An acclaimed play and now a film, Beautiful Thing is about gay teenage love on a London council estate. It has been accused of being a fantasy, but here its writer Jonathan Harvey argues that it is only too true. People think of Beautiful Thing as my first play, when in fact it's my seventh. But though they're technically wrong, they are right in a way - it was the first play in which I tackled gay issues, and therefore the first really adult, honest one. The others were written for youth groups and festivals, so you had to write with kid gloves.
Because the two boys who live on a council estate fall in love and kiss and dance in front of their neighbours, I've been accused of writing a fantasy, but that's wrong, too. I believe in every second of the story. I believe that these things can happen and do happen. I'm not saying this is a place with no homophobia. The most important characters in the story are embracing and loving, and accepted by Jamie's mum, who ends up dancing with them, but we know that when Ste's dad finds out there will be big trouble. That's one of the most interesting things about making a play into a screenplay - you can open it out and show these things. In the theatre they were just dancing on the balcony. In the closing scene of the film, when they are dancing together, you see the disapproving looks of the neighbours.
Although I'm from Liverpool myself, I decided to set it in an estate in Thamesmead in south London, where I taught for three years before becoming a full-time writer. I felt I knew how the kids spoke, but I wasn't so close to them that I'd end up censoring myself. If Jamie's mum had been Liverpudlian I might have had a problem with the fact that she swears and is a bit saucy. I hate the stereotypes of us as thieves and robbers with a great sense of humour.
We filmed for five weeks on location in the same place that was used for A Clockwork Orange. In the sixties, all these high-rise blocks looked futuristic; now they just look like slabs of concrete with bits of water and greenery in between; not quite as drab as some estates. When we were first there, a few lads shouted out at us, but we used a lot of extras from the estate and in the end they were dancing, too. You see, it does happen.
The filming threw up some other interesting issues. The two boys are supposed to be 15 and 16, which is below the age of consent for gay sex. In the theatre we used older actors. For the film we auditioned 17-year-olds. It's a lot more real, because you're getting a real 17-year-old face responding to this experience.
Obviously the lawyers had to look pretty carefully at it, because these boys do have a snog on screen. In the end we agreed to take the specific age references out. That wasn't because of legal problems, but because Gay Times wouldn't let us show their magazine if it was mentioned that they were under age. So we changed "I'm 15" to "I'm old enough." Basically, I had the choice of inventing a gay magazine or taking the age out, and I felt that it would be truer to take the age out. Everyone can see that these are 17-year-olds.
In general, though, I think the film is very loyal to the play. You go on the same journey, but I find it more touching because you're not in a big theatre, miles away from this bed and this flat. When Jamie massages Ste's back, you can see his hands. You don't have to tell the audience what he is doing. Because I'm a dialogue obsessed theatre writer I found that quite difficult.
Does the fact that Jamie's mum dances along with them make it a fantasy? I don't think it does. For a start, she joins them more in active defiance than acceptance. I don't think she's totally come to terms with his sexuality. Then again, when you go out on the gay scene in Liverpool, you see people with their mums, and their mums are usually young and attractive and like a good laugh. Yes there's an element of wish fulfilment in there, but I think of it as honest. The ending is nice but they do have to go through the pain to get there. Most people, in one way or another, have to come out to their parents when they become sexually active - I think both gay and straight audiences can relate to that. I came out to my parents when they asked me. I was 18, and the thing that upset my mum was that I hadn't told her before.
They came to see the play when it was first on at the Bush Theatre in London, but it wasn't until they saw my name on the opening credits in the cinema that they really appreciated it, and understood why I'd given up my nice teaching job with a pension for a typewriter. My mother wrote me a letter saying that watching Beautiful Thing had given her the same thrill as watching Shelagh Delaney's film about teenage pregnancy, A Taste of Honey, in the early sixties.
If people want to think of it as a fantasy, that's all right by me. I think it's about time we started to put a smile on our faces and celebrate the good things in life. When you have a life like this, you seize any beautiful thing that comes your way and you don't let go. Tomorrow you might get a brick through your window.
(© 1996 Guardian newspapers.)