Jonathan Harvey talks to Robin Hooper, the Royal Court's Literary Manager.
RH: When you first came into the room, Jonathan, you took off your bomber jacket and put it on the back of your bum like an Edwardian bustle. Why do you do that sort of thing?
JH: Because you were on the phone and I wanted to get your attention. So I did a bit of Flamengo dancing for you. And it worked. I became instantly more interesting than the other person on the end of the phone and you said "Listen, I have to go."
RH: It seems you don't have any difficulty at all coming into a space.
JH: Oh I do. I know you. And I feel comfortable with you.
RH: So that means you're a bit shy?
JH: I wouldn't do that with everybody. I mean I'm not a luvvie. I love all the luvviness of the business. But there's still a part of me which thinks I'm not putting up with that and "oh I've got to meet them, have I?" There's still a part of me that's quite Liverpudlian.
RH: I had some experience of working in Liverpool in the early seventies. There was a very exciting theatre there at the time called the Everyman. Willy Russel was starting to write his plays. To seemed to me that a city like that would cough up a wonderful culture. And I'm not just talking about the theatre. There was poetry and music. Do you think it's still like that twenty years on? Does it still have that kind of specialness?
JH: No. Because if that was the case then I'd be having my stuff put on in Liverpool and hopefully it would transfer to London. I think I would be living in Liverpool now. I was very lucky to grow up there because in the eighties the media was just full of Liverpool, so you didn't question the fact that you can come from Liverpool and be a writer. For instance, there were things like "Boys From The Black Stuff" and "Educating Rita" and "Letter To Breznev." And it was all sort of seeing places and people you knew. And your own life echoed on the screen or in the theatre. It was exciting and encouraging. And I don't know if I would have got that living elsewhere.
RH: Do yo really think it has suffered as a city and as a community? Not just on a cultural level but on every kind of level.
JH: It has suffered. I was ten when Thatcher got in. I'm aware that it has declined, because of stories and the way my parents look at the city now. It's like a feeling it's had its day, which is an unpopular thought to have about Liverpool, being from Liverpool, because there is a very fierce loyalty to it. That's part of the reason I don't write plays set there. You're always very aware of showing the good side of Liverpool and that's not a good thing to have when writing something because you want it to be honest. That's why I set things in London. I want Liverpool to be this marvelous city that you remember. But going back I find it quite a hard city and macho.
RH: As a gay young man in Liverpool did you have some difficulty? Were you aware that you were different as a teenager?
JH: I was aware from primary school age. I remember my nan went to a parents' evening at school and they said "Well, Jonathan plays with the girls a lot." And she came home and said "You can't do that or you'll get called a cissy." And I said "Well I'm always called a cissy." Having said that I don't think it would be different wherever I grew up because that male image is everywhere. But my dad, you see, isn't your typical macho Liverpool father. We are very similar. I feel quite lucky.
RH: When did you actually come to live in London?
JH: Well, I lasted four years in Hull doing a degree part of which was to train as a teacher. I then applied for twelve jobs in London as a teacher.
RH: And at the same time there was this beginning of an interest in your work as a playwright?
JH: My first play was on at the Liverpool Playhouse when I was eighteen. It was called "The Cherry Blossom Tree." While I was at university, I wrote another called "Mohair" which I sent to the Royal Court's Young Writer's Festival here, and it was produced. So I had a few plays done. I would have loved to have jacked everything in to be a writer but I didn't. I looked for teaching jobs thinking I'll do it for one year, or however long I need to do it before you can be a supply teacher. Then can go three days a week, do supply, and write for two days a week. But I got a job. I never thought I'd be any good as a teacher. I thought I'd hate it. And I ended up loving it.
RH: How did you get on as a school boy?
JH: I went to the "Blue Coat School." It was very strict and disciplinarian and tried very hard to be like a private school. I didn't want to go to school one day as I had lost my hymn book. And I knew the wrath of the gods would fall on me by Mr. Pinder, the music teacher. He used to sit there and play "The Archers" theme music on the piano as we walked into music lesson. He loved me actually because I was a choir boy.
RH: I thought you were going to say something else there.
JH: He used to have suspenders on his socks. Weird. Everyone was petrified of losing their hymn book. So when I was a teacher I then had to reassess what I thought was right and wrong. I had my own tutor group. I wasn't really bothered if they lost the equivalent of a hymn book. Little things I think I got right to help the bigger things get better. If they left their pencil case at home then I would have spare ones in my desk to give to them to use that day.
RH: So basically you were a human being?
JH: I was to start with but by the end, you see, the thing I don't like about teaching is that it turns you into a bit of a fascist. I remember there was this girl in my class who kept on coming in with makeup on. You'd go "You've got lipstick on"... "No I haven't." So I'd ring her mother up. And she would say "Well you see, Mr. Harvey, she puts it on before she goes to sleep. So when she wakes up in the morning her lips are dyed by it so that when she says that to you she ain't got lipstick on, she's telling the truth." "I don't care. Get it off."
RH: Still I don't detect with you any real frustration or unhappiness about being a teacher which to a certain extent is rare.
JH: It is rare.
RH: From what I know about you and your work there seems to be an inherent sense of what is right and what is wrong in your personality. Was there any confusion about this sense of morality if you like, in being a young gay man?
JH: I never felt it was wrong.
RH: A lot of gay men do don't they?
JH: Yes... I really don't understand... I remember thinking well maybe I should feel it's wrong because I had a very strict church upbringing as well.
RH: What was that?
JH: Church of England. I was expected to go to church every week and I went until the age of eighteen. Society was telling me it was wrong, but I didn't see what was wrong because it was just inside me and it was natural. But there was guilt thinking "Oh what's my Mum and Dad going to think?"
RH: A good deal of the best playwriting concerns itself with a sense of morality in the world. We're being forced to address this issue particularly at present. For instance the whole exposure of child abuse, with "kids who kill" and the consequent obsession in the media. What do you think has gone wrong? Generally speaking, what is being said, is that it's a lack of parental care and control.
JH: I'm afraid I agree with them. There's a lot to be said for parental responsibility. Having said that actually, in Babies I'm celebrating the marvellous parents. I think that mother in the play is a terrific woman. I wanted her to be very special, very unconventional. And as for the kids themselves, I was lucky enough to leave them when they were fourteen. I made them older in the play and just about to hit that vile bit of puberty. I had them young and they were little babies.
RH: Just to return to the theatre for a second, you insist that you're not a luvvie?
JH: I'm not a luvvie in the way I haven't been to Oxford. My parents were never in the business. I've read one Shakespeare play. I don't really know much. I'm a bit thick sometimes. But I do love all the business. When I was a kid my Mum got me a membership of the Liverpool Record Library. I used to come home every week with "My Fair Lady" "West Side Story"... I used to do interviews with myself. My Dad had a tape recorder and I used to interview myself as Charmian Carr who played Leisl in "The Sound of Music." My Mom said "It's not normal a boy your age to be into musicals." I wanted to be a nun. I wanted to be Julie Andrews. I wanted all that. And denied myself it I suppose in my teenage years. I mean I love telly. I've grown up with television.
RH: Does your love for it then have something to do with energy or getting your own back through the media of television or theatre?
JH: Possibly. Because sometimes I think the rough lads at my school say "Oh Harvey's a queer" or "Harvey's a snob," because I had a more feminine Liverpool accent than them, I think oh well it'll be interesting to see if they've read that piece on me in the Guardian.. I bumped into one of them in Liverpool once and he said "Oh God you're a bit of a star now aren't you?" There is that side to it. I think also my family are great television lovers. It's marvellous for me to be able to ring up my Mum and Dad and say I met whoever from your favorite television prgramme last night. There is that obsession with fame.
RH: And music itself obviously...
JH: I've just bought a video recorder and much to the embarrassment of my friends, the first videos I bought were "Mary Poppins," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "Carousel" (I wept through that last night) and my friends are all saying why didn't I get "Eraserhead" or "The Crying Game"?
RH: Do you like the popular stuff? Who do you like?
JH: I love "Take That." I like any music really. I'm a musical whore I think. I like using music to help me with the writing where it can express something you can't say, or ironically add humour.
RH: Do you think you could write a libretto?
JH: I don't really because I think it's a bit of an outdated form now. Songs mean different things now. I can never understand family and friends when they say "O God!" when you watch a musical on screen and suddenly somebody bursts out singing. I love that bit most. When people express themselves. I've been listening to Doris Day quite a lot lately. I just think the opening to "Pillow Talk" would be a lovely way to open a show. With the lights going down... "Doo diddi doo diddi doo... Pillow Talk... doo di doo... Bum chichi bum..." What a marvellous way to open a play about people looking for love. It inspires me. So use it!
RH: I think that'll do Jonathan.