The favourite accusation against Richard Curtis movies is that he’s a Little Englander: setting on celluloid a nation in which the upper middle-classes, after a series of comic misunderstandings, finally manage to blurt ”I love you” on a snowy Christmas Eve while large numbers of Royal Shakespeare Company stalwarts drink mulled wine in the background.
The writer couldn’t sue over that stereotype of his plots, but the insult is inaccurate. Little Englanders lock the doors and ignore abroad. Curtis’s trick in his films has been to make the parochial global. He’s a Big Englander: someone who, like Richard Branson, gambled that his personal values might be more widely shared.
The money and status Curtis has achieved in cinema — with Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and now Love Actually — are unlikely for any Englishman in an American business, but even more so for an English writer. Cinema is a director’s and actor’s medium and, while Curtis has now gone behind the camera with Love Actually, his directing debut was made possible by the power he gained through his scripts.
When his least-known movie, The Tall Guy, was re-released on DVD earlier this year, it was tagged with the ad-line: from the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, whereas usually the designers of DVD sleeves are asked to invent a specially tiny new type-size for the name of the writer.
Apart from his weakness for a Christmas-card England, the other main ammunition of Curtis detractors is a fondness for giving his characters astonishing reversals of fortune. But, in this, he could enter the defence of autobiography. What’s astonishing about the Richard Curtis story is that, as recently as 1993, he was regarded as a minor English comedy writer. His most prestigious credit was the historical TV sitcom Blackadder but, even there, the first series, which he scripted alone, was widely considered inferior to the subsequent three, on which Ben Elton became co-dramatist.
Curtis’s greatest cachet came as a sort of Bob Geldof of comedy: creator of the BBC gags-for-famine telethon Comic Relief. At that stage, his most notable work as a solo writer had been Not the Nine O’Clock News. Curtis came to the project as Rowan Atkinson’s personal script man, contributed more sketches than anyone else, as well as the lyrics for the spoof songs, and became known for making unlikely material funny. Curtis also scripted Atkinson’s Mr Bean TV series and the Bean movie. He worked on Atkinson’s later stage shows: a success in London but a flop on Broadway. But that theatrical failure led to Curtis’s movie career.
An Atkinson wedding sketch was the sperm or egg of the Four Weddings script. And The Tall Guy was produced by Working Title, now responsible for three of the most profitable British movies ever made. The Tall Guy wasn’t one of them, but it shows the outlines of the future Curtis brand. There’s Emma Thompson road-testing the ironic lilt that would become her own fortune; there’s The Wacky But Wise Flat Mate; there are the eccentric obscenities (”What in the name of arse is going on?”) and the willingness to sacrifice realism to a gag.
What disappeared was a strand of savage contemporary satire. One reading of the subsequent romantic blockbusters is that Curtis, having mercilessly mocked Andrew Lloyd Webber in The Tall Guy, learned from him to sing along with public taste rather than in counterpoint to it.
Certainly there seems to have been a period of uncertainty. There was a long gap until Four Weddings, which initially looked like a minor middle-class romance — but it may simply have been due to revision.
It has often been said that the historical difference in the overall quality of British films and American movies is due to the fact that United States scripts are rewritten while United Kingdom ones are merely written. Curtis has managed to combine the two systems: sitting alone, he spends days on a line, years on a draft. Another unusual element in Curtis’s working practices is that he likes to employ a close female friend as personal script doctor. Bestselling novelist Helen Fielding is one; novelist Emma Freud, Curtis’s partner and now expecting their fourth child, is another.
An early reviewer described Four Weddings and a Funeral as a hard film to dislike, but one that isn’t remotely true. If you wanted to raise a lynch-mob of serious movie critics, you would only have to point to the emetic sentimentality of giving the hero a brother who can only communicate in sign language. Then there’s the astonishing convenience of the plot twists that make the leading lady first unavailable to the hero and then available again moments later through one of the rapidest marriages and quickest divorces in the history of human relationships.
Yet, no matter how cynically you go in, you are forced to admit that this was one of those mysterious moments when the gods of script-writing decide to smile on someone hunched over a typewriter.
Most English scriptwriters given a hit on the level of Four Weddings would disappear to Hollywood and crank out scripts of films that might join the long list of possible projects for Nicole or Russell or Jack. Curtis’s reaction to his good fortune, though, was characteristically English. Four Weddings earned him a long holiday he spent writing for Comic Relief, a British sitcom, and progressing slowly toward another movie.
This, by 1999, was Notting Hill. Curtis’s Big Englander complex was shown by his decision to set this film in the streets outside his west London home and office.
After Notting Hill Curtis did some polishing of a script of his old friend Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, then tackled his directorial debut, Love Actually.
This portmanteau romance involves nine love stories and includes Hugh Grant as a bachelor prime minister. Intriguingly, for the first time since The Tall Guy, there is some satire in the plot strand featuring Bill Nighy as a raddled rock star aiming for a Christmas hit. Yet the satire comes with a Lloyd Webber twist — Nighy’s spin-off single is now among the favourites to top the actual yuletide charts.
Love Actually received a very rude review in The New York Times and cold notices in other US publications. This may be due to a speech in which prime minister Grant urges Britain to stand up for itself against the States, but the weaknesses come from what has always been, though admittedly for movie critics rather than audiences, the Richard Curtis Problem: his curious attitude to reality.
As with many artistic characteristics, this may have its roots in childhood. The son of a Unilever executive, he grew up in New Zealand, Manila and Stockholm, among other places dictated by dad’s postings. The England of Curtis films is recognisably an expat fantasy.
More dangerously, Curtis films also move between reality and convenience in the area of psychology. Notting Hill, for example, contains one of the bleakest and most realistic depictions of celebrity; yet the plot later requires Julia Roberts to behave at a press conference as no privacy-obsessed Hollywood diva ever would.
The world of Love Actually is similarly inconsistent. It begins with an explicit reference to 9/11, but the prime minister is able to dash around London with a single bobby, and the visiting American president’s lack of security panic looks risible — especially in the light of President George W Bush’s present visit to London, which has brought it to a standstill. Curtis seems to be moving between pre- and post-9/11 moods purely as it suits him.
Love Actually, however, provides evidence for the defence as well as the prosecution. Curtis is often accused of cosiness and sentimentality, but his softness takes a complicated shape. Of the movies he has written, only Bean can legally be seen by children.
Under all the snow and romance, there is a darkness in Curtis’s work that keeps trying to peep through. The dumping of ”Duckface” at the altar in Four Weddings is a scene of such remarkable cruelty that only the tactical use of the cute mute brother can hold the film within its chosen genre of romantic comedy.
There is also something grown-up in the structure of the films. Curtis has little obviously in common with Quentin Tarantino, but these two filmmakers can be seen as the great structuralists of modern cinema. Four Weddings and Pulp Fiction break movie narrative down into chapters and apparently unlinked sections: a literary parallel taken even further in Love Actually.
Curtis has hinted that he is through with floppy-haired Englishmen finding commitment at the 11th hour. His next film, he has said, may be about ”a social issue”. An entirely serious Curtis is hard to imagine, but it seems clear that one of the most unlikely and lucrative strains of work in cinema — a rare example of lightning striking the British film industry — is coming to an end. The latest instalment leaves you feeling that, in the end, love actually isn’t all that cinema is about. — Ã‚