and since HIV has kind of slipped off the radar in recent years, and young straight people now represent the fastest growing percentage of new diagnoses in the UK, I thought that it was well worth a good revisit," the 50-year-old explains.

"Obviously, this programme is not quite as personal as the manic depression documentary because I'm not HIV positive myself but, on the other hand, I do have a sense of 'there but for the grace of God go I'.

'I'm from the exact generation which left university and emerged into young adulthood as HIV began to do its work and many of my gay friends became infected quite early on so, by the time the 'Don't Die Of Ignorance' government campaigns came out, it was just too late for most of them," Stephen explains.

"In fact, I interviewed my first serious love from my Cambridge university days about how he and his partner after me both contracted HIV in the late 1980s. Sadly, his partner died very quickly, but my ex is still with us and he's gone through the whole experience of early Aids treatment and so on - he's nearly blind now, but he still wanted to speak fluently about it all."

Despite the fact that 20 years and 25 million deaths later we are told that we're losing the fight against Aids, and that over 40 million worldwide and 70,000 in the UK now live with the virus, Stephen points out that the information agenda has all but disappeared in recent years.

"Many young people think HIV only happens in Africa or to gay people or drug abusers, which is simply not the case, so I wanted to find out about the true perception of Aids in Britain today," he says.

"As well as returning to a London hospital ward where I used to visit dying friends years ago, I went to 'the strip' in Doncaster, once crowned the 'HIV capital of the North', to ask them what they knew about the virus and to find out whether this generation has missed the safe sex message entirely.

"We also went to Manchester's gay heartland in Canal Street to see what the homosexual community there do to protect themselves, if they talk to their sexual partners about HIV and if they use condoms regularly, that sort of thing."

Although Stephen, who now lives in London with his long-term partner Daniel Cohen, says that making HIV And Me was both a fascinating and moving experience, he admits that he didn't expect to find such a huge stigma still attached to the issue.

"To my surprise I found that there were similarities to the manic depression programme in that we found that other people's perceptions are one of the biggest issues," he says.

"It's shocking, but there was one little girl I met who was born with Aids and she had to endure having 'Aids slut' daubed in paint on the front door of her house.

"In fact, the people who we did actually manage to speak to were unbelievably rare and we spent months approaching hospitals, health authorities and primary care trusts, but nobody would talk to us. I must confess that I found it very hard to believe that people could really be like that towards Aids sufferers but I suppose that there's something about it that makes us recoil."

Of course, it's Africa where the spectre of Aids is most terrifying.

"I first went to Uganda with Comic Relief about 12 years ago and I actually revisited the very same Aids orphan village this time around," he says. "It was a very moving experience to see the little boy I'd met last time, whose whole family had died from Aids, now thriving as a young man - it was wonderful."

As well as the obvious shortage of Aids medication in Africa, Stephen believes that one of the major factors contributing towards the ever-increasing spread of Aids and HIV on the continent is the "head in the sand" attitude of many African governments.

"There is an enormous problem in Thabo Mbeki's South African health ministry's attitude towards HIV, which continues to shock and horrify everyone who works in the field," he says. "It really is terrifying to think that the country with the worst Aids problem is the one that has the least willingness to respect the obvious connection between the HIV virus and the condition known as Aids.

"I actually had a fierce row with a South African health minister on screen and there's a fair amount of anger that comes out on my part," he continues.

Stephen believes the only way to fight the global battle against the HIV virus is to destroy the deeply entrenched stigmas through frank and honest dialogue. "Talking about Aids is precisely what helps to dispel the myths," he says. "At the moment HIV is a bit like Voldemort and we all have to be Harry Potter and be brave enough to say his name, and then it will get less and less powerful the more we do.

"However, if we continue to privilege it with this huge power and mystique and make out that it's best not talked about, then it will flourish."

* HIV And Me starts on BBC2 tomorrow at 9pm. The GI Jonny website,, engages young people with the key facts about HIV.