Interview: Jonathan Harvey - It's a beautiful thing

this writing business: A new comedy, a commission from the NT, and a musical with the Pet Shop Boys wunderkind playwright Jonathan Harvey is on a roll, says Tobias Jones
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As he stands in the National Theatre in Kangol top and Nike trainers, Jonathan Harvey looks like a man who has just stormed the staid bastille of British culture. "I've never really been into Shakespeare," jokes the playwright. "I kind of agree with that Pauline Collins line, that there should be a moratorium on his plays for five years. I was in As You Like It at school," he laughs, "but only because I was the only person prepared to sing 'oh, ninny nonny' or whatever on stage."

Harvey was the writer of Beautiful Thing, the long-running play which became a hit as a Channel Four film. It established his as a unique voice: working class, coarse but clever, never far from camp. "It doesn't bother me if I'm labelled a gay playwright. It means papers always refer to me," he says, wafting his hands in the air, "as Jonathan 'Beautiful Thing' Harvey, which suits me just fine."

Since then, there have been other plays, Babies and Boom Bang A Bang among them, observational comedies about sexual etiquette and its transgressions. Both of these were commissioned by the National Theatre, but ended up being performed elsewhere. Now, as Harvey sits writing TV sitcoms and collaborations with the Pet Shop Boys, his latest play, Guiding Star, is about to open at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, coming down to the National six weeks later.

Harvey's looks remind me of his plays, a cross between the stern and playful, the angry young man and the laughing luvvie; he takes himself and his work seriously, but as he describes his new drama, he chuckles a lot, raising his eyebrows and drifting seemlessly into cameos. "It was commissioned last February," he explains. "I wrote it quite quickly, because it was something I had been wanting to write for a long time. I'd always wanted to do something about Hillsborough. I was just aware that if you mentioned it to people outside Liverpool, it was associated in their head with Heysel and hooliganism. You know, they didn't even know how many people had died.

"I was living with someone at the time who was at the match. I was watching the telly and he didn't ring until 10 that night to say he was OK. Members of my family were there, and I watched the change in them in the following years. It was shock for everyone, never having seen anyone dying before. In the play, Terry [father of a loving but dislocated family at the centre of the drama] had been there, seen the carnage. He didn't lose anyone in his family but was still struggling to deal with it. I thought that was an interesting basis for a play. It started from there."

So Terry and his wife are having marital problems. Meanwhile their two sons are at that "difficult" stage. Their neighbours, Charlie and Marni, lose a son to cystic fibrosis. "There's less optimism here," says Harvey. "The ending of Beautiful Thing was sweet and rose-tinted, but things here are a lot darker. Laurence and Gina [the son and his dippy girlfriend] are a bit of light relief from the grown-ups, but it's not a happy ending: it's bittersweet, the parent's going off to have their first shag for ages."

Harvey made his name as a comic writer, and sex is never far from the surface. The other son in the play, Liam, is gay, and admits to being bored by football. "I didn't think I would use that theme again," says Harvey, talking of the leitmotif he had used in Beautiful Thing, "but it is quite a typical thing: you don't like games, you're queer," he laughs. "And it's probably true. I never played a game in my life, I only ever played at Charlie's Angels. I always wanted to be Jacqueline," he says, drifting into one of those cameos.

The play puts Liverpool, the town and the team, centre stage. Although Harvey now lives in Pimlico, with long-term partner Richard, his accent is still solid Scouser, his voice so deep that the mike I've clipped on him struggles to pick out half his vowels. "I was lucky to grow up in Liverpool when I did," he says, "because there was a kind of renaissance of talent in the Eighties: Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell. And there were bands: Holly Johnson's [of Frankie Goes To Hollywood] sister was our dinner lady at school. On the telly Brookside had just started. In the cinema I remember being so excited to see a film where I recognised all the locations. It meant that I didn't have to think twice about wanting to be a writer from Liverpool."

After school, Harvey went to Hull to study psychology and education before becoming a special needs teacher. But his career took off at 24 (he's now 28) with Beautiful Thing and the Evening Standard's Most Promising Playwright award, and he didn't need to return to the classroom. "Coming from Liverpool, there's a tradition of story-telling and talking out of the side of your mouth, making people laugh," he says, mimicking the stereotype, forearms marching up and down. "I don't know how much I buy into that, the notion that you could give every Scouser an equity card because we're all born comics and entertainers." (In the new play's finale, Laurence complains that "even if it's bullshit we have to keep the gabbing going.")

That pulling apart of stereotypes, making Liverpool less macho, littering the theatre with pop references, are what make Harvey and his plays intriguing and charming. "There is obviously an unusual element of Liverpool. I dunno. There is a fierce, local patriotism up there. I started writing plays when I was 17, and at the start a good review in the Liverpool Echo was exciting in its own way. Of course, I never expected to be this prolific, this successful, but at the same time I was ambitious, and always believed I would do this. But then that sounds terribly big-headed."

Success came very quickly, and acclaim arrived from unexpected quarters. "You do wonder," shrugs Harvey mischievously, "what you're doing wrong when the Sun gives you a good review about two 16-year-old boys getting it together. I mean I had always hoped that if you were homophobic and prejudiced and saw Beautiful Thing you'd be surprised how much you enjoyed it: you get to know the characters and get to like them, and then the rug's taken from under your feet."

Harvey's certainly not lacking in confidence, nor probably in wealth. But having concentrated on an accelerated career path, piling dialogues from the everyday on to the page, he does seems slightly bemused by his profession. "It is a bit scary: waiting to be caught out, waiting for someone to say, 'oh well, you're not really that good, you're a bit of a fraud.' I mean, I don't really understand the process of writing a play, I don't really understand how that" - he points to the script on my lap - "finally came to be a pile of 120 pages."

He claims he's happy with plays as a genre: "I can tell stories through dialogue. I've tried to write novels but I just can't write prose, whereas I think I'm good at observing the way people talk. Now that I'm doing more films, what gets me is writing the camera descriptions - it's very boring. With a play you can take your time, you don't set up the whole story in the first five minutes in case the audience switches channels."

The result is realistic lines, earthy slagging matches and genuine friendships (Gina's way of expressing sympathy in Guiding Star is "Feel a c*** for yeh"). "I don't try and send up working class characters, you know," says Harvey, "I think I just observe honestly." He lists his influences as Mike Leigh, Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood, writers whose comedies are observational rather than bursting with laugh-a-minute gags. "I don't patronise the working class. I have a laff about it all, but never from an angle of piss-taking."

Harvey is much in demand at present. New projects include a sitcom due to be screened by BBC2 in the spring. Called Gimme Gimme Gimme (as in "a man after midnight"), it stars the men-hunting Kathy Burke and James Dreyfuss (from The Thin Blue Line). "The rehearsals", he says, "are hard: you're stuck in a box writing notes and there's a crew of 20 waiting for your rewrites."

Another project (the title is apparently top secret) is a musical being written with the Pet Shop Boys, which should premiere next year. "We've done what you would call the 'book'. We spent ages - a couple of years - talking about what the story was going to be, working out where the songs come along. It's mostly set in the back room of a night club, a gay club; there's a boy band in there, and music pumping out from next door."

He has also written what he calls "the most ridiculous half-hour's television you'll ever see in your life": an episode of Murder Most Horrid, in which Dawn French plays a dinner lady in love with the head teacher, Patricia Hodge. "Dawn has to do a lezzie kiss" he laughs, clearly delighted in the power he has as a playwright.

All of which seems a refreshing change from Shakespeare.

'Guiding Star' opens at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre on September 30, moving to the National's Cottesloe Theatre on November 11


On being labelled a gay playwright:

'It doesn't bother me. It means papers always refer to me as Jonathan "Beautiful Thing" Harvey, which suits me just fine'

On his success:

'I never expected to be this successful, but at the same time I was ambitious, and always believed I would do this'

On the press:

'You do wonder what you're doing wrong when the "Sun" gives you a good review about two 16-year-old boys getting it together'

On writing about the working class:

'I don't patronise the working class. I have a laff about it all, but never from an angle of piss-taking'

On his episode of 'Murder Most Horrid':

'The most ridiculous half-hour's television you'll ever see in your life. Dawn [French] has to do a lezzie kiss!'

On coming from Liverpool:

'There is obviously an unusual element of Liverpool. There is a fierce local patriotism up there'