Ipswich Regent bound singer Beverley Knight’s fight for a world free of HIV

Beverley Knight returns to the Ipswich Regent May 21, followed by a show at Southend's Cliffs Pavili

Beverley Knight returns to the Ipswich Regent May 21, followed by a show at Southend's Cliffs Pavilion on May 22. Photo: Alex Fairfull

Before he died, queen of UK soul Beverley Knight told her best friend she’d continue his fight for a world free of HIV. She talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage

The singer and actress will perform songs from her forthcoming new album, her hits plus songs from t

The singer and actress will perform songs from her forthcoming new album, her hits plus songs from the West End shows she's starred in - Credit: Archant

When Beverley’s best friend Tyrone Jamison died in 2003 from HIV, she made him a promise.

“As he passed the baton to me, I (said) I would fulfil his promise of never stop shouting about it, never, ever, give up until we’ve eradicated this thing,” recalls the singer and actress.

It’s the day after World AIDS Day when I call. In a sad twist of irony, it’s also the day after Tyrone’s birthday. He would’ve been 44.

“Tyrone got really ill once. Then he got ill again and realised something was very wrong. He had a well man check, which meant they tested everything and they told him he had the HIV virus. He was completely and utterly, as you can imagine, devastated. I was his primary carer. I looked after him, it was me who took him to hospital when he was in his final crisis and (me who) stayed in the hospital until he died.”

She's currently appearing as Grizabella in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats

She's currently appearing as Grizabella in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats - Credit: Archant

Beverley has spoken in other interviews how it was a friendship she doesn’t think she’ll experience again. Becoming best mates within days of meeting, she still misses him every day. His death, the lowest she’d ever been in her life, left her unable to think about music because the memories were too painful.

It was him who introduced her to the Terrence Higgins Trust which works to create a world where people with HIV live healthy lives free from prejudice and discrimination and good sexual health is a right and reality for all.

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According to Public Health England, as of 2014 there were an estimated 103,700 people living with HIV in the UK. Of these, 17% are undiagnosed and don’t know about their HIV infection.

Some 613 people with the virus died and while the peak for new diagnoses occurred in 2005 - when 7,893 were recorded - there were 6,151 new HIV diagnoses last year. Of the new diagnoses, 55% were among men who have sex with men.

Beverley was awarded an MBE for her services to music and charity. One of the group's she's involved

Beverley was awarded an MBE for her services to music and charity. One of the group's she's involved with is the Terrence Higgins Trust. Photo: Alex Fairfull

Some 40% of people were diagnosed late, after they should have already started treatment, with late diagnosis most common among heterosexuals. One in four people were diagnosed severely late.

According to statistics, there was a 2% decrease in testing at sexual health clinics over the last year.

“Thank God nowadays people are living relatively normal lives with anti-retro viral drugs but otherwise it’s terrifying. There’s no other way of explaining it, watching someone go painfully like that; it’s the worst. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody so I implore people to be wise and get checked.”

Doing so, particularly when you’re young is so important, she stresses.

“I’m not going to stand in judgement of people’s behaviour, but if you’re sexually active or if you’re doing anything that involves needles you’ve got to get tested because you just don’t know. Tyrone didn’t know until he got really ill.”

For more information about the Terrence Higgins Trust, click here.

Beverley, celebrating 20 years since the release of her debut album The B-Funk, hits the road next year for the first time in four years.

“I couldn’t tour while I was doing any of the shows, that’s just an absolute impossibility,” says the singer, who has a secondary career as an Olivier nominated West End star.

“You’re on stage six nights a week, delivering (maybe) six to eight performances a week. Being the lead most of the time you have a few days holiday here and there but it means nothing else can happen. It’s full on, but fantastic.”

Beverley, currently appearing as Grizabella in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, had a background in musical theatre but never considered it as profession. Something awoke in her when she was handed the script to Memphis The Musical four years ago.

While waiting for the show to find a theatre, she spotted the cast of The Bodyguard on London’s West End was changing.

“I expressed interest... They literally took my hand off which was such a flattering thing to happen because they didn’t know whether I had a background in acting. A couple of weeks later I was given the role (of lead, Rachel Marron) and a few months after that we were rehearsing at the Adelphi Theatre. That was the beginning of the West End journey I’m still on.

“If you had said six months ago ‘Bev, do you see yourself being in Cats’ I’d be like ‘no’,” she laughs. “But here I am.”

It’s a fun and scary life.

“Cats is, as most people know, a mostly dance and ensemble piece. The dancing kind of explains the story. I don’t dance... I never went to a college of dance and all the rest of it. I dance on the dance floor,” she laughs.

The tour, which stops by the Ipswich Regent May 21 and Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion May 22, will include tracks from her new album, out next spring, alongside her own hits and some of the songs she’s performed in her critically acclaimed West End shows.

It doesn’t seem 20 years since The B-Funk.

“Yes (it does),” she laughs as, like with many established artists, the conversation turns to how technology has transformed the industry. Beverley wouldn’t go back in time to tinker with anything. She’s glad the way the album came together, especially considering the lack of time she had.

“Flavour of the Old School was out the year before and just took off in club land, which is something else that’s changed. The clubs dictated what was going on the radio; that doesn’t really happen anymore.

“Because of the success of that single in the clubs, people wanted to know where the album was. I was still at university so had to very quickly get it written, get it out there and I recorded back then on reel to reel, on to half-inch tape,” remembers the Wolverhampton-born artist, who has scored several top 10 albums, three MOBO Awards, several Brit Awards nominations, an outstanding achievement award at The Urban Music Awards and an MBE for her services to music and charity over the past two decades.

Does she have her next West End role planned after the tour?

“I never plan anything in detail because you never know the twists and turns life will give you, certainly not in our industry. Things can happen and they can send you into some different direction you just never would expect. I certainly will go back to musical theatre, absolutely. Equally, after this album there will undoubtedly be another album at some point - I can just not tell you when because I don’t know,” she laughs.