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If you’re a soap fan have you ever noticed the difference between Norris Cole’s humour in Coronation Street, or Rita’s quick witted lines over a gin and tonic in the Rovers on Monday night? If you have, it’s probably because the episode of the ancient soap opera has been written by Jonathan Harvey, sorry, for the purposes of this article, Sir Jonathan Harvey.
Over recent years Harvey has been responsible for the BBC Two comedy Beautiful People, and more successful than that, created odd couple, ginger lush, Patsy Kensit hater Linda LaHughs and wannabe actor and forever single gay man Tom Farrell in Gimme, Gimme, Gimme. As a huge fan of the comedy and proud owner of every series on DVD, I feel qualified to say that Gimme, Gimme, Gimme didn’t have an ounce of a sensible approach when it came to tackling the everyday issues of a homosexuality. The trials facing the couple were quandaries such as whether they were now too old for ecstasy, and who would be more successful trying it on with the downstairs neighbour? But, however farcical and well delivered, the loveable representation of two people a little lost in life won our hearts and pushed a portrayal of a gay man into the limelight and onto our TV screens in a way you could only warm to, however tragic Tom was.
Sir Jonathan can do serious in comedy too. Long before the days of Gimme and writing for soaps, back in the early nineties and only a year after homosexuality was taken off the mental health register, Sir Jonathan wrote a screen play produced by Film Four, Beautiful Thing. Possibly his most famous work to date, Harvey’s heart-warming portrayal of two young guys’ exploration of life, as they describe it, their queer side, is a must see. If you’ve not seen it in its film adaptation, the theatrical production is even better. It’s running for two weeks in London in May.
“Holding you at night, kinda feels natural and right.”
Packed full of Mama Cass references with lyrics that make a gay relationship appear as normal and full of as much love as a straight one, it’s an amazing tale of love and self-discovery, told by a drug-using truant and her two school boy neighbours Jamie and Ste. The story is set in a concrete urban setting of a council estate in Thamesmead, London. Jamie lives with his single Mum Sandra and Ste with his brother and Dad, and is victim to their violence. Through this violence Ste is forced to be taken in by Sandra and stay in her two bed flat next door. This is where Jamie’s infatuation and love begins.
The highlight for me is the unlikely journey the characters take to realise their love for each other, surrounded by normal characters you’d meet every day, much like the ones you’d see in the Rovers Return, facing judgment by them all. The fast paced nature of the story also means that we get to explore the feelings of Sandra and how she is forced to come to terms with having a gay son. We also see the school drop-out neighbour, high on drugs who just wants to judge everyone, and the way in which the two young lovers deal with the prejudices they endure.
This isn’t a usual review of an upcoming show in London though, no this is for me a reflection, as many years ago, I hired out a multi-story car park in an inner city setting and performed this piece to the masses. I loved getting to know Harvey’s characters better and, playing a school boy five years my junior, reliving the moment I first had a crush on a guy and not knowing how to deal with it. Sadly I never did get round to inviting Sir Jonathan to my one night only show, but I’m sure he’d have been impressed with my interpretation of his work!
In my eyes though, the unfortunate fact which surrounds Beautiful Thing is that although written twenty years ago, it is still as relevant the day I performed it, and indeed today, as it was back in 1993. It’s still as terrifying an ordeal as it was twenty years ago to be the kid at school who just wants to come out and tell the world they love Liza films and Kylie. Homophobia in our communities is still as prominent, and the struggle for young LGBT people is as hard now in certain sections of society as it was then.
Beautiful Thing starring Suranne Jones as Sandra opens at the Arts Theatre in London on 13 April then goes on tour to Liverpool, Leeds and Brighton.