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Peter Harness and the ‘cunningly structured’ Mongoose

Peter Harness isn’t brooding. He doesn’t have furious, intense eyes and he smiles a lot. I mention this because the Harness I have in my mind is silent, solid and scary. This Peter Harness is wearing a stone-blue Oriel T-shirt. He swings his arms as he walks like an affable goon. His eyes, I notice, are green-hazel not, as I’d thought, impenetrable brown. His squirrel-eyebrows have a tendency to fibrillate. Nevertheless, he scares me shitless.
I tell him. He chuckles. “Really? I know that I terrify people a bit but I don’t know why. I don’t want to scare people at all because I’m actually quite nice. I’m sorry I terrify you.”
The day before, the curtains had just closed on the first run of Mongoose, Harness’s first professional play. It’s “tough, delicate and cunningingly structured” (Guardian). An Oriel DPhil student, he’s managed to develop something of an iconic status among Oxford thesps and comedians from the second-year up. President of the Oxford Revue in 2000, most recently he adapted Dorian Gray. Yet an internet trawl only reveals the following: he was brought up in an old people’s home, he died on 21 February 1825, and at one stage in his life was bequeathed one Negro.
Apparently only the first one is true.
Although he doesn’t like scaring people, Mongoose has its fair share of unsettling bits. “Which bits?” Well, the bit with a ruler. “Oh that’s fantastic! Ted goes, ‘Mongoose stuck a ruler in his mouth,’ and the audience titters. Then he says, ‘Sideways,’ and they laugh. Then he says, ‘I had to cut his mouth to get it out,’ and they all gasp. They did it every night. I found it lovely.” Suspiciously, he chuckles again.
“Most people come out wanting to hug Ted and love him. What you’ve in fact seen is a man who writes poison pen letters, pushes his father down the stairs, sticks a ruler in his mouth, and eventually murders him.” Nope, there’s definitely a talking mongoose. “Everybody kind of ends up believing in it, which they should. Otherwise you’re stuck in a room with a psychopath.” He looks pensive. I decide there is something impenetrable about his eyes. “I think there’s a talking mongoose, too.”
Mongoose is about Ted, a lonely farmer coming to terms with the death of his lifelong friend. A talking mongoose. Did he have to suppress any urge to play Ted? “No I would’ve done it very differently. I saw him as this hapless, fat, Northern farmer. Richard had a nice kind of lilting voice, which I hadn’t heard [when I was writing].”
It must be strange having one foot here in Oxford and another in a professional world. “I’ve kind of gone on. I feel I properly left three years ago. I graduated in ’97, did three years of my doctorate and then got commissioned to do Chocolate Billionaire. I’ve just come back to finish off. I know nobody in my college anymore and skulk about. Nobody’s got the slightest f**king idea who I am.”
Harness stared in the student film Onion Club about a stand-up tragedian. Maybe there’s something of onions and tragedy about Harness. Maybe also loneliness. Mongoose is, after all, a pitiful study of a desperately lonely man. The shy, “solitary geek” from Yorkshire remains grateful for what Oxford gave him and attributes his writing ambitions to wanting to be someone everybody knew off TV. Is television still his goal? “I used to believe in television. I always wanted to write for it, I hope I will, but I used to want to be a proper TV playwright. That’s completely evaporated now.”
So he doesn’t want to be iconic? “It’s like pursuing fame for its own sake. You’ve just got to do it and not give a f**k about your audience. Well… I think you’ve got to entertain people. But most people are morons; you can’t just write for them. So you’ve just got to write to please yourself.”
Maybe his FilmFour experience left him somewhat jaded? “It wasn’t nice writing Chocolate Billionaire. It was my first proper commission. But it was hard work. There were so many f**king layers of commissioners and programme heads justifying themselves coming up with crap off the top of their heads. They perpetually said, could I make it more like something else. Apparently what they wanted was a cross between Citizen’s Kane, The Secret of My Success, Willy Wonka, The Good Life, and League of Gentlemen. It’s been rewritten fairly comprehensively now. It’s nice to have the money and it’s nice that it’s getting made. And if it’s ‘Based on an Original Story by…’ that’s fine.”
Does he feel that writing is like work at all? “I work hard on things if I’m doing them. I tell myself I’m writing and then I settle down, like a dog making its blanket into a nest, for about two weeks. I think about it, read Murder Casebook, have baths, get depressed. Eventually, I start writing.”
Sounds a bit miserable. “I can see why Virginia Woolf had to go and drown herself every time she finished her latest novel. Your brain’s been working in a certain way and when it runs out of stuff to process it starts sucking in all this other stuff. When I’d finished writing something last year, I ended up watching every episode of Inspector Morse. I couldn’t sleep because of the dreams. It’s a very silly way to work.” But, um, he’s happy now, isn’t he? “I am. But I still panic about it. Everybody does. Everybody’s beset with panic all of the time. But if I was doing anything else I don’t think I’d be…”
There’s a pause. He’s looking far away, his chin on his knuckles, forefinger pressed into his right eyebrow. “But… I’ve done nothing except this since I was twenty-one. I’ve been very poor and battled with the terror that I’ve just pissed away the best years of my life on something that’s going to go completely down the toilet. If I did anything else I’d be wholeheartedly miserable.”
Is there a tingle that he’s hit something that he can talk of as a writing career? “I’ve been doing it for such a long time. There was a long period before I got anything done professionally. I’ve been starting for a long time. But having Mongoose on, having nice reviews, people hearing of me as a writer… Starting to earn enough to live on. Touch wood. I feel I’ve stepped up a gear for all sorts of reasons.”
He swings his hand around and nimbly plucks a buzzing blob out of the air. He grins. I think he’s happy. Before we call it a day I ask after the Negro. “He’s fine.” Does he keep him in a box? “No, I make him work. No point having one, otherwise."
ARCHIVE: 2nd Week TT 2003

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