‘Beautiful People’, The Epitome of Fabulosity

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that my answer to Tim Teeman’s nostalgia question (see below) was ‘yes’. The correct answer should have been ‘no’. The error has been corrected. Some minor language editing has been performed.

In his review of Jonathan Harvey’s (the man behind mid-90’s feelgood coming-out movie Beautiful Thing) British sitcom Beautiful People in The Times [of London], Tim Teeman asked whether it was still too early to feel nostalgic about 1997. It could be that you have to be of a certain young age to find reasons for nostalgia in a decade that most responsible adults would agree was not as uniformly peaceful and prosperous – witness the war in Rwanda and Kosovo for instance – as we’ve come to remember it in hindsight, and that slightly younger and less responsible people might not remember at all, because they were too busy exercising horizontal snobbery and otherwise keeping the ironical distance they read about in Douglas Coupland and Brett Easton Ellis novels. But my answer to Teeman’s question is  no, for reasons Beautiful People unabashedly touts.

My nostalgic sentiments, however, doesn’t only have to do with a knee-jerk sense of obligation to defend My Decade (and implicitly My Generation). It has just as much to do with my feeling that it’s time to dethrone the 1980’s. Time has come when nostalgic tales of being a youngster in the Reagan era must leave the stage to the Little Clintons and the Tony Blair Toddlers. A successful pushback against the misguided assumption that the nineties, bringing with it grunge rock, a unified Europe and American budget surpluses (!), should continue to sit quietly in the shadow of the eightie’s, represented by Reaganomics, synth pop music and Terms of Endearment, would help clear the way for all the deliciously camp nostalgia of Beautiful People. Not ready, you say? You better be. As Ani DiFranco once said: ‘Move over, Mr. Holiness/let the little people through’.

In Beautiful People, these little people are thirteen year olds Simon and Kyle (or Kylie, as he prefers to be called) the best friends we catch up with in ‘positively glumorous’ Reading in 1997, still years before they’ve grown into the ‘raging homosexualists’ one of their adored diva-teachers correctly assumes they’ll become.  Simon and Kylie seem acutely aware that they are different from their peers, but in a move that could be regarded as annoying by some but encouraging by others, Harvey decides to present this as an opportunity more than a life-altering challenge. Without ever feeling messagy or heavy-handed, Harvey wants to tell young people like Simon and Kylie that there is nothing wrong with them. The humor of the show comes from equal amounts of typically outrageous British sitcom characters (the doormat of a father, a part-time alcoholic loud-mouth mother, her blind and bitchy best friend (Simon: ‘1. Never wear nylon. 2. Never wear nylon bought by a blind person‘) and how we are invited to understand Simon’s actions and reactions as signs of something he’s still too young to fathom – that he’s gay. But what more than anything makes Beautiful People funny is how seamlessly it integrates references (Tamagotchi, anyone?) or events (Tony Blair’s election, Princess Diana’s death) we all know, and then turns them on their heads.

Take Victoria Beckham, for instance. Just when I thought I didn’t want to hear her name again for the rest of my life, Beautiful People takes us back to the heyday of Spice Girls and their vaguely anarchic Girl Power slogan. In a funny and somewhat moving twist, Simon takes up soccer because he hears that Posh is dating a footballer, and that determination saves him from getting beaten up in school for his other, less masculine traits. All the episodes are practically littered with such more or less subtle nods to its time, whether it’s people striking Leo’s ‘I’m the king of the world‘ pose from Titanic as a common romantic gesture, doing the Macarena in a line dance, dancing to Barbie Girl in the school’s talent show, taping (by VCR!) the newest Ally McBeal episode for their neighbors or the Chumbawamba, All Saints and Meredith Brooks tunes on the soundtrack. It’s all adding a little bit of flavor, eventually making it absolutely essential to the the genuinely 1997 experience Harvey wants to create.

While (re-)watching it, I was struck be a sense that this way exactly the kind of show I would have loved to watch when I was twelve or thirteen years old. I’m just now in the process of trying to reclaim some of the bands, films and phenomena that I denied any fondness for back then, for fear of the consequences. By never talking about homosexuality directly it avoids coming off as preachy, but its commitment to diversity and respect is nevertheless transparent enough to reach through. Attempting to speak to young people in this way, while at the same time giving nostalgic nods to older viewers could have been a disastrous overreach, but here it works. Sure, one could argue that Harvey’s decision to handle the gay question only indirectly would risk downplaying the challenges young effeminate guys like Simon face in school, or that his parents are understanding to the point of being annoyingly naive, but that seems to never have been Harvey’s ambition anyway.

What’s most impressive however, is the fact that the book this show is based upon, was actually set in the 1960’s. Without having read the book, I have to say Jonathan Harvey must have done an incredible job updating the entire framework for the nineties. To return to Tim Teeman’s generally positive review, there are plenty of reasons to be nostalgic about 1997, one being that back then, Britons could still muster untainted enthusiasm for Tony Blair’s vision of ‘Cool Britannia’. Beautiful People has convinced me that although one-time savior Blair himself soon got sidetracked as Bush’s poodle, the Britain he took to war was already a pretty cool place. That insight has me wondering whether in ten years time, we’ll be asking whether it’s too soon to feel nostalgic about that classic television show Beautiful People.

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20 Responses to ‘Beautiful People’, The Epitome of Fabulosity

  1. poeticgrin says:

    You’ve made me really want to find a way to see this series. I’ve never heard of it but it’s worth a little work to find. The book may be worth a read, too.

    Is it “still too early to feel nostalgic about 1997?”

    No No No No No!

    In gay years, this was lifetimes ago! In childhood/teen years, this was lifetimes ago!

    1997 was the year I graduated high school, the year that a grown man pulled me aside and scared me to death by whispering, “Don’t be afraid to be who you you really are.”

    1997 was the year that I was head over heels in love with my best friend (a boy) while seriously dating a girl because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do.

    1997 was the year I went to prom, double dating with a neighbor, both of us taking out our girls… and then, after prom… all I could think about was him in the next room.

    In 1997 I was a superhero. I was invincible. The world was mine to do as I pleased and the future was ANYTHING I wanted.

    I *heart* 1997.

  2. queerlefty says:

    First, I need to clear up one thing that might make the point of this piece a little more coherent: I came to answer Teeman’s question about whether it’s too early to be nostalgic about 1997 with a ‘yes’, when I really meant ‘no’, as should become clear from the rest of the post.

    I loved your comment, because it shows that our lives become more interesting with age. Since your’e a little older than me, you had the chance to do all these (great?) things, while I was your average twelve year old developing a crush on Zac Hanson (him again!), too shy to interact with anyone.

    That summer I secretly devoured Backstreet Boys’ second album, and in cinema I absolutely loved ‘Men in Black’ and ‘Liar Liar’ (the shame!). In the fall Radiohead released ‘OK Computer’ and The Verve released ‘Urban Hymns’, both albums that have stayed with me since.

    I developed both physically and mentally, but I didn’t feel like that at the time. I certainly believe your 1997 was more interesting than mine.

  3. I’ve never heard of the show “Beautiful People” until now. It sounds so interesting so I might have surfthechannel or youtube it.

    I don’t even remember 1997. I was 9. But after reading your post and a lot of “Oh yeaaa!” moments due your pointing out of pop culture stuff (ahem, Tamagotchi!), it triggered other memories like Fiona Apple’s famous speech and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Best. Show. Ever.)! And though I was never really into those annoying boy bands, I do remember their singles… and sorta cool, in a campy kind of way, music videos.

    P.S. How come you don’t like Posh Spice?

    And Bryan’s prom story is so cute! I wanna know more. Hahaha.

  4. queerlefty says:

    Thanks for going on this nostalgia trip with me.

    You ‘Buffy’ people are really passionate about it, aren’t you? I’m sure it’s great if you have even the slightest interest in vampires, but I can’t say I do. And thanks for reminding me about Fiona Apple, I had totally forgotten about her.

    I was more into ‘those annoying boybands’ than I dared to be open about back then. I’ve always (secretly) been a sucker for that brand of soft pop music, and I’m just starting to accept it. Also, I have to underline that I in no way consider Hanson to be a ‘boyband’ in any other sense than that they were all boys, as they’ve always written their own songs and played their own instruments.

    I’ve finally come to enjoy the catchy campness of Spice Girls in recent years, but Posh has yet to share in the love, for at least three reasons:

    1) She’s married to David Beckham. It’s one thing the British gaymags – still! – seem to be going gaga over him, while I’ve never been that attracted to him. Another, more important, though not necessarily more rational point, is the simple fact that I learned to dislike him when he played for Manchester United, the main rival of Liverpool, my favorite soccer team. That animosity spilled over to Posh.

    2) She was the least charismatic Spice Girl by far. Mel C, Mel B, Emma and Geri all had something about them, but what kind of Girl Power did Victoria bring to the party? Mind you, I didn’t like them at the time (partly because my sister was a huge fan, and I therefore was exposed to their music every waking hour of the day, whether I wanted to or not, and partly because I simply didn’t want to like the same music as my sister. Silly I know).

    3) She. Can. Not. Sing. At. All.

    And yes, I would like to hear more about Bryan’s prom too:)

  5. poeticgrin says:

    In my previously mentioned “Girls I Would Do” list from back when I was a kid, Posh Spice was on that short, short list.

    It’s funny about Buffy. The husband and I just started watching it. We’ve watched the first two episodes and my criticism to him was, “This is so dated.” Now I realize from this discussion we’re only talking 1997. I’m not feelin’ it yet, but we’re going to keep trying.

    The prom story. I think that will go on my poetry list. The only problem is that I think the girlfriend back then visits my poetry site and it will piss her off bigtime. :) But still… when there’s a story to tell…

  6. poeticgrin says:

    Look for “Prom Night” within the next week at http://www.poeticgrin.com. You guys planted the seed – now I can’t get it off my mind until I bring it to life!

  7. queerlefty says:

    (…) it will piss her off bigtime.” All the things we have to endure for the arts, eh?

    I guess that apart from my general disinterest in vampires, one of the main reasons why Buffy never really caught fire with me was that some friends praised it so much that I felt I was force-fed it.

    “In my previously mentioned “Girls I Would Do” list from back when I was a kid, Posh Spice was on that short, short list.”

    Come to think of it, I think ‘Party of Five’s Neve Campbell was on my GIWD, in addition to Ryder

  8. poeticgrin says:

    A first draft of Prom Night posted. Click on my name. :)

    I expect an angry email from She Who Will Not Be Named. I will direct her here!

  9. Smilie says:

    You’ve sparked my interest in “Beautiful People.” Yet another thing I need to watch. :-)

    I’ve seen “Beautiful Thing” and it’s one of my favourite gay movies. It’s a nice story with a happy ending. I’m tired of watching gay movies that have someone dying or crippled by prejudice. I feel a rant coming on…I’ll stop now.

    Bryan: I’ll have to read your post later. Maybe while I’m at work. Sounds like an interesting story. :-)

    1997 feels like a lifetime ago. I graduated in June of 1998. That last year of school was a bad one for me. It was around the time I was starting to deal with being gay.

    I can remember going to work (I was a computer tech/programmer at a Junior High school — long story) and putting on headphones, listening to Hanson (another story) and trying not to cry. That’s where the nickname “Smilie” came from. I don’t think I smiled during that whole year.

    When I think about that year I wish I could go back in time and give that scared, sad kid a shake and say “it will get better, don’t be ashamed of who you are.”

    Well now that I’m going to be late for work, I should get going. :-)

  10. queerlefty says:


    I agree completely on ‘Beautiful Thing’. It has been criticized for being too naive about its coming-out story, but that lack of cynicism was much of what I loved about it. Like I said of ‘Beautiful People’, ‘Thing’ is that sort of film I wish I had seen when I was in my early teens.

    I suppose you had the same relationship with Hanson’s music that I had with Savage Garden (multi-million selling late 90’s Australian pop duo) in my own self-realization process. Their line ‘I believe you can’t control or choose your sexuality’ (from the Savage Garden song ‘Crash and Burn’) just churned around in my head for months before I finally admitted to myself that I was gay. Hanson has helped me a lot later on, though, in more ways than one.

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. queerlefty says:

    “I expect an angry email from She Who Will Not Be Named. I will direct her here!”

    Bryan: You do that, hehe.
    Great poem.

  12. poeticgrin says:

    Thanks to you and Franz for the inspiration!

  13. Smilie says:

    Savage Garden was another one that was in my head at the time too. In fact they’re one of the few groups from that time that I still listen to.

  14. queerlefty says:

    Yeah, they kind of still are a guilty pleasure. I might write something about it sometime.

  15. OK, I have to read that poem fo sho. So much for my 3-minute study break. lol

    I have to admit that I watched “Buffy” not because I was interested in vampires but because I read somewhere that each episode had some sort of a metaphor about high school. And for me, each season gets better and better. It looks old as dust in Season 1 but it gets better, trust me. I want the DVD collection, all 144 episodes including bonus features. Hahaha.

    Is “Beautiful Thing” that one movie where they danced in the end in front of everyone??? I vaguely remember but I’m not sure. I saw it 4 years ago or something.

    P.S.: I cannot comprehend why you’re not attracted to Beckham. He’s hella foiiiiine. omg hfudehfdfbdufi43ourehfnujdfbhusdbhfud

    Sorry about that. Words cannot express how foiiine he is. =P I wanna touch his… arm.

    P.S.: You guys are so quick with responses. I feel so bad because I don’t respond quick enough. x__x

  16. queerlefty says:

    1) I suspect the fact that you’re a little slower with responses indicates that you actually have a life outside of the blogosphere. Me, I all too often use this blog as an excuse not to study as much as I should have. Hopefully, my posting schedule will be light over the next couple of weeks, because that would mean I’m finally at work writing my term paper, due in mid-May.

    2) Yep, you’re thinking about the right movie. They’re dancing to Mama Cass’s ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’, and the film’s genuine friendliness could easily be summed up by another Mama Cass’ lyric: ‘You’ve gotta make your own kind of music/sing your own special song/even if nobody else sings along’.

    3) On Beckham, let me first return briefly to two previous points: I really, really don’t like his former club, Manchester United, and that’s a huge part of why I don’t like him either. Also, it’s hard to overstate what kind of a celebrity this guy is in the soccer community in Europe (heck, in pop culture at large). You simply can’t avoid him.

    Most importantly though, I just not attracted to him. He was kind of cute when he first emerged, but now… meh. Tattoos are a definitive turn-off for me, and while I admit that he’s certainly very fit, there’s something metrosexually dull about him.

    Not sure I wanna touch him at all.

  17. erogger says:

    I posted about this show as well today and the “possibly related” section in my blog brought me to yours… I absolutely love this show and am so happy my 14 year old daughter introduced me to it (she is also one that lives online).

    The show is brilliantly well written and cast. I have to say that my absolute favorite is Kylie, although Simon is also great.

    Although I was 23 back in 1997 and much older than the kids portrayed, I still got nostalgic at the mention of The Spice Girls, the macarena and the death of Princess Diana!

    Well written article!

  18. anonfan says:

    its available on youtube and the full eps are on the afterelton blog

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