Richard Curtis has made millions, and raised millions, by making us laugh. His credits roll on and on, from Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley, to Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually and, most recently, The Boat that Rocked. Curtis has won a BAFTA, an Emmy, and has been nominated for an Oscar. He founded Comic Relief. It is fair to say that he is no underachiever, and whilst he may not be the darling of the British film industry (critics tend to sneer at his optimism, and ‘improbable’ films) even the most cynical and cold-hearted of us will probably have spent a few hours on the sofa chortling at something that Curtis has put his hand to.
Curtis was born in New Zealand but has lived in England since he was eleven, and attended Christ Church, Oxford to study English. I ask him about his student days, and how he would best sum them up. ‘I started off working hard in the first term, and then realized that didn’t seem to be strictly necessary.’ A typical Oxford student then? ‘I had a very good time, just with friends enjoying myself. I made most of my best friends for life.’ These friends include Rowan Atkinson, who Curtis has had a flourishing work relationship as well as friendship with ever since.
It is, in fact, Atkinson that we have to thank for Curtis turning his hand to writing, who arrived at Oxford with thespian dreams that he found quickly shattered. ‘I had been, as far as I could tell, the star actor at school and so I arrived expecting to be an actor – or, at least, that’s what I wanted to do. And I instantly discovered I couldn’t get cast as anything other than [the clown]. All the good parts went to dark-haired guys with pointy chins.’ So, Curtis began writing instead. ‘I realized that the only way I could act on stage was to write stuff for myself- and that’s how I fell into writing. I would have been a writer/performer, probably, but then I met Rowan who was just so blazingly brilliant that it was pointless competing.’
‘All the good parts went to dark-haired guys with pointy chins.’
And the rest of his time here? ‘I fell in love, and that dominated my second year; and then I got heartbroken and that dominated the next year, entirely. I did a lot of work in the end, simply so I could hide from my heartbreak.’ It sounds almost like the plot of one of his films, the days that Curtis says were the days of ‘friendship, laughter, heartbreak… and some work.’ What would he do differently is he could? ‘That is such a complicated question, because maybe if I hadn’t gone out with that particular girl then I would have been happier but, on the other hand, I don’t think I would have written all the films that I then wrote to, as it were, put life right’.
It is something we see in Curtis’ early films, labelled quite dismissively as “rom-coms”- a term with all its implications of light-hearted, predictability. But Curtis’ films, if you look deeper, have a slightly darker edge, particularly Four Weddings and a Funeral which actually started off life as the much more cheerily titled Four Weddings and a Honeymoon. Curtis wrote these films ‘because of getting my heart broken at Oxford. I had at least fifteen years of making love affairs turn out right, to try and make up for what happened outside Magdalen College. I saw Five Hundred Days of Summer a few weeks ago, and that is absolutely the type of the film I wished I’d written at twenty six, the perfect description of what happened to me at Oxford… that girl you couldn’t get to love you quite enough.’
The girl in question is, reportedly, Ann Jenkins who is said to have left Curtis for Bernard Jenkins, now MP for North Essex. This is also reportedly to explain why much of Curtis’ work contains a character called Bernard – mostly bumbling or ridiculous, like the Bernard of Four Weddings whose loud sex noises with new wife Lydia Hugh Grant is forced to endure.
The “rom-com” label is perhaps one that Curtis will never shake off, although he maintains it was never his intention. ‘Even though people think [my films] are ‘all the same’, when I wrote Four Weddings I didn’t know what a “rom-com” was- it wasn’t like it is now, a form which every young actor has done three of. I thought I was writing an idiosyncratic, autobiographical film about a group of friends, with a bit of love in it… but it transpired it was a textbook romantic film. Then I did write a textbook romantic film with Notting Hill, but then it was because I wanted to; I’d always wanted to turn up at a friend’s house with Madonna. Then Love Actually was a kind of joke with myself, trying to write ten of them at once. Tonally, I realise, it’s a bit uneven, some of the stories don’t exist in the same world, but I think that was inherent in what I was doing, and I don’t think I could have changed it.’
Much to the disappointment of women all round the world, Curtis doesn’t think he’ll return to his much loved film formula. The Girl in the Café, a film Curtis did for HBO, shows him letting go and moving towards more important issues, namely what was at the time the impending G8 summit. ‘I think you should only write about what you’re interested in, and the truth of the matter is that by the time I was writing Love Actually, I was starting to lose interest in boy meets girl for the first time and falls in love – a film about that, now, I would not be terribly interested in.’ The Boat that Rocked, Curtis’s latest film, is about friendship and the love, not of a pretty but slightly suspect American or a rogue film star, but of pop music – a long term love of Richard Curtis. ‘It’s the second most important thing in my life, it cheers me up at the beginning of every single day.’
So what will he write? The creator of The Vicar of Dibley and the much loved Blackadder, Curtis hopes that ‘one day I’ll do one more funny TV show. After I finish a film I normally start three of four different things, and then see which one means the most to me, at the movement I’m in the middle of that phase’.
But there is more to Curtis than funny films, and work is not the only thing that means a lot to him. Curtis was a founder of both Comic Relief and Make Poverty History. He helped Bob Geldof to organise Live 8 in 2005. ‘I’m still heavily involved in the Red Nose Day stuff, and I’m extremely interested in how the Make Poverty History campaign will play out over the next ten years – there are big, serious things there and there is real progress on those fronts, the battle against polio and malaria particularly. Comic Relief has spent its money unbelievably well, but clearly there are huge amounts to do – that just makes me more determined’.
It is the sign of a genuinely nice guy, that Curtis, despite being romantic comedy royalty, still makes a huge amount of time for his charitable efforts, and still retains his optimism that a real difference can be made. ‘I tend to think that life is full of good things and bad things, and the good things don’t necessarily cancel out the bad things, but neither do the bad cancel out the good. I’m getting more bullish about believing that it’s good to be optimistic.’
Whether his films are to your taste or not, whether you watch Comic Relief cynically or with the belief that it really does good, Curtis proves that a little happiness and light never hurt anyone.