❉ This series is both of its time and ahead of it, writes Andrew Creak, while also being unapologetically happy, camp and very, very gay.
Ever since my compulsive rewatching of Netflix’s hit series Heartstopper came to an end (after ten replays no less!) I decided to dive into as much queer media as I could find, which allowed me to remember a forgotten gem from my childhood, the late-noughties BBC Two sitcom Beautiful People.
I searched on BBC iPlayer, Britbox, Amazon Prime and iTunes to no avail, but a quick Google led me to locate the two seasons of the series on Blu-ray, so over two days I threw myself back into my childhood, to be with the beautiful people.
Beautiful People is loosely based on the book Nasty (later re-titled Beautiful People) by Simon Doonan, who is Creative Ambassador of the New York clothing store Barneys. The book tells of his upbringing in Reading during the ‘50s and ‘60s intertwined with his adult life as a gay man.
The series was created and executive-produced by the renowned producer Jon Plowman, whose name will be familiar to fans of British television due to his extensive catalogue of work, including sitcom classics Absolutely Fabulous, The Vicar of Dibley, Gimme Gimme Gimme and more recently comedy/drama anthology series Inside Number 9. With Jon’s name attached you know this series is going to be a belter.
The series’ script writer, Gimme Gimme Gimme creator Jonathan Harvey, took situations from the book and relocated the setting to the more contemporary 1990s. Which brings me to my main worry in revisiting this series almost two whole decades after it has been made. I did fear that perhaps this series wouldn’t live up to my memory, and that due to the period in which the series is set and was produced, despite it being about gay (albeit closeted) characters, it might feature offensive or ‘un-PC’ jokes that would take this small piece of joy away from me, and reader, I am grateful to say those worries did not come true.
Before my rewatch, I couldn’t remember much about the series, only stand-out moments that I found very funny as a kid, so I was excited to view a series again that would also feel like watching the first time over.
Beautiful People aired from 2008 to 2009 on BBC Two, and stars some impressive talent including Oliva Colman, Meera Syal and Layton Williams. The lead character is teenager Simon Doonan, played by the brilliantly talented Luke Ward-Wilkinson, with his older self played by Samuel Barnett (titular star of BBC America’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Big Finish’s Cicero). Each episode of the series opens and closes with the adult Simon, working as a window dresser in America, and the lion’s share of the story set in his teens, with narration from Barnett from time to time. The second series has present-day Simon moving back to England after his relationship with his American boyfriend ends, which allows us to see interactions between Simon and his mum as adults.
I won’t go too much into what actually happens in the series because I want those who want to watch it for the first time to be able to see it with fresh eyes and experience this pure joy themselves.
While rewatching the series, I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that one could describe the series as a series where Olivia Colman plays the mum of a closeted queer teen who plays on a sports team, given that that could also describe Heartstopper. And for me this series was my Heartstopper. It was, to my knowledge, the first series that depicted teens that knew categorically that they were gay, and that that wasn’t a bad thing.
As a young teen, the powerful scenes of Simon’s mum mentioning a gay friend who died, in a subtle scene acknowledging the HIV epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s, or Simon admitting to himself that he is gay and then coming out to his mum, where Colman pulled on my heartstrings moreso than in Heartstopper’s coming out scene, for a couple of reasons. Partly, this series’ setting is closer to how the world was when I was figuring out my own sexuality, and at least subconsciously, due to the fact that not only did I watch this brilliant series, but I watched it with my mother, it allowed me to know, deep down, that I could be who I am and that there was nothing wrong with that.
Obviously, the series is very much of its time, with its over-the-top campness, its cultural references, and use of words that could be considered slurs now but were used by the queer community at the time, but at its heart, this series has the same positive message as Heartstopper, but from a different genre and decade of television. It’s a shame that the series never got renewed for a third season, to show an out-and-proud Simon, exploring his relationships, encouraging his best mate Kylie to come out, and grow as a person, along with continuing the established storylines of his family members. This series is both of its time and ahead of it in terms of its messages, while also being unapologetically happy, camp and very, very gay.
Sadly, this series is only available on physical media, and only second-hand at that (Oxfam and Ebay are your friends here), which leads me to believe that BBC iPlayer or BritBox (soon to be ITVX) are really missing a trick by not adding this series to their collections when audiences are demonstrably hungry for more positive queer media.
Unlike many other sitcoms, including as Plowman’s other hit BBC productions Ab Fab and The Vicar of Dibley, a new series wouldn’t be able to pick up where it left off without recasting due to the constant that plagues us all, the march of time… You see, the young actors who played Simon and Kylie are now in their late twenties, with Luke smashing roles on stage (most recently Looking Good Dead, which I am gutted to have missed), and Layton a star of stage and screen (Bad Education, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie).
As it stands, despite wishing for more tales of Simon Doonan, these twelve brilliant episodes will have to do.
❉ ‘Beautiful People’ was broadcast between 2 October 2008 and 18 December 2009 (2 x 6 episodes) on Thursdays at 9:30pm on BBC Two. Written by Jonathan Harvey based on material by Simon Doonan. Narrated by Samuel Barnett. Directed by Gareth Carrivick, David Kerr. Produced by Justin Davies. Theme music by Dan Gillespie Sells, Ian Masterson. It is currently unavailable on home media.
❉ Andrew Creak is a freelancer in TV and Film production based in South Wales. As well as this they are a producer director in their own right through their production company Third Time Lucky Productions. Follow them on Twitter: @AndrewCreak