Big Interview – Jonathan Harvey  

Jonathan Harvey is one of our most celebrated playwrights. Born in Liverpool, his work has an honesty and comedy that is characteristic of the city. Here he shares his early years with Ink Pellet…

Life is all about timing and playwright Jonathan Harvey knows a thing or two about it – in terms of comedy, of course. So maybe Ink Pellet should learn something as this interview coincides with the return of the Liverpudlian’s celebrated play Beautiful Thing which is on a national tour, about to hit the Greenwich Theatre. Not good! Busy as a bee, Harvey is hard to pin down.  But we get there in the end of course.
Jonathan was born in the Liverpool suburb of Halewood. His dad was a postman (and re-trained as a social worker)while his mum was a family planning nurse. Like so many of our talented artists, nothing in this heritage could predict this future career as a celebrated ‘gay playwright’, a tabloid tag that seems to have stuck.

School was a challenge. Jonathan says: ‘I went to my local primary school where I excelled, then went to a grammar school for boys only, which I hated and found really scary, truth be told. I don’t remember being inspired by a teacher. I remember the ones who put the fear of God into me and made me live in fear mostly. Some were nice, but I remember the bastards most.’

Oh dear.

‘I only remember the teachers who put the fear of God into me…’

Saturday mornings found the young Jonathan at drama lessons but he didn’t think he would ever be the writer he hoped to be so he planned for another career. He recalls: ‘I wanted to be a writer, but as I thought that would never happen, I also wanted to be a special needs teacher.
‘After A levels, I went to University in Hull and studied Psychology and Education.’

While he was doing his A-levels, Jonathan wrote his first play, The Cherry Blossom Tree. ‘It was for a playwriting competition at Liverpool Playhouse, which I won. I thought it was all fabulous then, and am still proud of it now. It was incredibly empowering and exciting seeing my first work performed.’

But it was Beautiful Thing that made his name. First performed in 1993 at the Bush Theatre in London, the play, about the sexual awakening of two boys growing up as next-door neighbours, was a West End hit and won Jonathan an Olivier nomination as well as the John Whiting Award. This celebrated play was subsequently made into a Channel 4 film which developed a cult following.

His theatre is a contrast to his other writing credits, which include the comedy Gimme, Gimme, Gimme and Coronation Street, where he was drafted into help on the soap’s first gay storyline. ‘Theatre and TV need the discipline of hard graft,’ he says. ‘In sitcom you need to be funny. In soap you need to be able to write realistic dialogue and come up with exciting stories.

‘The inspiration for my work is different each time. There’s no set pattern. It could be something I see on the street, something someone tells me, usually I can’t even remember!’

Is he happy in his work? ‘I love being able to be paid for doing something I love doing. I hate it when people say no. No we don’t like this idea, story, film etc. It happens frequently. I also hate never knowing when the next pay cheque will come in. You don’t get a monthly salary like in normal jobs.’

For one with bad memories of school, Jonathan became a teacher but left the profession in 1992. He says: ‘I have not stepped foot in a school since I quit teaching in 1992.’

So what of young people coming into the profession? What advice would he give?  Jonathan says: ‘If it doesn’t take off, do something else. The world is full of depressed people who think they should be stars and clearly don’t have the talent. However, if you are good, go to drama school.
‘The best actors I have worked with are the ones who can have an intelligent discussion about a script, and have a working technique to help them realise their performance.’

Young people: take note!



And you are…?
Jonathan Harvey, playwright
Born: Liverpool, 1968
Your greatest achievement… ‘when my film Beautiful Thing was entered at the Cannes Film Festival.’
Biggest inspiration: ‘The Liverpool films and TV series of the 80s. Letter To Brezhnev, Boys From The Blackstuff, Educating Rita, Brookside.’
How do you relax? Watching crap telly.
Lives: London
Pets: Two dogs, two cats and a chicken.

A few of my favourite things
Favourite book – fiction: Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes.
Book – non-fiction: Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh.
Play: Angels In America by Tony Kushner
Film: Letter To Brezhnev
Music: Too many to mention.
TV: Anything by me.

The works
Beautiful Thing, produced by the acclaimed company Giddyox is at the Greenwich Theatre until June 12th (
Other theatre includes Mohair, Boom Bang-A-Bang and Guiding Star.
Television includes Britannia High and The Catherine Tate Show.