Choose Life: Edinburgh’s Battle Against AIDS, BBC One, Thursday

Much has been written about the plight of Scotland’s so-called ‘Trainspotting Generation’, long-term drug users now well into middle-age, and the stark statistics which recently put the country at the top of the European Union’s drug death table. Even the New York Times has taken notice, publishing a lengthy piece of reportage earlier this year about drug use in Glasgow.

Using statistics as punctuation and concentrating instead on the human stories, Choose Life looked at the background to this generational tragedy, namely the huge increase in heroin use in Edinburgh in the 1980s and, allied to it, the increase in cases of AIDS and HIV which saw the city dubbed the AIDS capital of Europe.

It was sobering stuff. Many interviewees had lost friends, partners or siblings. One of them was former heroin user Fiona Gilbertson, whose boyfriend Raymond contracted AIDS in the 1980s and subsequently died from it. Asked what a death from AIDS looked like, Gilbertson said simply: “Medieval”. She wasn’t far wrong – for the health care professionals such as Dr Ray Brettle, a specialist in infectious diseases, treating patients like Raymond was all about managing decline. Not for nothing was he nicknamed Dr Death.

The gay community was also badly affected, of course, and there was incisive and moving testimony from Derek Ogg QC, the inspiring co-founder of Scottish AIDS Monitor and one of those who campaigned in the late 1970s for the ban on homosexuality in Scotland to be lifted.

The archive footage provided a different sort of witness statement. Some of it – particularly the film of Edinburgh addicts injecting heroin, or of plain-clothes police officers undertaking raids – was astonishing to watch. Some of it was jaw-dropping for other reasons, particularly when it highlighted a lack of understanding and tolerance surrounding issues of dependency. You expect that from politicians, but the media was culpable too.

Stuck in the middle of it all were the Edinburgh constabulary. When even The Economist is arguing for the legalisation of drugs you know right-leaning moralists are on the wrong side of history but it was right-leaning moralists and their fatuous “War on Drugs” policy which demanded the addicts be criminalised. This meant, crucially, syringes being bagged as evidence and uniformed police being stationed outside the city’s only needle exchange centre. In one of the documentary’s most telling scenes, three ex-cops sat in Leith Dockers Club and admitted the extent to which mistakes in policing had simply made the infection problem worse. A gripping, poignant and moving portrayal of a dark decade in the capital.