Jonathan Harvey does a "Beautiful Thing" for gay youth

By Jeff Walsh
Oasis Editor

Gay adolescence has never been more beautifully captured on film than in Beautiful Thing. The 1995 British film about gay teens Jamie and Ste has given a new generation of queer teens a mushy boy-boy romance with a lush soundtrack and (gasp!) a happy ending.

Oddly enough, the play may have never been written if Beautiful Thing playwright Jonathan Harvey didn't have acne as a teenager.

"I was in youth theater, and when I was about 14, I got really bad acne," Harvey recalled in a recent interview with Oasis. "Rather than act and have people look at me, especially to pay money to look at me... the local theater had a competition for new writers, so I thought I'd go into that."

Harvey spoke to Oasis during a recent trip to San Francisco, where he took in the West Coast premiere of Beautiful Thing. Another production in Chicago is moving its show to New York City for an off-Broadway run starting on Valentine's Day.

Harvey, now 30, wrote the play when he was 23. His previously plays (the first of which was staged after he won the aforementioned competition) had gay characters, but there wasn't much gay content in them, he said. Harvey said he needed to give his family a few years to adjust to him being gay before he directly tackled gay subject matter.

"I'd only really just come out to my family when I was 18 or 19. It was one thing your mom and dad knowing you were gay and writing plays with gay characters, but the embarrassment they would have felt when I was 18 and sitting in a room of a hundred people who knew their son was gay would have been terrible for them," he said.

"But by the time I was 23, I thought 'Sod this, I'm just going to do it.' So, it was sort of like a coming out play, writing it for me. I wanted to write a gay love story where there was a happy ending," he said. "When I was growing up, there wasn't that much stuff in the media about growing up and being gay. And in England, there wasn't anything about being working class and being gay.

"There was the Merchant Ivory school of homosexuality, which I got excited by when I saw it, but I didn't feel it reflected my way of life. And if there were working class stories, the dad would kick the son out and he'd end up selling his body for 20 cigarettes," Harvey said.

Harvey was looking to create a different view of gay adolescence, though.

"I set out for positive imagery, happy endings and a little rose-tinted, so it would give people some hope. I always felt if it helps anybody in the coming out process, then I've done my job," he said. "It was especially exciting when it was made into a film, because obviously you reach and touch a lot more people that way."

The film features the music of Mama Cass, in both solo performances and with The Mamas and The Papas. When asked how he was influenced to use this specific music, Harvey revealed his secret.

"I was listening to them when I was writing the play and the words seemed to fit in with the story, so I said, 'sod it, I'll use it.'" he said.

Having two cute male leads in the film didn't help, either. Harvey, though, wouldn't divulge whether the cast members are gay in real life.

"Put it this way, if they were sitting here now, they would tell you that they weren't. But I'm not saying anything further," he says with a grin.

For people who have only seen the movie, there isn't much difference between it and the play.

"The whole play takes place in two locations, the balcony outside the flat and Jamie's bedroom and you just stay there all the time. The play also only has five characters, so it's a lot more concentrated. I think you get to know the characters a lot better," Harvey said. "With the film, you can also tell the story a lot quicker, because it only takes one look across a crowded room and that speaks volumes, whereas in the theater you have to give them two pages of dialogue to explain to the audience what's going on. Also with the film, you can show the world that those people live in much clearer, which as to be suggested in the play. But the story and the ending is the same."

The playwright, who also wrote the movie's screenplay, said it's hard to judge the impact the film has had on queer youth.

"A response to a play or film isn't really tangible. If I wasn't here tonight, I wouldn't know how it had gone. You can read reviews and see the critics hate it or love it, but that doesn't tell me what a gay 15-year-old might think of it," he said. "I got lots and lots of letters from people, and it seems to be popular, so I imagine it was as positive as I would like it to be. Plus, there are many web sites."

Harvey said his own coming out was similar to the play.

"I mean, I wasn't having sex with my next-door neighbor or anything as exciting as that. But when I was about 18, my parents found out and they were very supportive," he said. "The scene in the play and the film between Jamie and his mum, which is a very intense conversation about being gay and her disappointment, is based on lots of conversations I had with my parents. I squashed the most interesting parts down. On the whole, it was a very supportive experience. It took a few years, though."

His coming out advice to queer teens is to "go for it."

"Even if they hate you at the end of the day, there are always going to be people who are going to love you," he said. "But I think everybody thinks their mum and dad are going to hate them or get rid of them or throw them out, and I thought of those things and it didn't happen. And, yes, it does happen, but it doesn't happen with everybody. And I'm only talking about coming out to your family, not your friends. If your friends are going to be upset by that sort of things, they're not your friends at all."

Harvey has already written four plays since Beautiful Thing, has a sitcom starting in January on the BBC in England, and is still writing the book for a musical being written by the Pet Shop Boys.

His sitcom looks at the current phenomenon of gay men and straight women, but with a much more "rude" approach than "Will & Grace" and other American versions of this relationship dynamic.

Despite the film's success, Harvey hasn't financially benefited much from the movie. He was paid for the script, and doesn't get anything for video sales.

But his ultimate reward will most likely come from the thousands of gay teens who "dream a little dream" of their lives being better for having watched Jamie and Ste dance their way out of the closet, giving them hope and making them feel a little less alone.

Oasis editor Jeff Walsh would love to hear your feedback at jeff@oasismag.com