Richard Curtis has been associated with some of the greatest and most iconic British films and TV sitcoms in British history.
A New Zealander by birth who lived in various locales due to his father’s business commitments, Curtis attended Oxford University’s Christ Church College, where he majored in English and met graduate student Rowan Atkinson. The two quickly became creative partners, leading to a hit performance at 1979’s Edinburgh Festival that brought the pair notice and an offer for the BBC-2 series “Not the Nine O’Clock News”. Written by Curtis and Atkinson and starring Atkinson alongside a cast including future director Mel Smith, this irreverent and influential sketch comedy program ran from 1979 to 1982.
In 1983, Curtis and Atkinson teamed up to write the 15th Century set comedy “The Black Adder”, starring Atkinson as an unsavory son of King Richard IV. The series would be reborn in 1986, with co-writer Ben Elton collaborating with Curtis as “Blackadder II”, starring Atkinson alongside Miranda Richardson as Queen Elizabeth I as a lord of her court, a direct descendant of the original series’ subject, and equally as slimy and scheming.
The following year, Elton and Curtis created “Black Adder the Third”, this time with Atkinson playing the butler of Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent in a French Revolution-era England. 1988’s special “Black Adder’s Christmas Carol” featured Atkinson as old Ebenezer, alongside such British luminaries as Robbie Coltrane, Miriam Margolyes and Stephen Fry as well as series veterans Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie and Miranda Richardson. In 1989, Atkinson and company completed the (to date) last installment, “Blackadder Goes Forth”. Also penned by Elton and Curtis, this chapter starred Captain Blackadder, battling on the frontlines of northern France during World War I.
While 1989 seemingly marked the end of Blackadder, the partnership of Curtis and Rowan Atkinson was far from over. In addition to a featured role in Curtis’ feature screenwriting debut, “The Tall Guy” (1989), Atkinson starred in the screenwriter’s next television undertaking, a project quite unlike anything else he had previously written. “Mr. Bean”, featuring Atkinson as a virtually mute somewhat misanthropic fool, began its run on Britain’s ITV in 1990.
As the program featured little or no dialogue in any given episode, Curtis established a new way of writing for the series. He would formulate Bean’s gestures, movements and reactions in front of a mirror and present them visually to Rowan Atkinson. A tremendous hit in England, the show ran until 1995, and aired in the USA on HBO and PBS and spawned the film “Bean/Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie” (1997). The latter, written by Curtis and directed by Mel Smith, proved a record-breaking international hit before opening to smaller returns in the USA.
Atkinson was also featured in Curtis’ 1991 British TV movie comedy “Bernard and the Genie”. Additional television projects included “The Vicar of Dibley” , a comedy created, produced and written by Curtis, starring comedienne Dawn French (co-creator of “Absolutely Fabulous” and frequent collaborator with Jennifer Saunders) as a female cleric serving a small town.
Despite his prolific and exceptional small screen successes, Curtis is perhaps best known on American shores as the screenwriter of a trilogy of similarly themed romantic comedies: “The Tall Guy”, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill”. All three films were somewhat eccentric in viewpoint and cynical in tone but ultimately sweet and optimistic in scope. “Four Weddings and a Funeral” proved a huge hit earning the screenwriter Oscar and BAFTA nominations and jump-started the Hollywood career of star Hugh Grant.
Five years later Curtis reteamed on “Notting Hill”, a tale of an unsuccessful bookshop owner in the titled London district who meets up with and is pursued by a beautiful and charming woman who happens to be terribly famous American actress Anna Scott (Julia Roberts).
Curtis next turned novelist Helen Fielding’s much-beloved bestseller Bridget Jones’ Diary into screenplay form, resulting in the equally admired 2001 film of the same name, directed by Sharon Maguire and returned as the screenwriter for the 2004 sequel “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason”.
Curtis made his directorial debut with the much acclaimed “Love Actually” (2003), another romantic comedy featuring an ensemble of Brit actors, including Grant, Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Keira Knightley and Colin Firth (as well as Laura Linney, Liam Neeson and others) in holiday themed, multistory confection that explored several different intertwining romantic predicaments.
Curtis returned as writer/director of “The Boat that Rocked”, that he recut for U.S. audiences as Pirate Radio, set in the mid-60s and exploring the misfits and music played on a radio based at sea amidst British political conservatism. Curtis talked to PAUL FISCHER in this exclusive interview.
Question: Now, when I was talking to Bill Nighy earlier this week and asked him about Pirate Radio and the film’s negative reaction by British critics, he felt that you are the victim of the sort of tall poppy syndrome. I was wondering why you think that is.
Curtis: Well, I don’t know and I don’t think about it too much. I mean, I think that on the whole, as you will see in this movie, I tend to be of a rather optimistic and happy nature and now that I’m getting older, I’m pouring it on in spades. You know, I knew I was asking for trouble with Love Actually, where there were ten love stories in one. I think a lot of critics, when they watch films, tend to have more time for the serious. Six of them sit down in the morning on a miserable day, and if the film tells them the world is wretched, that only confirms their suspicions whereas if the film tells them that everyone else is happy apart from them, it’s not so good.
Question: With Pirate Radio, was it the music, or the idea of doing something with a lot of â€˜60s music classics, that was the kind of inspiration for this story?
Curtis: Well, it was a mixture, you know? I’ve always wanted to do something about pop music, but I didn’t want to do a film where the guy starts a band, and then ends up injecting heroin into his eyeballs. And then one day I was thinking how potentially funny pirate radio was. Because if you think of – you know, the eight most famous deejays in the world, and then they’re living and working in one corridor, the idea of sort of eight megalomaniacs in a confined space struck me as being a very funny idea. So I thought, “Well, here’s a subject I want to write about, and a funny thing I’d like to write.” So, it was the magic mixture that made me think it was worth spending my time on.
Question: I mean, clearly the inspiration for this was more of these pirate radios. Like Nighy said, it seems to him to be just a great excuse to pile a lot of jokes together within this particular social milieu.
Curtis: Well, I’ve also been very interested, always in friendship, and how that operates. And in a funny I mean, obviously it’s a film about radio. It’s a film about the music which I love, but it’s also a film about every flat that you move into when you’re 20, when you move into a badly-decorated, over-crowded flat with bad food, where one person has sex with everybody, and one person’s never had sex with anybody, you know. And you all play music all day and night. So, it’s sort of about a lot of things, which is what you want to do when you write a film. You want to feel as though you’re covering lots of bases.
Question: Talk about the choices you made about the movie, and how difficult it was for you to get them – for example, is there any music that you really kicked yourself over, that you could not get the rights?
Curtis: Well, some of the songs were locked into the scripts already, so I I called a girl Eleanor just so that when she arrived we could play “Eleanor” by the Turtles. There is a really interesting sort of mysterious magic between music and celluloid. You think this is your favorite song of all time. You put it next to the best scene in the film, and they don’t work together, because, unexpectedly, the song you love is a bit melancholy, or doesn’t reach its good bit for 40 seconds, and in fact it’s only a 25-second cue. So, it’s a really interesting thing. I had a pool of about 300 songs I loved, and there were a lot of surprises, to me, with songs that worked or didn’t work.
Question: Now, when you did the re-cut of this – first of all, how reticent were you to re-cut the movie? And how much backwards and forwards was it between you and Focus, when Focus took it over?
Curtis: Very little. We made an agreement to cut the film down a bit. Just one or two reviews had said it’s a bit long and that always really puts me off a film. Even films I really want to see. The Dark Knight, Watchmen, it took me half a year to see those two films, just because in the back of my mind, I’d read that thing about being a bit long. So, I didn’t want to, as it were, bother with that, so I said, “What I’ll do is, I’ll just spend a day in the editing room, and be really bold, and take out anything which I can see could go.” And I think I immediately took out 17 minutes or something. And then we tested that version. And I said, “If, when we show it, I suddenly find the film is worse, then we’ll just have to go with the old one.” But it actually – there was more – how would you put it? More energy left in the room at the end of the movie than I remembered the last time I’d seen it in the UK. Because it was – it did bounce along even better. So I was happy to do it.
Question: What about the change of title?
Curtis: I’m kind of used to that. It comes with the territory throwing things up in the air, because, for instance, it was called Good Morning, England, in France. And I remember Notting Hill was called Coup de Foudre a Notting Hill, which is not a title I like. And the moment they said, “Well, why don’t we call it Pirate Radio,” I thought, “Well, actually, I love that. I wouldn’t have called it that in England, because Pirate Radio would be too generic. It would be like calling a movie The Post Office. But I loved having “pirate” and “radio”. Those are the two things.
Question: Now, when you made the transition from television to film, and it was Four Weddings and a Funeral, the script of that, that really put you on a whole different level – that movie cost about 4 million pounds. How surprised were you that that film struck such an inestimable chord?
Curtis: I mean, that was a total surprise. I’ve seen the little bit of paper from Polygram that said how much they predicted the movie would make in every territory. And next to United States, it says, “$0.” So it was one of those movies. You know, actually – to be honest, I thought I was writing a different kind of film. I was trying to write a little, personal autobiographical film, a bit like Gregory’s Girl, or this great American cycling movie called Breaking Away. And it turned out I’d written a romantic comedy. But that was not quite what I thought I was doing. So, it was a great pleasure. And then, of course, it was the breakout for Hugh as well, which helped us hugely.
Question: Has there always been a romantic in you?
Curtis: Yeah, is the truth. I’ve always been in love much too much. It’s quite interesting, when we were doing Love Actually, we were auditioning for the little boy’s part. And I would say to all the ten-year-olds who came in, you know, “Have you ever been in love?” And they’d go, “No. What – no!” Whereas I was so in love at four, and seven, and ten. So, my life had always been totally haunted, crippled, and then laminated by love. So, I think it has been a huge bit of my life.
Question: You’re responsible for some of the most iconic television shows in British television. Have you ever been interested in revisiting any of those shows theatrically such as Black Adder?
Curtis: No, not really. I mean, I think the reason Black Adder worked out is because we were all very argumentative. We argued about every line. We tried to make every line funnier. I think we’re all too old. It would be a sort of infamous mass slaughter if we started to work together again. I don’t think so.
Question: What would you like to do next? I mean, I know you’ve written a script that Susanne Bier is directing.
Curtis: Oh, yeah. Do you know, when I finish one film, I tend to start about three others, because I work so slowly, that I’ve got a bunch of ideas, and then I have a go, and I write the first 30 to 40 pages. So, I’m at that stage at the moment. I’m trying something that’s an adaptation of a book, and another film more like the other ones I’ve written before as well as another film that’s a bit more like The Girl in the CafÃ©. I don’t know if you ever saw that.
Question: Oh I love The Girl in the CafÃ©.
Curtis: I’m delighted. Well, there may be another one of those. The Boy in the CafÃ© will be coming your way soon.
Question: How do you have time and are you still heavily-involved in all your various social causes?
Curtis: Well, I think one of the reasons that I like to do movies I’m so passionate about, like this one, is because I don’t have as much time to do my writing as I used to, because I’m spending a bit more time on charities and other things.
Question: And are you finding the world a more optimistic place?
Curtis: I don’t know. It comes and goes, doesn’t it? Great triumphs in the area of some health things, you know? Very good stuff on malaria, very good stuff on polio. So, there are good things, and then there are bad things. I mean, I think the climate change issue is becoming huge.
Question: Do you think that will be your prime minister’s legacy, his passionate fight?
Curtis: I think that is one of the great things that he’s done and certainly his debt relief has worked, which Gordon Brown did in 2005. So one of the legacies is that the Conservative Party, if they take over, they’re going to keep the levels of aid up. But I think we’ve got to go on thinking. You’ve got to go on with your work. I think it’s a time for – particularly for Africa, to listen to African voices, and try and get growth there, instead of trying to impose aid from us.
Question: Finally, were you involved in the Blu-Ray of Love Actually at all?
Curtis: I don’t know. I’m worried now that I should have been doing a new commentary. Even though, actually, the commentary on the DVD when Hugh was being rude about Colin Firth from beginning to end is one of my favorite things about Love Actually, if you haven’t ever heard that. He keeps going on about Colin Firth’s turkey neck. He says Colin – if you notice, Colin Firth always wears polo necks now in movies. [LAUGHTER]