Richard Curtis - Screenwriter
Created | Updated Jan 6, 2012
Richard Curtis is a British comedy scriptwriter who has written the TV series Blackadder, Mr Bean and The Vicar of Dibley, as well as such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and, with Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary. As one of its founders, he is a prominent and tireless campaigner for Comic Relief, as well as the 'Make Poverty History' Campaign.
Born in New Zealand on 8 November, 1956 to Australian parents, Richard Curtis constantly moved about to different areas of the world during his childhood, staying in such places as Sweden and the Philippines. He moved to England at the age of 11 and attended Papplewick School, Ascot, before winning a scholarship to Harrow where he went on to become the Head Boy1. He furthered his education at Christ Church College, Oxford, where he not only obtained a first-class degree in English Language and Literature but also met and started working with Rowan Atkinson. Together with Howard Goodall, Curtis and Atkinson performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This led to Curtis showcasing his talent as a scriptwriter on the television series Not the Nine O'Clock News, which had Atkinson as one of its four main performers.
In 1986 Curtis, Lenny Henry and Dawn French put their heads together and came up with Comic Relief, which aimed to relieve poverty in the UK and abroad. The event started off as just three nights of fun and laughter with various comedians at the Shaftesbury Theatre, but soon turned into a televised event and continues to raise money every other year to this day. Curtis often uses his work to draw attention to the charities he supports and encourages other celebrities to help these causes.
Richard Curtis calls me about Comic Relief every year, without fail, and says, 'Want to go to Africa? It's riddled with AIDS, poverty, war...' I say, 'No, it sounds awful.' He also asked me to be in Love Actually. I said, 'So, tell me about that Africa trip again...
- Ricky Gervais
It is estimated that Comic Relief has so far raised in excess of £325,000,000.
From the 1980s onwards, Curtis worked closely with producer John Lloyd on Spitting Image, a satirical puppet-show which ran from 1984 to 1996 on ITV, as well as on Blackadder, a series of sitcoms with various historical backgrounds about different Edmund Blackadders. Blackadder featured Curtis's university friend Rowan Atkinson, with whom he co-wrote the first series, before then going on to write the last three series with Ben Elton. Curtis has also been involved with a number of Blackadder specials, including Blackadder: Back and Forth, written for the New Year festivities at the London Millennium Dome on 31 December, 1999.
One thing that I can say I learnt from Richard Curtis was a greater respect for plot. Up until then I'd always written entirely kind of improvisationally, organically. I'd start with a pen and a typewriter and just see where it took me and sometimes that took you into some nice plot areas, sometimes up many a cul de sac, none of which you wanted to get rid of because they had some funny stuff in it. Richard does that too, but he did introduce me to the idea of perhaps trying to work out a plot first.
- Ben Elton
Curtis, Atkinson and Elton have also created two West End comedy revues and Curtis wrote a stage adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes's novel Don Quixote for the Actors Touring Company. The first film he wrote, The Tall Guy, directed by former Not the Nine O'Clock News star Mel Smith, appeared in 1989. The Tall Guy tells the story of American actor Dexter King (Jeff Goldblum), the butt of all the jokes in a long-running revue dominated by the horrendously egotistical Ron Anderson (Rowan Atkinson), who falls in love with a nurse (Emma Thompson) in the run-up to his 40th birthday.
Curtis's next television comedy was the highly amusing Mr Bean, starring Rowan Atkinson yet again. The series, which first aired on ITV in 1990, followed the misadventures of a mute character, the eponymous Mr Bean, who was constructed by Curtis through miming in front of a mirror. A hit series in the UK, this was soon followed by success in the USA and elsewhere. American television channels such as HBO and PBS encouraged the development of a film about Mr Bean. The result was Bean/Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie (1997), which Curtis wrote and Mel Smith directed. The film shows Mr Bean being sent to America to oversee the transfer of the famous painting, 'Whistler's Mother', to a Los Angeles art gallery.
Hot on the heels of the success of the television series of Mr Bean, 1991 saw the British TV movie Bernard and the Genie, in which unhappy art dealer Bernard Bottle (Alan Cumming) makes magic with Josephus the genie (Lenny Henry). Two years later, in December, 1993, Curtis was awarded the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Comedy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Curtis realised that he could make a pretty penny writing films as well as television series some time after the initial success of Mr Bean and he soon started work on the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. This followed the adventures of Charles (Hugh Grant) and his friends through life and love, especially Charles's love for Carrie (Andie MacDowell), whom he initially sees only at weddings and a funeral. When it was released in March, 1994 the film did exceptionally well, scooping up awards such as the French Cesar, the Australian Academy Award and the BAFTA for Best Film. The screenplay won the Writers' Guild Award in the US and, in the UK, the Evening Standard Comedy and London Critics' Awards. At the Academy Awards, the film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
A Religious Turn
During 1994, Curtis became an MBE and started writing the award-winning The Vicar of Dibley, which revolved around events in an Oxfordshire village, focussing on its vicar, Geraldine Granger. Curtis wrote the part of the vicar especially with Dawn French in mind as a 'thankyou' to her for helping with Comic Relief. Curtis describes the way he wrote the programme on the BBC New Talent website:
In a play you're trying to tell all sorts of important complex stories; in a sitcom you're trying to tell a good plot but really you're just trying to be funny. I suppose that we, particularly with Dawn around, always stuck to our guns and tried to make things better and funnier every moment, every day, until the very end.
- Richard Curtis
The final instalments of the Vicar of Dibley showed the vicar getting married to village newcomer Harry (Richard Armitage) and were watched by 12 million people on Christmas Day 2006 and New Year's Day 2007, making the special series the number one programme to watch at Christmas time.
Another well-known film of Curtis's is Notting Hill. This follows the fortunes of a bookshop owner (Hugh Grant) based in the Notting Hill area of London, who falls in love with the Hollywood actress Anna Scott (Julia Roberts). Released in 1999, it did extremely well, with box-office takings achieving £204m ($300m) worldwide, so making it the highest-earning British film ever.
Bridget Jones's Diary
Curtis followed the success of Notting Hill with the romantic film Bridget Jones's Diary which he co-wrote with Helen Fielding. Like Jones, Curtis also wears ridiculous jumpers as TIME magazine reflected on 10 October, 2005:
He is lovingly ridiculed by friends for wearing Marks and Spencer jumpers to posh events like film premieres, but those jumpers are as much a declaration of character as Geldof's yawps; the sturdy wool announces the presence of a modest, rational and practical person, and so it follows that Curtis's approach to Africa, which he first visited after Live Aid in 1985, is utterly judicious.
Like Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary did very well at the box-office, taking £41.6million in the UK alone and holding on to the position as number one film to see during Easter, 2001 for at least two weeks. The source of the film, Helen Fielding's book, also sold in excess of four million copies worldwide. Bridget Jones's Diary proved so successful that it prompted a sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
[Curtis is] far and away the best comedy writer I know and it's always going to be difficult to turn down a Richard script.
- Hugh Grant
Curtis's most challenging role was as director of his own film Love Actually, which follows a number of people and their love lives in the lead up to Christmas. Despite tough criticism from the press both in America and the UK, Curtis' film earned £9.5million ($16million) in just two weeks after its release in the US and Canada. At the British film première Curtis told the BBC:
I'd rather make a film that most of the audience liked and some critics didn't, rather than a film that critics loved and nobody wanted to watch.
All proceeds from the premiere naturally went to Comic Relief and when asked when his next film would be released, Curtis simply answered, 'It will take the usual three years before I get around to it again.'
Stand By Your Man
Curtis is married to Sigmund Freud's great-granddaughter, Comic Relief trustee and radio and television journalist, Emma Freud. The couple have three children. Freud is also Curtis's first point of call when in need of a personal critic. In an interview with Sue Lawley for BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, Curtis said:
She's a very ruthless, almost unpleasant script editor. The thing I dreaded was the bloody letters CDB, which stand for Could Do Better.
Another Charity Concern
As part of the 'Make Poverty History' Campaign's efforts in 2005, centred around that year's G8 Summit and the Live 8 concerts, Curtis brought awareness of the issue to public attention through the New Year's Day episode of the Vicar of Dibley, in which the characters discuss the charity's concerns and show their support by wearing white armbands. In June of the same year, the BBC and HBO broadcast the Curtis-scripted The Girl in the Cafe. This combines another Curtis love story, between a civil servant (Bill Nighy) and a waitress (Kelly MacDonald), with a fictional economic conference in Iceland, mirroring the actual 2005 G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. In an interview with the BBC, Kelly MacDonald said:
I read a quote from Richard Curtis that said, when he starts talking about the G8 Summit, people think he's talking about a vegetable drink. I was one of those people and I just feel really proud that I can help to let other people know what it's all about, because I'm just learning about it all too.
In his own words, Richard Curtis told the BBC:
I wanted to write a film that would give people a chance to understand what it is, and how this year the G8 could change the face of extreme poverty forever.
- Richard Curtis
As a result of the film The Girl in the Cafe, Curtis won £14,000 ($25,000) from the annual Humanitas Prize awards, recognising work that 'liberates, enriches and unifies society'. He subsequently won a special award at the BAFTA Television Awards in 2007.