One evening I went to The Bush to check up on a new play by Jonathan Harvey, Beautiful Thing. I’d not been to the theatre for a while and wasn’t looking forward to a couple of hours on their hard seats being shouted at. I knew I’d be hungry for dinner. But I was entranced. This story of two teenage boys coming out as gay, first to each other and then to others, was delicate, moving and funny. The use of Mama Cass songs was inspired.
I thought it would make a better film and David Aukin at Channel 4 agreed. Hettie Macdonald, who directed it on stage, had never even seen a film camera, but I thought she should direct the film. She understood the material and the performances had been pitch perfect. She was warm and intelligent. I had a feeling she’d make the transition providing I gave her the support of an experienced crew. To his credit, David Aukin raised no objection.
I gave her my old colleague Bill Shapter, who ran the production with calm authority, and he recommended Chris Seager on camera, with Don Fairservice editing. She had more than enough film experience at her elbow. They all went off to a Thames Mead estate in east London. Hettie came through with an assured and accomplished film.
Our only heart stopping moment was discovering that we couldn’t get the rights to the Mama Cass songs, which were not just additional music, they were central to the film. It just wouldn’t have been worth making it without them.
The subject matter of the film seemed to be the problem, but at the last minute members of her family intervened and we were saved. Problems with rights seemed to pursue me.
The difficulty of being gay was not anything I’d ever thought about and it made me wonder why my work had such a narrow focus. We received letters from adolescent boys, living in provincial cities, thanking us, describing how they felt in their isolation, and telling us this film had saved them. I was moved and glad.
Related link: Watch the trailer for Beautiful Thing on YouTube
The Day the Music Died is the memoir of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett. For the first time, Tony shares exclusive details from his childhood in working-class and war torn Birmingham. He takes readers behind the scenes of a selection of his more famous productions, offering secrets and anecdotes. Some moving and some amusing. Now available for pre-order on Amazon.