September 22, 2008

Escape From Suburbia

By James Rampton

The best-selling memoirs of flamboyant window-dresser and New York socialite Simon Doonan have been turned into a BBC2 sitcom. Fabulous, says James Rampton

Thirteen-year-old Simon, the central character in Beautiful People, a new BBC2 comedy series, is a delicate flower struggling to blossom in what he sees as the cultural desert of Reading, circa 1997. Incapable of opening a fridge door without breaking into a show tune, he is appalled by the vulgarity and ordinariness of his surroundings. His sense of horror peaks when the family's blind lodger, known as Aunty Hayley, gives him a purple and pink shell suit as a present. "Two fashion pointers," he sighs. "Never wear nylon. And never wear nylon bought by a blind person."

A fashionista before his time, Simon then veers off into an elaborate fantasy where he is so traumatised that he hurls himself off a tall building while wearing the shell suit. Afterwards, as the injured boy is wheeled away on a gurney, a sombre policeman asks the ambulance-man why he did it. "His aunty made him wear nylon," the ambulance-man replies, gravely. "How could anyone do that to a child?" cries the anguished copper. Welcome to the glamorous, glitterball, high camp world of Simon Doonan.

The real Doonan is now a successful, waspish columnist on The New York Observer and creative director at Barneys store, and he gave Jonathan Harvey (Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Beautiful Thing) carte blanche to adapt his best-selling memoirs. The resulting show is by turns funny and poignant, conjuring the growing pains of a sensitive teenager who simply doesn't fit in.

Each episode begins with a grown-up Simon (played by Samuel Barnett of The History Boys) going about his business in New York, and being reminded of some episode from his childhood. Cue a flashback to the young Simon (Wild at Heart's Luke Ward-Wilkinson) and his adventures with his even camper neighbour, Kylie (Layton Williams), not to mention his eccentric family - his adoring, if domineering, mother, Debbie (Olivia Colman from Peep Show), his sweet plumber father, Andy (Aidan McArdle, Not Only But Always), his would-be ghetto-princess sister Ashlene (Sophie Ash) and the dippy Aunty Hayley (Meera Syal).

I'm on the set of Beautiful People at Shepperton Studios, south- west of London. Within an aircraft-hanger-sized sound stage, the designers have created a perfect replica of a drab Reading front room, circa 1997. Bland paintings of rural scenes adorn the cheerless walls, a lifeless statue of a prancing horse stands on the mantelpiece, and a sign reading "my other house is cleaner" hangs forlornly over it all.

To keep alive his dream of finding the absolutely fabulous life he craves amid these unsalubrious surroundings, Simon is sustained by a rich fantasy life, manifested in many Ally McBeal-style dream sequences. But one thing that will ring true for everybody, the producers believe, is Simon's feeling of being a fish out of water. It's a universal sensation among teenagers - growing up, we all feel that we're outsiders and that nobody understands us.

Jon Plowman, the executive producer of Beautiful People and former BBC head of comedy responsible for shows including Absolutely Fabulous, The Office, Little Britain, and The Thick of It, says: "Every teenager thinks they're different. In the first episode, the class bully taunts Simon - 'where did you get your voice? Poofs R Us?' I hope the audience will think: 'That's me as a teenager being laughed at. Everyone else was in a gang together, and I was in a gang of one.' But the truth is, everyone is in a gang of one. Perhaps kids of 13 will tune in and think, 'I might be gay, but it's OK and interesting enough for them to make a TV programme about it.'"

Syal chimes in: "We've all been teenagers and felt we were in the wrong family. The definition of being a teenager is being misunderstood. It's abnormal to be a happy teenager. You have to rebel - that's what teenagers do."

Harvey takes up the theme. "Simon thinks his family is freaky and that no one gets him. He wants to run away and meet the beautiful people without realising that they're actually on his own doorstep all along. It conforms to that great Wizard of Oz tradition."

Doonan allowed the writer to inject incidents from his own life into the script. "I wanted to put Simon in the school play, because when I was young I remember the drama teacher telling me that in the school production of Joseph I was too effeminate. My mum was very put out by that. So in Beautiful People, I've managed to exact my revenge. When the teacher tells Debbie that Simon is effeminate, she punches the teacher. It was great because I didn't have to do much research."

Syal, who made her name in shows as diverse as Goodness Gracious Me and Life Isn't All Ha Ha He He, reckons that Beautiful People will win viewers over with its unfashionable lack of cynicism. "It's very warm. I think that in the Noughties, audiences may be moving away from cynicism, which has held sway in comedy for a while. I think there's a reaction against post-modern 'let's-be-cruel-and- take-the-piss' humour. Instead, we're embracing warmth. Look at the success of Gavin and Stacey.

"Simon writes with a mixture of honesty and humour and without a trace of self-pity. He had an unusual childhood, but he never portrays himself as a victim. It's a joyous and life-affirming book, and you come away from it feeling better about the world. It's a great escape. If you want to feel worse, you can always watch the news."

Colman believes that the Doonans, who may on the surface appear to be the family from hell, will actually generate a lot of affection. "It's like the Osbournes. At first, viewers might be judgemental about this apparently dysfunctional family. But once they get to know them, they'll see that in fact they're very close, very supportive and very tolerant of each other's quirks.

"There is something so touching about the unconditional love of these parents for their children. Debbie's son is different and camp as Christmas, but she and Andy support him through thick and thin. They're fiercely loyal and never question his eccentricities. They encourage his difference rather than trying to suppress it. That's why audiences will root for this family."

Colman continues: "Debbie is a lioness with her children and she will go to any extremes to protect them. She always says what she thinks. Viewers will watch her and think, 'she's doing the things I'd love to, but would never dare to.' Like her son, she is also a great self-dramatiser. She likes to pretend she's Jewish because she thinks it's glamorous, and she has this dream sequence with herself as Yentl."

Ultimately, Simon is saved from being painfully self-indulgent by his acute sense of self-irony. MacArdle says: "What's wonderful about Simon is that he's very aware of himself and is never afraid to send himself up. He laughs about his vanities and the ridiculous things he's said. He eviscerates himself, and that's why people will empathise with him."

Syal thinks that the series has legs. She declares: "Beautiful People resonates for the same reason that The Kumars [of No 42, in which she starred] did: it's about family. In the end, all the stories in the world are about family."

In Colman's eyes, too, the omens for Beautiful People are good. According to the actress, "it's funny, touching and escapist. It's got something for everyone. Do you remember that famous lily-pond fight between Joan Collins and Linda Evans in Dynasty? Well, in a later episode of this, Frances Barber [who guest stars as Miss Prentice] and I get to do our own version, a no-holds-barred catfight in full garb. What more could you want from a show?"

'Beautiful People' starts on BBC2 at 9.30pm on Thursday 2 October

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.