Interview: Jonathan Harvey on writing, Corrie and Beautiful Thing

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After early success as a playwright, Jonathan Harvey’s career now spans theatre, film and television. He wrote Gimme, Gimme, Gimme for his pal, Kathy Burke, collaborated with The Pet Shop Boys on the musical Closer To Heaven and since 2004 has written 136 episodes of Coronation Street. With Beautiful Thing about to open at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, Laurence Watts meets him.

Jonathan Harvey made a name for himself in 1993 with Beautiful Thing, a play about young gay love. During the 26 years he’s been writing, Harvey has been responsible for some of the most touching and comedic moments in gay culture.

“When I was a kid I wanted to be an actor,” he tells me. “I was in the local youth theatre, but then I got really bad acne when I was about 13 or 14. After that the last thing I wanted was for people to look at me, but by then I’d got the theatre bug. Then when I was 17 my local theatre did a season of original plays by local writers. I saw every play that season. Afterwards I knew I wanted to be a writer.”

Harvey describes Beautiful Thing as his first ‘grown up’ play. Numerically it was his seventh. His motivation for writing it was twofold. First, he was keen to prove his former agent was wrong in his decision to drop him. The man in question had accused Harvey of not taking his writing seriously. Second, Harvey was angry with John Major’s Conservative government, which was debating the age of consent for gay sex.

“At the time you had to be 21 to be gay, whereas you could be 16 and have sex if you were straight. They talked a lot about it in the House of Commons and House of Lords and one word that kept coming up was ‘buggery.’ Buggery bore no relation to my experience. I wanted to write a story where the two protagonists were under 16 and being gay wasn’t about buggery, but about falling in love.”

The play was a success and Harvey’s former agent went on to regret his decision. By the time it appeared in London’s West End, Beautiful Thing was getting unanimously positive reviews.

“In the space of a year I went from being a teacher in a comprehensive school to having pieces about me in national newspapers. It was what I always wanted, but I started getting anxious and having panic attacks. It was fabulous, but a head-f**k at the same time.”

Beautiful Thing was made into a movie by Channel 4 Films and released in 1996. Harvey wrote the screenplay. The production company wouldn’t stretch to a party for the film’s premiere so, he says, he threw one himself.

“The premiere was hilarious. I had a gang of five mates at my flat in Islington. We thought a big limo would come for us. Eventually the doorbell went. They’d sent a bike for me. We ended up calling a dodgy taxi firm around the corner and arriving at the premiere in a clapped-out old car.”

Jonathan Harvey’s talent is in writing extraordinary stories about ordinary people. Where does the inspiration for his gritty, working class material come from?

“I grew up on a housing estate in Liverpool so the voice inside of my head is certainly more at home writing about that than about posh people,” he says. “I remember taking my mum to see the film version of Beautiful Thing in Liverpool. She had a little cry at the end and she turned and said to me: ‘Never stop writing about the little people’.”

Another strong suit of Jonathan’s is comedy. Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, starring Kathy Burke and James Dreyfus ran for three series on the BBC from 1999-2001. Harvey was by that time good friends with Burke and wrote the character of Linda La Hughes with her very much in mind.

“I was introduced to Kathy when she saw Beautiful Thing. After that we often saw each other at the same parties. Two years later at the suggestion of The Bush Theatre, she directed a play of mine, Boom Bang a Bang. We’ve been friends ever since. When I met producer Sue Vertue, who had the idea of doing a sitcom about a straight woman and a gay man sharing a flat, I was really interested. Kathy’s career was going brilliantly and it just happened that we wanted to work together at the same time.”

Two more fans of Harvey’s plays were Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe who approached him with the idea of writing a musical. Originally meant for television, the collaboration ended as an ill-fated stage production.

“It was a terrible experience,” confides Harvey. “I loved writing it with Neil and Chris though. I never fell out with them. I thought the workshop production was brilliant, but the minute the producers and directors got involved it turned sour. I found it really heavy going. The whole thing was poorly managed. I remember sending an email to the producer telling him I felt ignored. He wrote back to me eight weeks later. Audiences seemed to love it, but the reviews were vile. Germaine Greer was seen dancing in the aisle on press night, but the next day she slagged it off on television.”

One of Harvey’s unquestionable successes has been writing for Coronation Street, the long-running ITV soap first broadcast in 1960. Its then executive producer, who had separately produced three one-off TV dramas written by Harvey, persuaded him to join the programme’s writing team.

“She said I’d love it and she was absolutely right,” says Harvey. “It’s a brilliant opportunity to reach a massive audience. The very first episode I wrote in 2004 centred on a character called Todd, who was in the process of getting married to his girlfriend Sarah, but was having a relationship behind her back with another guy. In the episode I wrote he told Sarah he couldn’t go ahead with the wedding because he thought he was gay. That episode got 13m viewers! When Beautiful Thing first opened the theatre could only hold 80!

“As a writer you spend a lot of time writing stuff that never gets made. With Coronation Street every time I write something I know it’s going to be on television in eight weeks time. There’s also a huge amount of mutual support among the show’s writers, which is great.”

Having written for many of Britain’s most famous actors and actresses, including Catherine Tate and Dawn French, I ask him if there’s anyone left he’d like to write for.

“I’d love to work with Julie Walters,” he answers. “I’ve sent her a few things in the past, but she’s always turned me down. I imagine she’s probably sick of me asking her by now, but I’d still love to work with her.”

Many writers go on to write follow-ups to their most successful works. Has he ever been tempted to revisit his breakthrough success and write a sequel to Beautiful Thing?

“I’m really not interested in doing that,” he tells me. “The play’s about first love and coming of age, not about building the foundations for a 40-year marriage. I think if I was going to be really honest and I went back to this couple five years later they’d probably have split up: I think Jamie went off to university; Steve went to work at the local sports centre and their paths drifted apart. What’s lovely about the story is it’s a moment in time.”

Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre will be performing Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing from November 9th to December 3rd.