About Richard Curtis: The Man, The Movies, The Magic!

An appreciation by James Murphy

This month sees the release of ‘About Time’ in the USA, having won a strong critical reception over here. If you missed the UK run: shame on you. It’s brilliant! Trust me (I had an inside track on making the film, having advised on the casting process). It was your patriotic duty to watch it! Book a flight to the USA now.

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Failing that, get all your American friends to boost its box office. And then download it in due course; buy it on DVD /Blu-Ray etc. Meantime, join me in an appreciation of the film’s writer/director, Richard Curtis. His work helped to redefine our social and political landscape.

Let’s start with ‘Black-Adder’, which satisfied history buffs, whilst remaining accessible to all. Elizabeth I became a spoiled and sexy tyrant; capable of ‘executing you’ if you didn’t laugh at her jokes (a tour de force from Miranda Richardson). Then there was Hugh ‘House’ Laurie as Prince George: a master class in comic timing, perfectly matching Curtis’ customary word-play.

But it was 1989’s ‘Black Adder Goes Forth’ that left the lasting legacy beyond the laughter. Whilst the series was a laugh a second (a single ‘bahhh’ from Stephen Fry’s Melchett or ‘Wah-hey!’ from Rick Mayall’s Flashheart will have you rolling on the floor); it was the pervasive emphases on the horrors of war and their impact on the average soldier that really defined the product.

It was a delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, culminating in a sea of red poppies in the final episode, as our heroes finally go ‘over the top’ to their deaths. That was a brilliant collaboration between Curtis and co-writer, Ben Elton; avoiding mawkishness or triviality, whilst conveying the human costs in warfare. And it is therefore still used as a teaching tool today.

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1994 gave us ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’; released at a time of dramatic change in British politics. Tony Blair was anointed as both Labour leader and Prime Minister in waiting. It’s an open secret that Mr. Blair liked ‘Four Weddings..’ and its leading man’s style. Hugh Grant played Charles, the eternal Bachelor at the heart of the (then) biggest British box office hit of all time.

And while Blair was crowned Labour leader, so Grant was confirmed as our next great hope for a home-grown Hollywood star. It was a synergised succession, with inevitable similarity in the associated mannerisms. There were the articulate one -liners and sound bites, juxtaposed with nervous diffidence, entirely at odds with their powerful ambitions. The trick worked; Blair secured ten years as Prime Minister and Grant remains a bona fide film star.

New Labour might have disappointed in the final analysis (epic investments; minimal returns) but the Blair ethos was at least, prima facie, ‘nice’. International aid and pastoral care for the vulnerable on the home front became talking points. The nation embraced greater abilities to consider our common humanity.

And whilst it might be fashionable to criticise the current coalition’s age of austerity, David Cameron has ring fenced international aid and championed the case for gay marriage, noting in his 2010 victory speech that the New Labour era had left us a more ‘tolerant’ nation. Mr. Blair and Cameron also rushed to help with the ‘Comic Relief’ effort. An incredible charity, the bi-annual red nose day has raised £700 million + for good causes, since its foundation in 1985, led by Mr. Richard Curtis.

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Fast forward (or rewind: time travel can be tricky as ‘About Time’ will show you) to 1999 and ‘Notting Hill’. Beneath the rom-com fluff (lovely though it is; it is not a substantial work) you get a snapshot of the distress that any modern starlet faces.

Yes, it’s easy to be cynical about their salaries and luxuries, but whilst press freedoms must be preserved, one cannot simply ignore the horrors that many a leading lady faces (Keira, Sienna et al: all stalked by parasitic paparazzi) and Julia Roberts’ Anna Scott character is a timely reminder of that.

The hero in ‘Notting Hill’ is played by Hugh Grant (him again), now a champion in the campaign against press intrusion. You may disagree with his stance but can surely applaud his devotion. One cannot help feeling that this film was a dress rehearsal for his quest. It’s worth a watch for the laughs alone, but also for its relevance post Leveson enquiry.

We conclude with ‘Love Actually’. Hugh Grant appears again (alas, for the last time to date: nobody delivers a Curtis quip quite as well and the box office results speak volumes about the alliance’s value) and this time as a Prime Minister. As identified in my last piece (‘Movies that matter’), David Cameron was right to channel one of Grant’s speeches from the film when confronting President Putin of Russia over the Syrian crisis, as the words summarise the best of British. It’s a trick that Boris Johnson (the next PM?) repeated on a trade mission to China recently, listing off our cultural treasures.

Love Actually’ is a visual treat, thanks largely to some editing by Emma Freud (the airport scenes). I’ve had the privilege of working with Emma, and she enriches social media via her true sense of community. Emma’s contributions helped define the film as an ensemble piece, infectious with optimism for a Britain united in good will. It’s just perfect viewing, with Christmas around the corner (again!).

That sense of good will is at the core of the Curtis canon. Whilst it is a great shame that he has announced his intention to retire from directing, I trust he will continue to inspire the nation by writing his flagship films. To use perhaps his favourite word, they are all in some way, ‘excellent’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzVjD1aUNK8

‘About Time’ is released in the USA this month.

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