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Playwright Jonathan Harvey went around the estates of Thamesmead to create his play Beautiful Thing. Now he’s going around the houses

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Jonathan Harvey

Monthy Python set the bench mark for the enthusiasts’ challenge with its sketch of the All-England Summarize Proust Competition.

Shamefully, not one contestant managed to fit the seven volumes of Swann’s way into a 15 second ramble. Yet now an even more impressive summary can take place.

Coronation Street scriptwriter, playwright and former Abbey Wood School teacher, Jonathan Harvey, has condensed over 7,300 episodes of the Manchester-set soap into a single play, Corrie! which comes to the Churchill Theatre Bromley in February.

“It’s a really good romp,” said the 40-year-old writer for a TV series that is now celebrating being an entire decade older than its biographer. “It’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek play about the last 50 years of Coronation Street that wears its heart on its sleeve. It doesn’t shy away from the big-hearted scenes. Even during the most serious scenes the audience are wetting themselves because of the actors’ sometimes mocking impressions are so strong.”

Corrie! features some 55 characters including Bet Lynch, Elsie Tanner, Hilda Ogden, Ken Barlow, Jack Duckworth and Gail Platt, with former Coronation Street stars appearing at each performance in the role of the narrator.

“It’s not panto and it’s not Chekhov, but it is really good fun,” added Harvey. The writer freely admits that he’s never had a burning ambition to write a play about Coronation Street. He said: “ITV wanted to have a play as a part of its 50th anniversary celebrations and asked the scriptwriters if anyone was interested. I got the gig.”

Harvey is particularly familiar with south east London. Having made his London stage debut with Mohair in 1988, he decided to train as a teacher. The Liverpudlian moved to Charlton in the early 1990s to take a teaching position at Abbey Wood School, where he remained for three years.

“I was very taken with the character of the children I taught there,” he said. “I am still in touch with many of them. I really liked the camaraderie of the staff – sometimes working there was a little like crowd control and it got violent, but I have fond memories.”

During this period, Harvey was sitting on another theatrical script, Beautiful Thing, a play that was to become his breakthrough piece and one that would see him established as a ‘gay writer’. The south east London school teacher chose Thamesmead as the backdrop to his play about two teenage boys forming a loving relationship amongst pebbledash council estates.

It took some persistence for Harvey to get theatres to take a serious look at Beautiful Thing, a play which ends happily with two boys slow dancing together to Dream a Little Dream of Me as shocked neighbours look on. However once accepted by the Bush theatre, the play was shot as a film by Channel 4 in 1996, with Thamesmead’s unique architecture adding visual gravitas to the controversial tale.

Although he had written the play with his native city of Liverpool in mind, the young teacher ended up looking to his current surroundings for inspiration instead.

He explained: “I was writing about teenagers at the grand old age of 24 and, though I thought I could put the play in Liverpool, I was more up-to-date with the rhythms of pupils in Thamesmead. I never thought about the potential of the imposing estates that would make the film look so good.”

Following Beautiful Thing, Harvey found further success working on the sexually-preoccupied sitcom Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie with Kathy Burke, featuring James Dreyfus as an ultra-camp gay flatmate. But by the end of three series, Harvey found himself starting to repeat his material. “You can’t get away with that on a sitcom,” he said. “You can get really disillusioned as a writer when you feel like you are covering the same old ground.”

So, it came as a great relief and thrill to move on to Coronation Street in January 2004.

Perhaps due to the label he’d gained as a gay writer, Harvey is often credited with having written a Coronation Street first – an openly gay storyline. In fact, the writer says the breakthrough was not his at all.

“It was just a coincidence that one of my first episodes was when there was just such a storyline. The other writers had been working on it for two years – people just associate me with it because I am gay. It’s a very gay-friendly show – there were a lot of gay people around at the time so there was a lot of excitement and it seemed long overdue.”

When Todd Grimshaw kissed Nick Tilsley on the soap in 2003, the television watchdog received 21 complaints – enough to warrant a national news story (yet contrasting sharply with the 42,000 received after the Ross-Brand ‘Sachsgate’ prank).

So, having compiled an effective best-of play, what scene is Harvey’s all-time episode?

“Deirdre Barlow’s affair with Mike Baldwin stands out for me. It was the first affair with massive repercussions and it seemed to unite the nation, said Harvey of the plot that eventually saw the Old Trafford scoreboard read ‘Ken 1, Mike 0’ when Ken Barlow won Deirdre back from Mike. Showing his eye for understanding a good storyline, Harvey summed up: “It was the girl with glasses at the corner shop shagging the guy at the factory. It was simple but with the right story telling it worked miracles.”

● See Corrie! at The Churchill Theatre from February 28 – March 5. Tickets from £24: 0844 8717 620.

Jules Cooper

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