Jan Harvey is perhaps best know to fans of British TV for being the lead actress in the hugely popular Howard’s Way. Fans of Jan can see her on stage in the UK later this year as she rejoins the cast of the critically acclaimed Calendar Girls. Kieran Kinsella recently had the opportunity to talk with Jan about her work on TV, her return to the stage and her other career as a successful businesswoman.
When Howard’s Way was launched in 1985, it was billed my many as the BBC’s attempt to create a show in the mold of the US hits Dallas and Dynasty. When you were making the show, were you conscious of trying to compete with those shows or was that whole rivalry just a creation of the British media?
“It was a media creation. Originally, the show was written as a much smaller type of show. It was an intimate look at a nuclear family that was under pressure. It was about a married couple with two children who were living in a time of high unemployment so it was written in a very serious fashion by Jill Hyem who wrote the first few episodes. We made 13 episodes before anyone from the media even saw it so if you look at that first season it was really quite a small cast. The show became broader during the second season but in the first season, it was about local issues and the Howard family. Later on it became about big business and fashion and power boats speeding so it did become a much bigger thing.”
On screen, we saw you and the rest of the cast drinking Champagne and riding around on yachts but when the cameras stopped rolling, did you all get to enjoy the high life or did the BBC pack everything up as soon as filming stopped and send you all back home?
“It was very much the latter. It was made on a very tight budget and like everything else at the time, the BBC was subject to spending cuts so what you saw onscreen was what we did but after we stopped filming then we all packed up. Although, the cast did spend a lot of time together because we all got on incredibly well. We had to spend a lot of time together during filming when we were on location and even when we did the studio filming because that was all done in Birmingham rather than London. In actual fact we all became a family because we were away from home so much.”
It has been said that Howard’s Way was representative of Britain during the Thatcher years and that it was quite fitting that the show wrapped up just as she left power. Do you agree with that or do you think you can still find people like Ken Masters and the Howard’s in Britain today?
“I think you would find people like them today. It is funny because we are always being asked to make a new version of Howard’s Way for 2011. I think it is a perennial thing because people always want to create a better life for their children and they did in the 80s and they do now. I think the show was perfect for its time because the Thatcher years were about “me, me” and enjoying the money and perhaps flaunting your money and we just went through another period like that just before the recession began. I do think that you need those aspirational things though during a recession because you are feeling down so it’s nice to see people who are enjoying life. It is escapism.”
After Howard’s Way you became a regular in Dictionary Corner on Countdown. In a sense, you were having to compete with the contestants so was it a stressful job?
“You are right in that we were competing in a sense but of course we had longer to find words because we were still looking while the contestants were answering. We had people helping us by giving us words through an earpiece but my thing was that I did not want to take credit for words that I did not find myself as I thought that was cheating. So I took credit if I came up with a word myself and a lot of times Suzy Dent, who was in Dictionary Corner, would come up with a word. If the producer’s gave me a word then I would say ‘Oh Suzy has come up with a real corker.’ The producer would tell me that I should claim more words as the audience would like that but I just felt that the contestants were brilliant so for a celebrity to come up with better words than them all of the time would have seemed a bit ridiculous”
Around the time that you were appearing in Countdown you also starred in the sci-fi spy series Bugs. You were sort of like the Judi Dench character from James Bond. What was that experience like?
“I loved working on Bugs and for me it was a dream come true because I have always wanted to play a spy.
It was fantastic to run around with a gun in my hand and avoid bombs as it was sort of schoolgirl stuff so I loved Bugs. It was ahead of its time too because Jaye Griffith’s character was into all of the I.T. stuff and it was really up to the mark and just a great show. It is funny because I used to go to France and nobody knew who I was, then eventually I bought a house in France but by then people knew who I was because the French absolutely loved Bugs. It was popular in Britan but I think it might have been an even bigger hit in France.”
On Thursday You can read part two of our interview and hear what Jan Harvey has to say about Rockface, Family Affairs and Calendar Girls.