Forgotten TV: Beautiful People

As Jonathan Harvey’s new play Our Lady of Blundellsands opens at the Everyman, Shaun Ponsonby revisits his forgotten sitcom, Beautiful People.

By Shaun Ponsonby
Mon 09 March, 2020

Jonathan Harvey – the Liverpool-born writer of stage and screen – currently has a new play running at the Everyman Theatre called Our Lady of Blundellsands.

I somehow ended up spending an evening with one of the stars of the show, and we were discussing Harvey’s work. Though most famous for the Kathy Burke vehicle Gimme Gimme Gimme – quite possibly the campest thing on TV in the late 90s I am a particular fan of Beautiful People. Yet when I mentioned the latter, I was greeted by a table of blank stares.

You mean Beautiful Thing?”

Ah. You see, Beautiful Thing was one of Harvey’s breakthrough works in the early 90s; a play that deals with class and sexuality that was adapted into a 1996 movie soundtracked entirely by Mama Cass. I see the confusion.

Beautiful People was a sitcom Harvey wrote, loosely based on the memoirs of Barneys window dresser Simon Doonan. It broadcast for two series on BBC Two in the late 2000s. It followed the misadventures of a fay, teenaged Doonan, living a drab existence as a queer kid in Reading, dreaming of moving to London to live among “the beautiful people”.

Each episode was framed by an adult Doonan, living in New York and working as a window dresser at the famed department store, explaining how he attained a particular object that he has kept since childhood; a vase, a Posh Spice doll, hair tongs. We would then be transported to Reading in the 1990s, and introduced to the colourful cast of eccentrics in Simon’s childhood.

Most notable of these was Simon’s best friend Kylie, brilliantly played by Layton Williams. His real name was Kyle, but he only responded to that of his idol, Miss MinogueThe duo would recreate Steps dance routines and dish out unwanted fashion advice to passers by.

There was also his ditsy mother Debbie, an incredible performance by Olivia Colman that was arguably the stand out of the series. She is opinionated, but supportive. When Simon steals a dress from Kylie‘s mother, Reba, she is more upset that he didn’t try on her dresses than that he stole Reba‘s.

There was also Meera Syal’s Auntie HayleyDebbie’s live-in, blind and hippie-ish best friend – trashy sister Ashlene and their hardworking father, Andy, who made his own wine out of potatoes.

Both Simon and Kylie’s obvious queerness is central to the show’s narrative. This is the main source of each character’s woes, whether being bullied by classmate Jayeson or frowned upon by Reba.

But it is also steeped in queer references that any kid who grew up gay would immediately identify with. These range from the obvious to the obscure.

In How I Got My Nose, Simon and Kylie compete against classmate Imelda for a role in the school production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. As the parents descend into stage mum bickering, the kids try to one-up each other. This peaks with a lavishly staged musical number in the street where they perform a medley of musical numbers such as Tomorrow from Annie, Ease on Down the Road from The Wiz, Don’t Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl and, brilliantly, Auntie Hayley chimes in with Alice Cooper’s Only Women Bleed.

The high camp and fantasy of the sequence is beautifully juxtaposed against the dreary reality of Reading, particularly as Reba and Ashlene heckle them from the side lines. Despite the surreal and fantastical elements, it is immediately relatable; trying to be our authentically fabulous selves in a miserable and hostile environment.

In the end, the play is cancelled and replaced with a talent show. As if we haven’t had it camp enough, Simon and Kylie perform Aqua’s Barbie Girl, before Kylie sabotages Imelda’s performance with a reference to Stephen King’s Carrie that sees him dump red dye over her on stage.

Some of the more obscure references could possibly feel like in-jokes to the show’s gay fan base. Aside from guest spots from LGBT icons such as Dannii Minogue or Elaine Paige, How I Got My Plumes features Eurovision winner Dana International. The plot twist here being that when Dana was infamously missing during her win, it was because she was stuck in a bathroom with Simon and Kylie.

It is also refreshing to see more straight-presenting activities given a campy makeover. In How I Got My Doll, dad Andy reluctantly attempts to teach his son to play football, which is achieved by letting him stay up late to watch Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-Sac. At first, it goes badly. But Simon perseveres when he learns that his idol, Posh Spice, has started dating David Beckham. His eureka moment arrives when he realises football is nothing but choreography.

It has never been clear to me whether Beautiful People was cancelled or merely ended. Season two was moved to a Friday night slot which saw a massive dip in ratings. Yet the final episode seemed to round off at a prime moment; the young Simon finally came out to Debbie and met his first boyfriend, with whom he had reunited in the present. It feels final, but it isn’t hard to see the potential in these threads going forward.

At its heart, it was a classic dysfunctional family comedy. Think of a camp, working class British Arrested Development. But despite the genuine laugh out loud material, and exceptional performances from the cast, it is the mix of queer culture and 90s nostalgia that would make the show so popular now.

Though critically acclaimed, Tim Teeman of The Times made the point that, in 2008, it was too soon for 90s nostalgia. He was probably right. The setting is also strange seeing as the real Simon Doonan was actually born in the early 50s, meaning these adventures would have taken place in the 60s. By its very essence, the show barely resembles the real Doonan’s life.

But, at the same time the 60s were too far away for the show’s intended audience, and 80s nostalgia had been done to death. Nostalgia is, of course, loosely tied to the 20 year rule. Now 90s nostalgia is all the rage, and queer culture is experiencing a level of mainstream acceptance that we have rarely, if ever, seen before.

Beautiful People was one of the funniest and most identifiable new comedies of its era, but was perhaps a little too ahead of its time. Over a decade on, and it could still be placed anywhere in the schedules as is and not seem out of place.

I have never seen it repeated, nor is there an easy place for it to stream (legally). But sticking it on iPlayer next to RuPaul’s Drag Race UK and Pose could lead to a rediscovery from a wider audience who are now ready for it.