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.