‘When Harvey Met Bob’: Why Not?

In his blog entry for 16 December 2010, Harvey Goldsmith hopes his readers have time to watch When Harvey Met Bob, the RTE/BBC drama coproduction that commemorates the Live Aid concerts of 13 July 1985. He notes, “There is a reasonable amount of artistic license in the play, but it is very enjoyable.”

Given the drama’s own acknowledgement during the opening credits of invented scenes and dialogue, viewers might be forgiven for thinking that what they will be watching is really a drama about how two people very like concert producer Harvey Goldsmith and Bob Geldof, lead singer of an in-the-doldrums Boomtown Rats, might have produced an event very like Live Aid. The omission of Midge Ure, the Scots frontman for pop band Ultravox, who co-produced Live Aid with Goldsmith and Geldof, adds to the sense of history rewritten for dramatic effect.

That said, When Harvey Met Bob — which premieres 26 December on the BBC and 30 December on BBCA — still compels attention, first through the acting of the two principals, Domhnall Gleeson as Geldof and a tightly wound Ian Hart as Harvey Goldsmith, and second, through the imagining of the sheer imagination and chutzpah required to conceive and execute a global, synchronous event which raised, in little more than 24 hours, over £40 million.

The genesis of Live Aid lay in TV reporter Michael Buerk’s nightly dispatches from the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, where human need totally overwhelmed aid capacity, and millions died. Geldof determined to raise not just awareness of the disaster, but also to pull together as many top-line British and Irish pop stars as possible to record a charity Christmas single whose proceeds would fund a feeding operation in Ethiopia. He and Midge Ure co-wrote the single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” recorded it on donated studio time, christened their ad hoc super-group Band Aid, and sent their plea into the stores. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” charted as the fastest-selling UK single ever, and held the crown of selling more copies than any other single in the UK well into the ‘90s. A personal trip to Africa early in 1985 persuaded Geldof that the scale of aid required far outstripped the proceeds of one single, and he began to plan the day-long, live-broadcast, simultaneous UK & U.S. fund-raising concerts that became Live Aid.

Against this historical background, When Harvey Met Bob considers a relationship premised on the desire shared by a visionary musician and a canny international music producer to change history. Together, Geldof and Goldsmith create the largest international broadcast rock concert ever contemplated, without paying a penny to any of the participants.

The film cleverly focuses this clash around the Battle of the Board, that is, the soon-to-be marker-smeared, room-dominating whiteboard that towered over the desks and telephones of Live Aid’s HQ. The contest begins when Geldof attempts to seduce Goldsmith, who had already turned pop music to charitable good in a series of late ’70s concerts in London, by naming all the major artists who have already committed to appear on Live Aid. In the face of Goldsmith’s absolute skepticism, Geldof continues to promise every star in the pop firmament. The moment he leaves the room, Goldsmith sets his lackeys to checking with their managements, only to discover that most have never heard of any such commitment.

And so the whiteboard becomes the battleground between Geldof’s quixotic belief in the personal commitment of friends and colleagues and Goldsmith’s need to nail down every participant, find an arena (or more than one), build sets, confirm running orders, and find a broadcaster for the whole shebang. The battle culminates when Geldof returns from a much-negotiated visit to Paul McCartney (Paul Rhys) — an ex-Beatle being sine qua non to the Irishman for pop culture credibility — whereupon he triumphantly adds his name to the end of the running order.

Both Hart and Gleeson inject such energy into their two-handers that these standoffs become the standout moments of the film. After Geldof lies through his teeth to the BBC about Channel Four’s interest in filming Live Aid (the commercial channel has actually rejected the whole proposal), Goldsmith delivers a verbal lashing of the singer, making utterly clear how much the promoter values his reputation as an honorable business person and just how much he has put on the line to join forces with the less precise Geldof. Yet, when Geldof collapses weeping, Goldsmith reveals another side, his genuine affection for this man with a vision.

Geldof, for his part, is differently erratic. He throws a late-night tantrum over the loss of an NYC venue for the U.S. end of Live Aid, and pours scorn on the prospect of Philadelphia as a replacement, despite the offer of a free stadium from the mayor. When he demands that Goldsmith tell him why the mayor would make such an offer, an enraged Goldsmith screams back, “Why are any of us doing this?” Geldof rocks back with the belated realization that he is not the only man in the room working from idealistic altruism, and that his is not the only vision at stake in the show.

In this moment and others, Gleeson captures the dynamic mix of Geldof’s charisma and diffidence, the unprepossessing slouch that could snap at a moment’s notice into defiant eloquence, as well as the man’s avant-grunge sartorial disarray, which looks like clothes slept in for days at one moment and couturier elegance the next. Not to mention Geldof’s signature expletive, the lyrical “fock” that brightened up more than one live media interview. Only when the camera moves in for a close-up does the illusion shatter: Gleeson’s delicate features under the haystack of dark hair share little of the dissolute sulkiness of Geldof in 1985.

Not all scenes provoke admiration for the partnership or the achievement of Live Aid. The moment when Geldof, Goldsmith, and the backstage crew start singing “Let It Be” with the audience as McCartney plays solo with piano and no mike sound for the first couple of minutes is mawkish in the extreme. It may have happened like that: the challenge for the dramatist and actors, though, is to recreate it so that the viewer doesn’t cringe so much that any genuine beauty in the moment is lost.

And the movie treats another central relationship, that of Geldof and his young PA, Marsha Hunt (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), absent-mindedly, despite a promisingly spiky beginning. Spotting her slumped over a telephone at his record company, he asks her how she’s getting home. Flattered by such concern from a major star, she replies that she has her car, only to find herself recruited as a chauffeur for that evening, and even being ordered to pick him up at eight the next day. When she arrives at his door in the morning, he invites her into the kitchen, and promptly asks her for five pounds, the donation Paula Yates has decided everyone who comes into the house has to make towards famine relief. Marsha first points out that she hadn’t wanted to come in, then asks Geldof if he understands how little she’s paid, and finally, in the face of his obdurate smile, adds a crumpled fiver to the envelope pinned to the fridge. Geldof’s slight smile of triumph is acutely passive aggressive, a wonderful insight into his modus operandi, but the death knell for Marsha’s further development. Throughout the rest of the drama, she plays typical sycophantic acolyte, driver, and Bob booster extraordinaire, but without a single memorable line to utter.

This isn’t a drama for the archives, but the event it depicts is. Today, when every semi-famous celebrity peddles a signature charity, it’s hard to remember how transforming the donation of time and energy for good by the very rich and very famous really was. In an interview in the mid-noughties, Geldof remembered that one of his bandmates promised to carve only one word on his gravestone — “Why?” — because Geldof was perpetually asking it. When Harvey Met Bob, faults and all, reminds viewers that Geldof also asked, “Why not?” and changed the face of philanthropy in the West. Near the end of a year of recession and war, every TV viewer needs a reminder that when the impossible and compassion collide, the irrational individual can sometimes prevail.

RATING 7 / 10