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25 Years Running Riot with Jonathan Harvey and Jeremy Goldstein

Photo: Jonathan Harvey (left) and Jeremy Goldstein (right)

Jeremy Goldstein from Truth to Power Café interviews author Jonathan Harvey.

I have a confession to make. I’m in love with Jonathan Harvey. Not in the biblical sense, well not anymore, but when I moved to London in 1994, Beautiful Thing was on at the Donmar Warehouse and I fell madly in love with the play and its author Jonathan Harvey. I wanted to write and tell him how I felt, but it was no use. I was a lowly box office clerk selling West End theatre tickets from the foyer of the Hippodrome on Leicester Square, and Jonathan was, well - all over the Evening Standard.   

As fate would have it, we’ve both grown up to be a couple of joyous cunts on the verge of old queendom, and proudly so. Jonathan has written a staggering twenty stage plays including Closer to Heaven with Pet Shop Boys, and the BAFTA-nominated sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme. His sixth novel The Years She Stole has just come out, and I’m about to premiere my new show Truth to Power Café as part of Festival’18 in Australia, proving it’s never too late to make your debut.

Jeremy Goldstein: What interests you more, life or art?

Jonathan Harvey: (laughs) LIFE!

Jeremy: And why is that?

Jonathan: (laughs again) What kind of a question is that?! I love art and I love creating art and being involved in it, but life is more important. I love my family and friends, and how you live your life is probably more important.

Jeremy: Tell us about your new book The Years She Stole? Why here? Why now?

Jonathan: Why here? Why now? I had to honour my book deal, dear. And this was the best idea I could come up with! But seriously, it’s about a woman who steals a baby from a pram and goes on the run with her in the 1980s. It’s told from her perspective and then from the perspective of the baby – now a grown up 36-year-old in the present day. It examines the reasons for her taking the child, and how the abduction impacts on the baby’s life years later. The woman in the present day, Rachel, has never been told she was taken. She only discovers the truth when she finds some old press clippings. But she goes on a quest to find the woman who stole her.

Photo: Kathy Burke in ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ by Jonathan Harvey.

Jeremy: Do you miss the London that spawned Beautiful Thing, Gimme Gimme Gimme and Closer to Heaven?

Jonathan: Yes, but I feel separate to it now as I’m on the wrong side of 40 and I don’t go to gay pubs or bars anymore as I did in my 20’s. I think it’s sad the pubs are closing but there is an inevitability to it too. London is different from when I was younger and sometimes change is good. Maybe it’s me being old and nostalgic but all the interesting places are slowly disappearing and those places are full of memories for me. It’s a difficult one because how do you stand in the way of big business. These people come over and buy a swathe of London streets, and turn them into homogenised apartment blocks. I think it’s a shame.

Photo: 2018 is 30 years since Thatcher introduced the hated section 28.

Jeremy: It’s 30 years since Thatcher introduced section 28 at the height of the AIDS pandemic. How did that legislation affect you and those around you?

Jonathan: As a teacher during those days it loomed over you constantly, even if it never stopped me being open and honest. The more positive thing was that in those days there was a sense of community. We all pulled together to save the onslaught of what the Tories and Thatcher were doing to us and it was either sink or swim. These days the concept of Tory life is much more diverse and there is a greater interest from politicians in the younger gay community which there wasn’t in those days. Also these days; it’s how interested we’ve become in the plight of LGBTQI+ people as a country. I think it’s easy for me to say that as a gay man, but I think it’s still very hard for transgender people. The last taboo is that we’re still able to make tranny jokes in mainstream culture and get away with it in a way that attitudes to gay people have changed over the years. Hopefully we’re starting to see a moment where trans people are beginning to be treated with more respect, so I suppose I would identify that as a more pressing concern.

Photo: Glen Berry and Scott Neal in the movie ‘Beautiful Thing’ by Jonathan Harvey. The film is ranked by Time Out as among the top 50 LGBTQI+ films of all time.

Jeremy: What do you imagine Jamie and Ste, the lead characters in Beautiful Thing to be doing now?

Jonathan: I have absolutely no idea. I know it makes me sound like a cunt and a tired old hag in the corner of a pub somewhere…

Jeremy: Join the club (we laugh)

Jonathan: …But, I wrote Beautiful Thing 25-years ago and I’m fascinated that a play about coming out in the 90’s is still being revived to this day.

Jeremy: What are the main differences between writing for stage and TV?

Jonathan: The main difference is in the approach. By the time you write a script for television you’ve had to meet in people teams about a million times so there is a rigidity to it. The people you’re writing it for, know more or less exactly what’s going to be in that script. They know the order of the scenes and which cast members are in it, what the budget is etc.

When you’re writing a play it’s much freer. You might have told the theatre what it might be about but you’re chiselling away at a piece of wood until you get a beautiful shape.

There is a lot more money involved in TV too, so as a consequence there is a lot more thinking and planning and proving yourself in TV than in theatre. Also with most TV production, it’s the people in the room who think they can do your job better than you, so it’s their ideas that are more important, whereas in theatre the writer is god and you can overrule lots of things.

Jeremy: Do you see your plays and novels as your babies?

Jonathan: Yes. Beautiful Thing is the most successful child.

Jeremy: So how do you feel when you see a production of your play that falls short of your expectations?

Jonathan: Usually I find it quite funny.

Jeremy: Do you?

Jonathan: Usually, I’ve been involved along the way so I’ve tried to do a bit of damage limitation on some things. Sometimes I read reviews and I think that doesn’t sound like my production so they’ve obviously got something wrong, or I haven’t explained it very well in the script. If someone is mounting a high profile production of mine, I try to be involved in it, but most plays don’t get a second outing so it’s about that first production of your play. You have to be involved in every step of that journey.

Jeremy: Which theatre have you seen that has changed your life?

Jonathan: The seminal play for me is Angels in America by Tony Kushner, which I saw at the National in 1992. I had no idea what it was going to be. A mate of mine had a ticket and couldn’t go. It came along at a time in my life when I was petrified of HIV and AIDS and if there was anything in the paper about it, I quickly turned the page. I didn’t want to go there. I was too scared. But I went and sat in the front row and went on this amazing journey. It was a brilliant production and it changed my life and made me change my attitude and wake up and made me want to carry on in the theatre. That was the thing that always burned most brightly for me.

Jeremy: I saw the same production as you when I moved to London in 1994. In those days it was all about Angels in America and Beautiful Thing for me.

They were the two shows that changed my life.

These days I’m about to open my new show Truth to Power Café in Australia. What does speaking truth to power mean to you?

Jonathan: I’m really crap at doing the analytical stuff but I would say that anything I write, even the most over the top sitcom or whatever, has always got to be truthful and it’s got to come from a position of truth.  Beautiful Thing was based on a truth and combining that with comedy was the strongest way of showing people what life was like and talking to people in power.  

When Beautiful Thing was written the age of consent laws were 21 for gay men and 16 for heterosexuals. Whenever that was being discussed in parliament or the House of Lords, they always went on about buggery and sodomy whereas for me, my experience of being gay was falling in love and having a laugh and having to confront the family.

I could have written an angsty political rant or I could choose to write a comedy that people didn’t realise was going to be a gay love story. That was how I broke down the walls of prejudice.

I tell stories of people talking to each other, but underneath even the most ridiculous thing has to come from a position of truth, that I can believe and justify. At the end of the day you’re sitting in a room of actors and having to justify why their character is saying what I’ve written, so everything to me has to come from a position of truth.

The Years She Stole by Jonathan Harvey is out now from Pan Macmillan and Truth to Power Café by Jeremy Goldstein, a global platform for free speech and political activism is about to make its international debut for Festival’18 in Australia.

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