BEAUTIFUL THING is a story of sexual awakening, an urban fairy-tale. It’s a heartfelt rites of passage story depicting what its like to be sixteen and in the throws of bashful first love.
BEAUTIFUL THING comes to the film screen following an enormously successful life on the stage. When the bittersweet play, written by the then 24-year-old JONATHAN HARVEY, was first performed in 1994 in the Bush Theatre on London’s Shepherd’s Bush Green, it received rave reviews and sold out its five week run. It also won the author an Olivier nomination and the John Whiting award at the same time as he won the Evening Standard Most Promising New Playwright award for his second play, “Babies.”
Both touching and funny, BEAUTIFUL THING combines fantasy and reality, with an essentially optimistic view of how love can flourish between the concrete blocks and walkways of the Thamesmead Estate in Southeast London. The action is set during a heatwave, and the mood is buoyed by the sunny music of Mama Cass and The Mamas and the Papas.
No one could have been more surprised at the play’s reception than Liverpool born Harvey, who was still teaching in a school near Thamesmead. “Teaching gave me the skills to make the way the characters of BEAUTIFUL THING communicate realistic. But is was quite funny seeing the effect on people of something I just wrote sitting on my bed one day.”
He sets his play amongst the close-knit community of Thamesmead Estate. There is no privacy, no garden hedges to keep prying eyes out, no possibility of nurturing a secret; not the most obvious setting for romance, especially the romance between two young males.
Harvey explains that that aspect of the play did attract mixed responses: “But the point is that when you’ve got a dull, boring life and something comes along that gives you a moment of happiness, you cling onto it. That’s what all of the characters in the play are looking for — some beautiful thing to cling on to. All those characters have that beautiful thing some point in the play and that’s why it’s so rosy.”
Harvey was thrilled when Channel Four decided to adapt the play for the screen. He is particularly pleased to be able to bring BEAUTIFUL THING to a wider audience: “The only images I really had of gay people when I was growing up were those public school boys in cricket jumpers taking each other punting on the river, or the working-class boys who got kicked out and ended up working as rent boys. This is a play in which somebody can be working-class and still have their sexuality accepted. That was my agenda. It’s not about what you get up to after lights out, its about falling in love.”
“BEAUTIFUL THING was the first time I felt like a bit of a grown-up playwright. Up until then I had either had things performed in young writer’s festivals or with youth theaters, or with tiny theatre companies living on the bones of their art, and all of a sudden it was a different league. I grew up a lot while doing that play. It was also the first time that I explored a gay theme — so it was a step forward in that respect as well. Because I started to write about gay things, I think my writing became stronger. My voice — if you want to call it that — became a bit more distinctive, because I was writing about something I knew.”
TONY GARNETT’s World Productions was commissioned by Channel Four to make the film and asked Harvey to write the screenplay. And much to her surprise and delight, Hettie MacDonald, who had been so successful at directing the stage play through all its different incarnations, was invited to direct the film version.
A very experienced theatre director with credits at The Royal Court and National theatres as well as the Donmar and the Bush, MacDonald had originally been taken on by the Bush Theatre. Never having directed a film, she was not expecting to be asked to be involved in the Channel Four project. World Productions began to use her as a consultant on the film, and after a series of meetings to discuss the script, it became clear that they were going to offer her the job.
MacDonald’s greatest challenge now was to cope with transferring her production from the stage to the screen. She worked closely with Harvey on the development of the script, as he explains: “Adapting the play for the screen was a steep learning curve; telling the story through the images with what you see rather that what you hear.”
Directing for the screen was a very different discipline for MacDonald: “The actual process is quite similar, but you plan a lot more in advance so that you go in knowing exactly what you want. Instead of saying to an audience “here’s a picture that tells a story,” you’re now telling them “here’s a series of pictures that tell a story,” which I find really exciting. And it means you can focus the audience on exactly what you want them to look at — there’s no danger of them being distracted by something else on the stage. When Sandra is being loud and sexy, it is possible to cut between her and Jamie and you can really see just how embarrassed and angry she is making him. Also I felt it was a real advantage knowing the story so well — it made the whole process much less terrifying!”
Casting the two young boys was a long business, as MacDonald explains: “It was really crucial that we cast people of the right age and, because the roles are so emotionally demanding, we really wanted actors who had at least some film or television experience. We were looking for boys with natural charm and a good instinct for dialogue, who had some knowledge of the world of the play.”
Glen Berry and Scott Neal are both pupils at the Anna Scher Theatre School and have been friends for years, as Berry explains: “We’ve acted together before in “Eastenders” when we played a couple of thugs, in “Prime Suspect 6” and in “Blood and Fire.” But auditioning for BEAUTIFUL THING was a much more nerve-wracking experience, as they were called for about seven auditions and were soon comparing notes and joking about booking parking spaces outside the audition room!
Berry describes Jamie as “a very happy lad, but he gets picked on a lot. He gets on well with his mum, in small doses, but he doesn’t have a social life and has nowhere to go. The only person he talks to in the beginning is Leah.”
Neal describes Ste as “a run of the mill lad who loves all sports but especially football. He loves parties and is very sociable. I fell in love with the script. — it seems to me it’s got nothing to do with sex. It’s about love, relationships and how people handle being gay. It destroys the gay stereotypes.”
The actors admit they felt a bit apprehensive about the love scenes but they soon forgot their worries, as Neal admits: “It helped a lot that Glen was a good mate — it meant the friendship was already there, we knew what the other was like.”
Harvey explained to the boys that his parents had reacted perfectly when they discovered he was gay: “I had to explain to the actors that certainly with me and my friends there wasn”t much of a crisis about being gay. It was just natural to us. It’s a happy love story; you can be gay and happy, you can be working-class and accept homosexuality.”
Linda Henry was an obvious choice for Sandra, as MacDonald makes clear: “You have to believe that Sandra has been fighting all her life, that she’s tough, but she needed humor and wit as well.”
Henry took one look at the script and fell in love with the character: “Sandra is so full of zest and life. She is a woman of great happiness but with hidden sorrows. She’s very independent, knows what she wants and sets out to get it. Jamie is the one man in her life she really, truly loves — and the closest thing she will ever get to marriage. I was desperate to get the part and knew it should be mine! It was so me!”
Leah is played by budding eighteen-year-old actress Tameka Empson, who is also a pupil at Anna Scher. She particularly loved the part as it let her indulge in two of her greatest passions — singing and wearing outrageous clothes. “Leah was great to play — she is very colorful and bright, but she is also rude and definitely has an attitude! But although she is a rebel, she is a great friend to the boys. Mama Cass is the latest thing for her — and I had great fun with the singing and the chance at some points to go right over the top!”
Tony, Sandra’s neo-hippy lover, is played by Ben Daniels. “It’s funny really — I often get asked to play laid-back hippies and drugged-out characters — I can’t think why!” laughs Daniels. Daniels was originally approached to play in the Bush Theatre production, but says that the timing was just not right: “I was really broke and had just been offered a TV series. I was forced to do that instead because of the money.” But he was delighted to be offered the film: “I like Tony. The first time I went up for it I remember being quite worried that he was just an idiot, and its quite hard to play someone who has no reality. But the script has developed since then. Tony is obviously a stooge — I feel that if you had all those characters on stage at one time, you probably wouldn’t look at Tony — but on the screen you have no choice!”
MacDonald worked closely with production designer Mark Stevenson and costume designer Pam Tait to introduce a bright and colorful look to the film. Producer Bill Shapter comments: “The colors are absolutely vital in creating the mood of the piece. The three of them bit the bullet and went for a very intense pallet of colors.”
MacDonald elaborates: “We nearly went down the road of pastel colors and curtains in Sandra’s flat — and in fact we got loads of samples — but then we said, “Hang on a minute, let’s do her flat up in bright colors: a yellow sitting room, a turquoise bathroom, because that’s what her character is.”
The play is set in the sunshine, and the bulk of the five weeks filming took place during the blistering heatwave of summer 1995 on a sweltering housing project in Thamesmead. The location manager, Jim Allan, found three empty flats next door to each other in an area that had everything the script called for: “The estate is cheery and bright, not downtrodden, with a huge variety of buildings, wonderful views, lakes and greenery. We were able to negotiate with the locals and to film in locations exactly as Jonathan had written them.”
MacDonald was particularly excited by the filming opportunities offered by Thamesmead: “It has such fantastic strong lines — the lake, the greenery. The scale is fantastic, and it has a real strong identity.”
For the big dancing scene, Macdonald was thrilled when the public joined in with the dancing: “There they all were, men with tattoos, little old ladies, everybody dancing with everyone else — and when I said “Cut,” they all burst into spontaneous applause. It was really exciting!”
The music is borrowed from an earlier era; from “It”s Getting Better” at the start to “Dream a Little Dream of Me” from Mama Cass and The Mamas and the Papas. Harvey explains that although he was aware of the music as a little boy — “my mum was always warning me that if I bolted my food I would end up choking on it, just like Mama Cass who died when a bit of food got stuck in her throat” — it wasn”t until he began writing the play that he got hooked on the music: “I heard a drag queen singing “It’s Getting Better” and loved it! I managed to get a hold of a rare tape of Mama Cass songs and realized just how appropriate the music was — it”s so life affirming: “Do what you want to do, don”t listen to anyone else!”