“I really do believe that there is a tremendous amount of optimism, goodness and love in the world,” Richard Curtis told the New Humanist magazine a few years ago, “and that it is under-represented. The dark side is always dominant.”
Well, Curtis — writer, director and all-round godfather of what passes for the British film industry — has certainly shown us a bit of his own dark side recently, and in quite spectacular fashion. No Pressure, his short film for the environmentalist group 10:10, featured schoolchildren, office workers and the footballer David Ginola being blown to bloody pieces for showing less than rampant enthusiasm for “helping the environment”. It has proved to be another PR disaster in a series of disasters that have effectively stalled the environmentalist movement in the past year. The film was speedily taken off the 10:10 website, sponsors withdrew and cinema slots were cancelled. No Pressure was terribly revealing: it confirmed environmental sceptics’ suspicions that the movement was rife with misanthropy, and to the general viewer, straining perhaps to see the funny side, it was way too preachy.
In both cases, it was certainly not what was expected of the man behind such popular cinematic lovefests as Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, not to mention TV’s Comic Relief and the Make Poverty History campaign. One of the main banner-carriers for every political and cultural orthodoxy going, Curtis is absolutely a product of his time. He is basically a visual consultant to the modern elite. Nobody seriously suggests that he wants to blow little kids up but, along with what was a massive misjudgment of what constitutes humour in such a context, there is present an overwhelming sense of smugness, superiority and politically-correct self-righteousness.
In No Pressure, the “good” kids are represented in particular by a prissy little girl called Jemima and an earnest black boy. The recalcitrant ones are fat and slobby (and one of them is called Tracy). Likewise, the office workers who demur from the demands of environmentalism are noticeably more downmarket in their demeanour. It is propaganda in its purest, crudest form. However, a certain worldview is easily decipherable in Curtis’s mainstream work and, his huge financial success notwithstanding, is one of the main reasons why many people find his films and TV projects gratingly irritating.
Four Weddings and a Funeral, which in 1994 proved to be his cinematic calling-card, was undoubtedly well-written and remains a popular film. But its appeal relies on the extent to which one finds upper-middle-class rituals and kookiness endearing. The same can be said of Notting Hill. Underneath Hugh Grant’s chappish diffidence, and the joshing and bantering among his friends, lies, one senses, a very comfortable sense of social exclusivity. You imagine that all these characters would simply adore having Boris as mayor, if for no other reason than that he is jolly, eccentric, effortless and, possibly, that he is an “acceptable” Tory and not one of those ghastly Thatcher-type people.
Not that Curtis isn’t alive to the needs of a broader kind of inclusiveness. There always appears, for example, to be a disabled character in his casts. The signature use of swearing — nice, middle-class, funny swearing — keeps things real. The swingingly happy ensemble in Love, Actually represented the “happy-clappy, vibrant and diverse” version of London that even now remains the official line on the capital city, and which, as a solidly liberal middle-class “top-down” view, was barely recognisable to millions of Londoners.
Sometimes, the political sensibility peeping through his work is more overt. The Girl in the Café used a love affair to push a simplistic, predictable “anti-poverty” line. In The Boat That Rocked, his film about the beginnings of pirate radio in the Sixties, it is the nasty (and obviously conservative) establishment that seeks to close down the station and spoil the kids’ fun. In reality, the minister responsible for pulling the plug at the time was none other than that force of reaction, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, now plain old Tony Benn. And in Love, Actually, Hugh Grant’s newly-elected Prime Minister stands up to a repellent, salacious American President in a piece of wishful thinking which, in its juvenility, was far more humiliating to watch than anything Britain was experiencing at the time.
Then there is the sentimentality. With one or two exceptions, the love relationships in Curtis’s films never convince. One doesn’t have to be an arch-cynic — or obsessed with “the dark side” — to be put off by the cloying, feel-good prettiness of it all. And as we as a society increasingly know to our cost, the flipside to sentimentality, to a shallow and coarse emotionalism, is a harshly bullying, even sadistic, brutality. Hate, actually.