Friday, October 10, 2008

Beautiful People

With no more Chris Lilley imports to watch and Gavin and Stacey a distant memory (and whilst carefully avoiding Little Britain USA), Thursdays are now bringing us the compensatory pleasures of 'Beautiful People' (BBC2).

Based on the book by Simon Doonan, it's written by Jonathan Harvey, recently of Coronation Street and previously of Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, and the play and film Beautiful Thing. The last was about the love affair between two teenage boys on a south London housing estate. So Jonathan Harvey was the perfect choice for the screenplay of Beautiful People which is a comedy about a gay boy growing up in Reading. I gather the book was set in the 1950s but the TV series is set in the 1990s.

Centre stage are young Simon and his mixed-race best friend 'Kylie' (real name 'Karl') who have created a camp, make-believe world amid the drabness of a Reading council estate. It's my belief that some gay kids adopt a persona of affected campness in the same way that their peers may become punks, emos or goths, a case of trying on identities for size. It's also one possible response to stigma and prejudice: take hold of the stereotype, push it to its limits and make it as in-your-face as possible.

There are two terrific performances from Luke Ward-Wilkinson as Simon and Layton Williams as Kylie. They make the characters likeable and funny when they could easily have been just irritating.

I was initially concerned at the central character also being the narrator because it's a technique so associated with the brilliantly produced but nauseating The Wonder Years. But with Jonathan Harvey scripting it, we don't have to worry. He can do sentimentality but also savage humour of a kind you'd never find on a mainstream American show.

My first impression was that this was a gentle comedy-drama but there are plenty of laugh out loud moments. Last night, Simon was lying on the sofa with a broken nose.
"Fetch me a looking-glass", he said.
"What?" said his father.
His mother said: "He means 'mirror'".
Coincidentally, 'looking-glass' was the answer to a Guardian crossword clue last week and I remember thinking that younger people would not have heard the term. I think that 'looking-glass' was the preferred term of the upper classes, 'mirror' being considered vulgar like 'toilet' or 'serviette'. It used to feature in those How To Speak Like A Toff books that were popular forty years ago.
For Simon, it's another linguistic attempt to put clear blue water between himself and his family. Yet his family are touchingly indulgent towards him, to the extent that his mother floors the drama teacher with a right hook for calling Simon effeminate.

The series really got into its stride with this week's second episode, partly because of a wonderful dance sequence. If you like song and dance numbers set in a street with aerial shots, then this was a collector's item. It had Simon, Kylie and a girl neighbour singing Take That Look Off Your Face, Tomorrow (from Annie) and Don't Rain On My Parade respectively. Singing across each other, of course, in the best tradition of musicals and eventually morphing into a joint rendition of Ease On Down The Road.

When Kylie emerges singing from his house, his mother shouts "Hey, batty boy, you forgot your gym bag." Said bag is hurled at him, knocking him to the ground. But Kylie leaps straight up and does some of the highest kicks you've seen since the Tiller Girls hung up their tap shoes. This boy is one hell of a dancer.

The standard template for such street scenes is that you have a supporting cast of dancing traffic wardens and lollipop ladies (I once worked on a stage musical that had exactly that). But this one didn't and it rather gained from having just half a dozen characters and a dog in an otherwise deserted street of 1950s council houses.

To borrow the argot of Simon and Kylie: girlfriend, it was fabulous. So fabulous that I fear nothing else in the series will be able to match it.
I'm not sure I'd have let the CGI man sprinkle the street with stardust and colour the road yellow but Kylie's mother's final comment cut through the feyness and whimsy like a knife through butter: "Fuck me! All we need's a yellow taxi. It'll be like the kids from frigging Fame."

That's why we tip our cap to the great Jonathan Harvey. And it's why we allow him to get away with lines like this:
Simon: "the auditions are in the Terry Waite Annexe".
Mum: "That reminds me: that radiator's playing up."

Olivia Colman is excellent as Simon's mother, Meera Syal has a ball with blind, eccentric Aunty Hayley and next week sees Brenda Fricker appear as the grandmother.
Oh, and the older Simon is played by Samuel Barnett who was Posner in The History Boys.

Whilst I was writing this, some kind person has put the dance number on YouTube. Three minutes of pure joy.
All episodes are on BBC iPlayer for the duration of the series.


At 5:29 PM, Blogger Rational Plan said...

I loved that sequence, if they can have one grand dance number per episode it would make the series.

At 12:11 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

I think this is going to be another 'slow burn' comedy that will gain a lot of viewers as word spreads.
I see the DVD is out on 3rd November.

At 2:18 AM, Blogger Tim Footman said...

This looks wondrous. But I can't help thinking that there's a massive qualitative difference between growing up gay in Reading in the 1950s, and growing up gay in Reading in the 1990s. And it's not just a matter of the songs being different.

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

tim: yes, the difference would be huge but I can see why they made it more contemporary. They're able to use more recent cultural references like Ab Fab. Set 40 years ago it would have been more a period piece and interesting to people my age but not so appealing to a younger audience.
Not having read the book I can't really say how much was lost or gained by the changes. But this is a "based on" rather than an "adaptation" of a book.


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