On Boxing Day BBC Two will screen When Harvey Met Bob, a new 90-minute drama celebrating the story of how in 1985 Bob Geldof, together with impresario Harvey Goldsmith, brought together the biggest names in music for the Live Aid concerts in aid of those starving in Eritrea.
In today’s world of rolling news it’s hard to imagine or put into context the tremendous power that Michael Buerk’s BBC report from from the province had on the nation.
However, it was those shocking and desperate pictures of the extensive famine that moved a young musician to action and led to the recording of the now iconic Band Aid record and the biggest global entertainment event – the legendary Live Aid concert.
Now, 25 years on, Writer Joe Dunlop and executive producers Kate Triggs and Robert Cooper, of Great Meadow Productions, reveal what prompted them to tell the story behind that legendary gig.
“Initially, I wrote the play Remember Live Aid for radio back in 1995 to commemorate the 10th anniversary,” recalls Joe. “The play was based on recollections from people who were there, plus press cuttings, TV and radio coverage from the time.”
One of the listeners to that radio play was the then Head of Drama for BBC Northern Ireland, Robert Cooper, who immediately saw the potential for a television version and commissioned a script.
The project’s gestation period was slightly longer than planned but, 15 years later, Robert and Great Meadow Productions were commissioned by BBC and RTÉ to make the film to tie in with the 25th anniversary of Live Aid.
Joe used as much research as he could from his original play for the dramatisation. “Harvey and Bob are like chalk and cheese,” reveals Joe, “So sparks were bound to fly between them when they took on this joint venture of putting on the greatest rock and pop event ever in just 10 weeks.
“I wanted to write their story as a tribute to them, two young guys doing something amazing and selfless while rowing and getting on each other’s nerves.”
But Joe thought the real challenge would be when he met the men behind all of his research.
“Meeting the real Bob and the real Harvey was a very unusual experience,” explains Joe. “I had made these characters say what I wanted them to say and I felt I knew how they would react to any given situation. But when I finally came face to face with them, they were a little different.
“For example, Harvey told me he is allergic to dog hair but in the script Harvey owns a dog called Elton. I begged him to let me keep the dog and he kindly agreed. And Bob was very helpful; he passed on lots of pointers and stories which I was able to incorporate into the final script.”
The filming took place in Ireland over a very intense 16 days. “We shot the film in Dublin,” explains Robert. “So one of the main challenges was making it look like Soho, White City and Wembley Stadium in 1985!
“Fortunately we had the most ‘can do’ designer in Ireland working for us, Fiona Daly, together with the most talented Director of Photography, Owen McPolin, who both took on the monumental task of remounting a fair part of the Live Aid concert with a confidence and humour that was deeply reassuring!
“Neither actor met their real-life counterparts but the director, Nick Renton, was careful to get the actors to create funny and moving screen performances, not impersonations.”
So with two larger-than-life characters at the heart of the drama, how difficult was it to find the actors to fill their shoes?
“We’d always wanted to work with Ian Hart,” explains Robert. “Ian shares a particular quality with Harvey Goldsmith; when there’s a room full of people, you always look at him and wonder what he’s thinking.
“And we had seen Domnhall at the 1999 Irish Film and TV Awards in Dublin, when he accepted the Best Actor award on behalf of his father [actor Brendan Gleeson],” continues Kate. “He was the funniest turn all evening and he was only 17! We’ve always wanted to work with him since then so this was the perfect opportunity.”
The characters themselves have a fiery relationship, full of passion for the cause they are working towards but with frustration at each other and Joe recalls that these were his favourite scenes to write.
“Harvey’s mission was to get this show on the road without telling lies while Bob’s fight was to raise as much money as he could to help the starving, no matter what it took,” says Joe. “It was more than a charity gig to him. He had to charter ships, buy trucks. It was hellish what he went through but that makes good drama.”
For the entire production team the main aim of the film was clear – to make it a thrilling and tension-filled story that’s entertaining but also moving.
“When Harvey Met Bob might inspire young people to try to do the seemingly impossible, to dare to dream,” explains Joe.
“All that bickering reminds me of the film The Odd Couple,” says Kate. “But the final few scenes are enormously moving. It had been such an uphill, almost impossible struggle for both of them and yet they’d done it. It’s hard not to be moved.”
But Joe does have one regret. “I wish we had made this film a few years ago when we could have shot scenes in front of the old Wembley with its iconic towers. Now, of course, they are no more.”
However, the Band Aid Trust granted Great Meadow Productions the right to use footage from the real concert which, according to Kate, “makes a massive difference to the film in helping to capture the magic of that day.”
As for the day itself, Joe has some very vivid memories: “I remember my kids, who were 4 and 9 years old at the time, taking my credit card and phoning in donations several times that day.
“And I remember Bob swearing on live TV; Paul McCartney’s sound problems; Queen; Elton John – it was quite a show. I live in Wembley so I could actually hear the gig in my garden.”
However, it is the enduring impact of Live Aid that has made Kate and Robert so passionate about this project.
“Everybody involved in the film was captivated by the story of this amazing achievement and the warmth and humour with which it is told,” explains Kate. “It this distance it is harder to recall the impact of the clear and measured passion of a BBC journalist – Michael Buerk – who stumbled into a field of dying people in Africa and brought the reality of that crashing into every front room in the land and immediately to our attention.”
“This really was the beginnings of the media becoming a means of global communication. This is what led to Live Aid which is why it truly was the first live global event,” continues Robert.
“That connection was used to do something it had never been used for before. It allowed millions of people to come together to send one simple, strong message: that, in the latter half of the 20th century, it was both wrong and unnecessary for anyone to die of starvation.”
BBC Two, Boxing Day from 9.15pm
Twitter users – follow @seenituk for more comment, news and observations.