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By Martin Keady · February 27, 2020
It’s the rare screenwriter who gets top billing, such that it is their name that effectively sells (and defines) a film rather than that of the director or the lead actor. In the entire history of cinema, there have perhaps only ever been a handful of scenarists who have achieved that distinction, such as Ben Hecht, the Epstein Brothers or Joe Eszterhas. In the last quarter of a century, there are perhaps only two screenwriters who have earned the accolade: Charlie Kaufman, for his almost indefinable melanges of comedy and drama (in particular, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)); and the infinitely more orthodox and therefore more commercially successful Richard Curtis, for his “rom-coms”. In fact, for a time in the 1990s and early 21st century, it is arguable that the “Richard Curtis rom-com” was the most commercially successful movie genre (or at least sub-genre) in the world.
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For such an apparently quintessentially English writer, it is surprising that Curtis was not born in England at all, but in New Zealand. As with another great English writer, Tom Stoppard, there is also a connection with Mitteleuropa, specifically Czechoslovakia, although Stoppard was actually born in Czechoslovakia whereas Curtis was the son of a Czech émigré. Curtis’s father was an executive at the multinational Unilever, and so, from his birth in 1956, he experienced something of an itinerant childhood, with spells in countries as diverse as Sweden and the Philippines, before his family finally settled in England in 1967. That was when Curtis was 11 and ready to begin secondary school, which, in true English style, meant boarding schools, first in Berkshire and then in Cheshire.
Finally, the clearly precocious Curtis won a scholarship to Harrow, one of the oldest and most prestigious of all English public (i.e. very private and very expensive) schools in all of England. There, in an early example of the altruism that would become his most important passion after writing (in recent years it has arguably become even more important than writing, more of which later), he used his status as head boy to abolish the appalling practice of “fagging”, whereby younger boys effectively acted as the personal servants of older boys.
All of this peripatetic but rich childhood experience subsequently fed into Curtis’s writing. However, in practical terms the most important stage in his development as a writer was his time at Oxford University, where he not only achieved a First Class degree in English literature but immersed himself in university comedy and drama, writing and even performing for various groups and revues, during which time he met the man who would become something of his muse and the star of some of his biggest comedy successes in television and film, Rowan Atkinson.
Curtis and Atkinson struck up both a friendship and a working relationship, which took them on the time-honored route of young English writers and performers (especially those gifted and fortunate enough to attend Oxbridge). First, they went to the Edinburgh Fringe, then to BBC radio, and finally to BBC television, where Atkinson became one of the stars of the satirical show, Not the Nine O’Clock News (1979-82), and Curtis one of its main writers. In addition to sketches and jokes, Curtis wrote or co-wrote many of the show’s songs, including deft parodies of the then ubiquitous Bee Gees.
The Curtis-Atkinson partnership continued with Blackadder (1983-89), a wondrously funny romp through nearly a thousand years of British history in which the eponymous hero (and his ancestors) spoof and lampoon a succession of memorable periods (including some supposed “golden ages”) in British history: the War of the Roses (in which the original Blackadder is a fool with a cunning servant, a set-up that would be reversed for the next three series); the reign of Elizabeth I; Georgian England; and finally World War One. Curtis actually wrote the first series with Atkinson, but then enlisted an even more gifted co-writer, a young Ben Elton (who had already co-written a brilliant sitcom about students, The Young Ones), for the next three.
Blackadder was a gigantic commercial and critical success in the 1980s when it was first released (I still remember the reverential recitation of lines or sketches in the school playground), and continues to be even now, nearly 40 years later, as it is endlessly replayed (or “syndicated”) on other channels. It established Curtis as a creator of great television comedy, and indeed it would have been perfectly possible to have written a parallel piece about him as one of Britain’s most successful television writers, as he also co-created with Atkinson the moronic Mr. Bean (1990-95) and with the comedienne Dawn French the milder and more mainstream The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007), about the misadventures of one of the first female vicars in the Church of England.
However, for all his immense achievements on the “small screen”, by the end of the 1980s Curtis was ready to make the transition to cinema, beginning with his script for The Tall Guy (1989). In retrospect, it is fascinating to see how many of what would become the classic Curtis-ian elements of cinematic comedy were present right from the start. First, there is the classic “fish out of water” hero (perhaps because he was so often a fish out of water during his own childhood, as he moved around the world, Curtis has always written such out-of-place characters well). That is in the titular tall man, Dexter King (played by Jeff Goldblum), an American actor who dreams of playing Shakespeare but is instead the straightest of straight men to Rowan Atkinson’s “Ron Anderson” (one wonders how long Curtis took to come up with that name) in a comedy revue. Next, there is the “love interest”, a thoroughly modern young woman (especially in her sexual frankness), in the form of Kate, a nurse (played by Emma Thompson). And finally, there is the “last act dash”, in which the romantic hero, having realized the numerous errors of his ways (not least losing Kate after a stupid affair), tries to beat the clock by abandoning his lead role in a musical version of The Elephant Man to declare his undying adoration for Kate at her hospital.
Those same essential elements, held together by an apparently unceasing stream of jokes and one-liners (some quite crude, others rather sophisticated), would be used by Curtis in his hugely successful romantic comedies of the 1990s and early noughties, beginning with Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).
In 2019, Four Weddings celebrated its 25th anniversary, which was celebrated by reuniting the original cast for a short “sequel” for the charity that Curtis co-founded, Comic Relief (again, more on that later), in which the two leads finally married. It was a testament to the commercial success and cultural clout of Four Weddings, which has become a staple of both cinema and television (on repeat) and is undoubtedly one of the finest romantic comedies of the last quarter of a century.
Having said that, Four Weddings is far from perfect. For a start, there is the complete absence of an occupation (or even a job) among its main characters, led by Hugh Grant’s Charles (in the role that would make him a star), who seem to spend all their time attending weddings (or “wedding-ing”, as it is sometimes referred to by the English upper classes). Secondly, there is the frankly utterly unrealistic situation whereby Charles somehow ignores the irresistible charms of Kristin Scott-Thomas’s Fiona (as if any heterosexual man could) and instead is captivated by an American visitor to England, Carrie, especially as Carrie was played by Andie MacDowell, whose wooden performance (especially at the film’s climax) proves that she was always more of a model than an actress.
Nevertheless, Four Weddings has undeniable charms: Grant’s sublime comic turn as the ultimate bumbling Englishman; a genuine ensemble feel, with some of Britain’s finest character actors (including Simon Cowell and the tragically deceased Charlotte Coleman) providing plenty of comic back-up; and above all the “Funeral” (the part of the film that is always forgotten in any abbreviation of its full title to “Four Weddings”). With that, Curtis proved that he was not just a great comic writer but was also capable of writing great drama, even if he was always the first to acknowledge how much of its power was down to the “borrowed grandeur” of W.H. Auden’s incomparable Funeral Blues.
While still writing The Vicar of Dibley and the various movie incarnations of Mr. Bean (for a time in the 1990s, Curtis surely replaced James Brown as “the hardest working man in showbiz”), Curtis subtly altered his “rom-com” format, which he had first experimented with in The Tall Guy before perfecting in Four Weddings, for Notting Hill (1999). In Notting Hill, the fish out of water is Will (played by Hugh Grant), a truly book-ish bookshop owner who is catapulted into the unreal world of Hollywood when he falls in love with the world’s biggest movie star, Anna Scott (played by Julia Roberts). Once again, Curtis presented an archetypically English (and exclusively white) world of bookshop-owners and old school chums that is largely at odds with the reality of modern Britain, although he could, of course, counter that by saying that it is precisely those people who are apparently running “Brexit Britain”.
In Notting Hill, Curtis again achieved what had been thought almost impossible, namely to create the kind of genuine “obstacles” between two lovers (in this case, Anna’s incredible fame, which makes her desired by every man on the planet, including her co-stars) that many thought had ceased to exist with the great liberation of Western societies from the 1960s onwards. And above all, it was both funny and occasionally moving, not least in the memorable phrase that Charles uses to describes his growing infatuation with Anna, “It’s as if I’ve taken love heroin, and now I can’t ever have it again”, which proved that Curtis was not completely immune to the realities of late 20th century urban life.
The third of Curtis’s romantic comedies, which arguably did more to reanimate the genre than anyone since Howard Hawks in the 1930s and ‘40s, was Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). On Bridget, the screen adaptation of Helen Fielding’s best-selling account of the mores (and occasionally moronic behavior) of a very funny young Englishwoman, Curtis actually worked alongside two co-writers (Fielding herself and Andrew Davies, the celebrated adapter of so much TV period drama), unlike on Four Weddings and Notting Hill, which he had written alone. Nevertheless, the result was another critical and commercial triumph, as Renée Zellweger gave perhaps the greatest ever performance by an American of an English person (she is the anti-Dick Van Dyke, as it were) and Curtis, Fielding and Davies skillfully maneuvered her through a succession of bad jobs and worse boyfriends, before she finally finds that most elusive of Holy Grails, true love.
However, it must be said that Bridget Jones’s Diary arguably marked Curtis’s peak as a screenwriter. Since then, he has moved away from the strict confines of “rom-com” and experimented (with varying degrees of success) with other genres, from dramas, such as The Boat That Rocked (2009), the story of a 1960s pirate radio station that he directed himself, to war movies, with War Horse (2011), an adaptation of the National Theatre production of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book that he co-wrote with Lee Hall), to musicals, with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018).
Perhaps the rot (or at least relative rot) set in with the last “straight” (but not great) romantic comedy that Curtis wrote, Love Actually (2003), which marked his directorial debut. Love Actually is one of the most tonally odd films ever made, because it combines ludicrous fantasy (in particular the almost unwatchable scenes in which a British nerd who becomes the female equivalent of catnip when he moves to America), to remarkably insightful and beautifully written drama (notably the storyline in which Emma Thompson learns that her husband has betrayed her, in an apparently deliberate echo of her appearance in Curtis’s first film, The Tall Guy).
Curtis continues to write – prodigiously. Indeed, yet another film that he has written is in post-production. However, the storyline of Yesterday, in which a musician is apparently the only person alive to remember the songs of the Beatles following a “worldwide blackout”, makes even the fantasy sequences of Love Actually seem plausible.
It is arguable now that Curtis’s greatest passion is no longer writing at all but the charity that he co-founded with the comedian (and now Shakespearean actor) Lenny Henry in 1985, Comic Relief. Initially, it was a lower-key response than Live Aid to the famine in Ethiopia, but in the decades since it has almost certainly raised far more money for victims of famine and other disasters than Live Aid ever did. And if, as the Four Weddings “sequel” suggested, the material that Curtis writes for it is not a patch on his greatest comic creations – particularly Blackadder and his trio of romantic comedies – then Curtis could easily say that the same is true of almost all other comic writing.
Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/
Richard Curtis photo credit: Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press
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