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Beautiful Thing
BEAUTIFUL THING, written by Jonathan Harvey from his play and directed by Hettie Macdonald, is a key British love story and coming-out film, optimistic in defiance of the climate of its time, released by the BFI on Blu-ray. Gary Couzens sees rainbows.

Jamie (Glen Berry) is sixteen and living in Thamesmead with his mother Sandra (Linda Henry). He feels out of place at school, but is drawn to his neighbour Ste (Scott Neal), who lives with his abusive father and who goes to the same school...

Beautiful Thing, written by Jonathan Harvey from his 1993 stage play, directed by Hettie Macdonald, was released in 1996. As the main title comes up, there is a rainbow in the sky over the brutalist-concrete housing estate in Thamesmead, South-East London, where the story takes place. A story of young first love, Beautiful Thing is a deliberately and, in the context of the time, defiantly optimistic work. We could easily have been immersed in Ken Loach-style downbeat urban grit, for all the power of his best work, but Harvey and director Hettie Macdonald intentionally play the story for romance.  The grey of the Thamesmead buildings and walkways and open areas are offset by bold colours, blue and red primaries in particular. As well as the colour, the film puts a lot of music on the soundtrack due to neighbour Leah’s (Tameka Empson) love for and identification with Mama Cass Elliot, both solo and as one of the Mamas and the Papas. Because this music was retro at the time – and quite feasible, then and certainly now, that a young person might seek out music that isn’t from the here and now – this doesn’t date the film, though Leah’s taste in music does get commented upon. (“What’s wrong with Madonna?” Sandra asks her.)

Beautiful Thing

It’s a story of young first love but it’s a story of young gay (male) first love. As Harvey says in the Q&A on this disc, the play was written at a time when homophobia was rife in the media and in British society. The AIDS pandemic had been around for over a decade. There wasn’t an equal age of consent – then it was sixteen for heterosexuals but twenty-one for gay males. Section 28 was on the statute books, disallowing the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities, particularly in schools, which Harvey certainly knew about as he was working as a teacher in Thamesmead. As he mentions in the Q&A on this disc, the Daily Mail was publishing articles about the hope that a gene predisposing someone towards homosexuality could be located so that gay people could be identified in utero and aborted. Beautiful Thing doesn’t avoid the homophobia that Jamie and Ste experience but keeps it largely offscreen, the most overt reference to it being the school exercise book Sandra finds which has been defaced (I’ll spare you with what). It’s not really a spoiler to say that we get a happy ending, and whether our young lovers remain together for much longer is neither here nor there.

Two films don’t make a trend, but Beautiful Thing was one of two British teenage gay (male) films to be released in the later 1990s, both based on stage plays. The other was Get Real from 1998, set and shot in Basingstoke, from the play What’s Wrong with Angry? by screenwriter Patrick Wilde. You could also add Russell T. Davies’s television serial Queer as Folk, first broadcast in 1999, though only one half of the major relationship in that is teenage. Inevitably some tropes recur, but there are differences. In Get Real, the central character – also called Steven – is sexually active from before the film starts and the story details his relationship with the gorgeous and deeply closeted football captain (who has a model girlfriend) to the point where he is able to come out publicly. In Queer as Folk, fifteen-year-old Nathan knows he is gay but the drama starts when he goes out in Manchester’s Canal Street and loses his virginity. In Beautiful Thing, Jamie and Ste take time to realise that they are gay and to get together. Another trope is that of the characters having a best friend and confidante who is a girl of their age, certainly the case in Get Real and Queer as Folk, though in Beautiful Thing Leah is a more complex character than that and not always a sympathetic one.

While the stories are about teenage boys, in all three some of the strongest roles are female, in particular mothers – in Beautiful Thing that’s Sandra, with Linda Henry receiving top billing, and Harvey gives her many of the best lines, played to the hilt by the actress. Sandra is by her own admission a fighter, having had to all her life, and she has her own story arc, about looking to be able to run her own pub.

Beautiful Thing

Beautiful Thing was originally intended to be a Channel 4 TV movie, but it was so well received that it was given a cinema release. The film was shot in Thamesmead apart from the scenes at the Gloucester gay pub, which is in Greenwich. Harvey was a debut screenwriter (other than a 1993 television short called West End Girls, after the Pet Shop Boys song) and Macdonald a debut screen director, though she had directed the original stage production of Beautiful Thing. They were backed by an experienced producer, Tony Garnett, who had worked many times with Ken Loach in the past. Berry and Neal were both from the Anna Scher Theatre School. Both Harvey and Macdonald have worked on television extensively since, Harvey notably with the sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme and episodes of Shameless, Call the Midwife and over three hundred of Coronation Street. Macdonald is an example of the difficulty of sustaining a cinema directing career in Britain, as it took twenty-seven years before she made her second feature for the big screen, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in 2023. In between she also worked widely in television, directing among other things the to my mind best single episode of Doctor Who since its revival, Blink (2007).

sound and vision

Beautiful Thing is a Blu-ray release from the BFI, encoded for Region B only. The film has a 15 certificate. The two short films Living at Thamesmead and Crashing Waves don’t appear on the BBFC website at the time of writing, though the former is technically a documentary (with acted parts) and neither would get anything higher than a PG.

The Blu-ray transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from a likely intended ratio of 1.85:1. The film was shot in 35mm. The BFI’s booklet doesn’t say from which element this transfer is sourced from, but it does look very good, in fact what I’d expect a new 35mm projection print would have looked like, although I didn’t see this in the cinema and my first and only previous viewing before this Blu-ray was its TV debut on Channel 4 in 1997. (The film is from before the time of digital projection, so 35mm is what you would have viewed in your local cinema in 1996.) The colours are vibrant, especially those blues and reds, blacks are solid (there are quite a few night scenes) and grain natural and filmlike.

Beautiful Thing

Beautiful Thing was released with a Dolby Digital (Dolby SR-D) soundtrack, and that’s the basis of the sound mix on this disc, rendered as LPCM 2.0, playing in surround. There are some directional sounds but the surrounds are used mainly for John Altman’s music score and those Mama Cass songs, plus some from The Sound of Music. Hard-of-hearing English subtitles are available for this feature and the trailer, but not the other extras. They are mostly accurate, though Noelene (the Home and Away character) is spelled “Noleen”.

special features

Commentary with Jonathan Harvey, Hettie Macdonald and Susie Liggat
Recorded at the BFI Southbank in December 2023, taking part are the writer, the director and first assistant director Susie Liggat. This comes over as a friendly chat between old friends, which no doubt it is, with much laughter. They do talk about shooting on location in Thamesmead with local buildings pressed into service as sets (Leah’s flat was shot in the rape crisis centre). As Harvey and Liggat are both gay, they both talk about how important the film was at the time of its release, which explains the place it holds in many viewers’ regard. That’s not to say that the production was trouble-free: Liggat talks about how electricians refused to work on the scenes where Ste and Jamie passionately kiss in the woods, so the compromise was that they set up the lights and left before the scene was shot. We also hear about Harvey and Liggat’s appearances in the film, both with dialogue but uncredited: Liggat seen from behind as a woman in a newsagent as Jamie smuggles out a copy of Gay Times, and Harvey as “Wheelchair queen” in the Gloucester scene. (Liggat also tells how she had previously met Anna Karen, who plays neighbour Marlene, as Liggat’s father was casting director on Holiday on the Buses so young Susie appeared on screen in a pushchair.)

Q &A (31:40)
Filmed at the Greenwich Picturehouse on 23 July 2023, a caption announces that the scene in the Gloucester was filmed locally. Taking part were Harvey, Macdonald, Liggat, Glen Berry and Dave Lynn (who played the drag act at the Gloucester) and it is moderated by David Robson. Linda Henry, Scott Neal and Tameka Empson were the main absentees. Needless to say, with the three commentary participants on the panel, there is some repetition between that track and this Q & A. They all have good memories of the shoot, on which Berry was all of seventeen years old. Dave Lynn’s only appearance in this disc’s extras is here and he talks about his one day on the set in the Gloucester: he was an existing drag act and was asked on site if he wanted to be in the film. The dress he wore is now on display in a bar in Brighton along with a copy of the script. The filmmakers had to approach Mama Cass’s sister for permission to use the music, which at one point looked likely to have been too expensive to license.

Beautiful Thing

Living at Thamesmead (26:25)
Made in 1974 by the Greater London Council, shot in very soft and grainy 16mm, this adds to the Thamesmead filmography (though I’m not suggesting a double bill of Beautiful Thing and A Clockwork Orange any time soon) and is something of an advertorial for the area. A slim storyline featuring a young couple, Sally and Tom (Julie Dawn Cole and Spencer Bright), with everyone else in the film played by non-actor locals, takes us on a tour of Thamesmead, featuring local facilities, sports and social activities for prospective residents.

Crashing Waves (3:40)
Directed by Emma Gilbertson in 2018, this takes place in a Thamesmead-like housing estate and two young men (Joshua Hubbard and Phoenix Chase-Meares) meet in the face of adversity, told with no dialogue and via interpretive dance. Hubbard was also the choreographer.

Beautiful Thing Rainbow Plaque Unveiling (1:12)
On the same day as the Q & A above, the plaque was unveiled at the site of the Gloucester pub, now the Greenwich Tavern. This brief item includes interviews to camera by Berry, Harvey and Macdonald. The address, if you wish to visit, is 1 King William Walk, London SE10 9JH.

Theatrical trailer (2:05)
A trailer which emphasises humour, narrated by Tameka Empson in character as Leah, captioned as “Freaking Out”, “Reaching Out”, “Coming Out” and finally “Making Out”.

The BFI’s booklet, available with the first pressing of this Blu-ray only, runs to thirty-two pages. After a warning about spoilers, it begins with “Beautiful Thing: Forbidden Love on the Cockney Riviera”, which begins by summarising the homophobic atmosphere of the time when Harvey wrote his play. It was originally going to be called The Venom Stiletto and set in Harvey’s native Liverpool before being relocated to Thamesmead. It was important to him to represent working class gay life, as the only cinematic models he had at the time were the posh likes of Another Country (1984) and Maurice (1987). McCallum talks about the reception of the play, which is still being staged over thirty years later, and a film which he sees as the predecessor of the likes of Heartstopper and Sex Education, queer-friendly shows aimed at a younger generation of viewers.

Beautiful Thing

Áine Grace contributes “Thamesmead Estate: The Town of Tomorrow”, which is a history of the area from its building in the late 1960s, on the site of what had been Woolwich Arsenal, the centre of munitions manufacture and testing of explosives since the seventeenth century until the MOD moved out in 1967 and Thamesmead took its place. Grace gives a detailed history, including the area’s use in films (not just A Clockwork Orange and Beautiful Thing but The Optimists of Nine Elms as well) and its current regeneration after fifty years of existence. This is as much as you’ll ever need to know about Thamesmead, from a clear expert on the subject, and Grace’s account is nowhere near as dry as it could have been.

This is followed by “Getting Better, Growing Stronger” by Vic Pratt, a five-page biography of Cass Elliot. “Raise a Glass to Ste and Jamie” is by David Robson, the moderator of the Q & A above and project lead of Rainbow Plaques, responsible for the one we see unveiled in the extras. And finally we have “In Praise of Beautiful Thing, a Quintessentially British Coming Out Movie”, an appreciation of the film by Emily Maskell, reprinted from Little White Lies. The booklet also includes film cast and crew credits, notes on and credits for the extras, and stills.


Beautiful Thing is no doubt a product of its time, a defiantly optimistic tale of first gay love and coming out in a very homophobic climate, with two lead characters who would in fact have been illegal then. It stands up as a fine film in its own right and an influence on later films and shows, and with LGBTQIA+ rights again in the firing line, as essential as it ever was. It’s well served by this BFI Blu-ray.

Beautiful Thing Blu-ray cover
Beautiful Thing

UK 1996
90 mins
directed by
Hettie Macdonald
produced by
Tony Garnett
Bill Shapter
written by
Jonathan Harvey
Chris Seager
Don Fairservice
John Altman
production design
Mark Stevenson
Glen Berry
Linda Henry
Scott Neal
Tameka Empson
Ben Daniels
John Benfield
Daniel Bowers
Garry Cooper
Terry Duggan
Jeillo Edwards

disc details
region B
LPCM 2.0 surround
English SDH
special features
Commentary with Jonathan Harvey, Hettie Macdonald and Susie Liggat
Q &A
Living at Thamesmead short film
Crashing Waves short film
Beautiful Thing Rainbow Plaque Unveiling

release date
18 March 2024
review posted
20 March 2024

See all of Gary Couzens' reviews