For over forty years, writer, director and producer Richard Curtis has been one of the leading creative forces behind some of Britain’s best loved television and movie moments. Joining the BBC during the late seventies as a scriptwriter, he contributed scripts for the seminal antiestablishment BBC2 sketch show Not The Nine O’clock News. Having known Rowan Atkinson since their days at Oxford University, the pair already enjoyed a mutual understanding of each other’s work and frequently collaborated on sketches. This dynamic proved successful and became a winning formula over four series, with their nonchalant attitude towards sending up the establishment. Unashamedly anarchic, satirical and controversial, Not The Nine O’Clock News rebelled against the conservative studio comedy format of the time and in doing so. This marked the dawning of a new era for TV comedy and set the benchmark on which the pioneers of Alternative Comedy developed in the succeeding years.
Press play, below, to listen to the full interview
Or watch the unedited Zoom call on YouTube
In 1983 Richard reunited with longtime friend Rowan Atkinson to take the sitcom to new dimensions in the guise of the formidable Black Adder. The series was set in 1485 at the end of the British Middle Ages and starred Rowan as the bumbling, dopey Prince Edmund Blackadder; an oafishly inept aristocrat who was controlled by his father King Richard IV played by Brian Blessed. With limited knowledge of British history, Richard and Rowan paid little attention to historical accuracy and instead concentrated on refining the humour of the piece. These were still the days of significant BBC budgets which meant the corporation thought nothing of creating a medieval set and shot the entire first series on location. Following both poor ratings and a crucifixion from the critics, the show was looking increasingly unlikely to be recommissioned. Yet astonishingly the corporation decided to give it one last shot with a very tight budget and brought Ben Elton on board as the second writer.
Elton and Curtis’s writing styles and approaches differed immeasurably. The pair agreed to write separately, adhering to one simple rule: once something had been omitted by a writer, the other could not put it back in. This meant that a line of dialogue needed to sing on its first attempt or would be required to be rewritten. Each would draft an episode before sending it to the other, in exchange for another incomplete script. The other would then write a further draft before swapping back something which would sometimes resemble a finished version. A meticulous history buff, Elton would write with huge historical accuracy as he aimed to make each episode as true to fact as possible. Yet there was always an innocent stupidity about the characters and situations that Richard created and while he didn’t possess the contextual prowess of his collaborator, he always made up for it with a perfectly placed knob gag. All these elements, combined with a brilliantly crafted ensemble cast including; Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Tim McInnerny, together with guest appearances from Rik Mayall, Miranda Richardson and Robbie Coltrane, helped transform the series from a cult flop to one of Britain’s best sitcoms.
Richard Curtis was now one of the most prolific figures in British comedy and in 1985 as a direct response to Live Aid, set about organising a comedy benefit concert. Similar to The Secret Policeman’s Ball which had launched a decade previously by the Pythons to raise awareness of the work of Amnesty International, Comic Relief aimed to bring the comedy world together in the fight against world poverty. Visiting the Ethiopian famine of 1985 which spawned Michael Buerk’s now infamous harrowing news report, Richard realised that something had to be done in order to better such a bleak situation. The first Comic Relief took the form of a ninety minute show featuring a full episode of Dad’s Army with charity videos placed on either side. Yet Richard immediately realised that to entice the viewing audience to part with their hard earned money, he was going to be required to up the ante!
The very first Red Nose Day was televised on BBC One on Friday 5th February 1988. Seven hours of comedy and entertainment live from BBC Television Centre was something radical for the time and the bonus was that all celebrities gave their time for free. Although Children In Need had been running since 1980, this was Britain’s first national telethon to offer wall to wall entertainment content over the entire evening. Writers would create self contained sketches from some of Britain’s best loved sitcoms and sketch shows which would be packaged together to form a night of entertainment. This formula has remained the backbone of every Comic Relief ever since and has allowed the show to echo and celebrate the changing landscape of comedy.
Presented by Lenny Henry, Jonathan Ross and Griff Rhys Jones, the show was a seven hour extravaganza of comedy and music brought together with harrowing stories of poverty and suffering. Over the years, Comic Relief has produced some remarkable television moments surrounding the nation’s biggest stars and while the presenting format has evolved, the ever present safe hands of Jonathan Ross and Lenny Henry maintain the show’s identity and reassure the audience that a fun filled evening is ahead. Everyone from Torville and Dean to David Beckham have agreed to relinquish their dignity in the name of charity, raising over one billion pounds in the process. Despite his vast celebrated achievements, Red Nose Day remains Richard’s proudest and over thirty years later, he is still as passionate about Comic Relief than ever. Forever reinventing and showcasing the ever changing face of British comedy, beyond charity, Comic Relief has been responsible for developing new stars and popular formats. Richard is extremely proud of the show to be the inspiration behind Carpool Karaoke when George Michael starred in a memorable sketch with James Corden’s Smithy. Part of the fabric of Britain, Comic Relief continues to thrive upon the generosity of everyday folk doing something amazing in exchange for the best entertainment money can’t buy. For this Richard is proud of his Red Nose legacy.
The success of the early incarnations of Comic Relief gave Richard the confidence to play around with the disciplines of comedy. Towards the end of the eighties, he was approached by LWT to write an early evening family comedy. His response was to create three self contained silent comedies starring various comedy actors who would give a modern day take on the Charlie Chaplin era. On casting Rowan Atkinson for one of the sketches, Richard was to realise his innate ability for physical comedy and Mr Bean was born. Physical comedy is very hard to execute over a prolonged period and Richard never thought it would ever cover a twenty four minute ITV slot. However, on witnessing Rowan’s innate ability for mime and physical comedy, he then realised that the comedy would arise from the subtle reactions of Bean and the chaos which would ensue from his gormless behaviour. With Mr Bean there’s very little dialogue, little cultural references and almost no mention of time and therefore remains accessible to a universal audience. Richard grew ever more conscious of preserving its universal appeal. When producing scenes, he would forever ensure that they used internationally recognised symbols for places and things to maintain accessibility for all. This inclusive ethos contributed to the show’s global popularity and helped to transform Rowan Atkinson from TV comedy actor into an international star.
1994 was a big year in the career of Richard Curtis. The British film industry had always struggled to match the glamour of Hollywood and despite building a reputation of cult, quintessentially British classics, was resigned to the fact that we would forever be the poor relation to our American cousins. A huge fan of the seminal coming of age romantic comedy Gregory’s Girl, Richard always wanted to put his own stamp on the popular genre and in 1994 his dream came true. Starring Hugh Grant and Andi Macdowell, Four Weddings And a Funeral defined a generation and rewrote the romantic comedy rule book. Spawning one of the biggest hits of the nineties; Wet Wet Wet’s Love Is All Around spent an unprecedented fifteen weeks at Number 1 which elevated the film to new levels Four Weddings And a Funeral became an instant hit and a quarter of a century later, remains one of the defining British films in cinema. Just another achievement in a career full of success.
If creating a box office smash wasn’t enough, 1994 was also the year that Richard created another much loved sitcom. Ironically the inspiration for which came to him when he attended a wedding in the early nineties and remarked that the leaders of all weddings were nearly always men. To him this seemed absurd when women are always believed to possess the most amount of compassion. Unbeknown to him, this thought coincided with the ordination of female priests in the Church of England in the same year. Together with fellow writer Paul Mayhew-Archer, Richard set about researching this unknown world and met a female vicar suitably called Joy Carroll, a vivacious, vibrant, intelligent individual who crushed the traditional stereotype of a conservative, outdated minister of the cloth. The Vicar of Dibley centred around the trials and tribulations of new vicar Geraldine Granger as she brought new life to the parishioners of this sleepy village in the heart of rural middle England.
The Vicar of Dibley was unique for sitcom as it found humour in innately good people. Each character, however intellectually or socially challenged, possessed a good heart and were the sort of people who you could warm to. Geraldine Granger herself was an incredibly flawed individual who didn’t always abide by the fixed concepts of her religion. A desperate, chocolate obsessed middle aged singleton who frequently resorted to alcohol, Geraldine daringly subverted the popular image of a religious leader and somehow softened the perception of Christianity. Yet compared with the eccentric characters which formed the ensemble cast, she represented a must needed sanctuary of sanity. These elements, together with the overarching theme of purity and goodness, made The Vicar of Dibley one of the most popular and enduring sitcoms of all time and another of Curtis’s achievements in a career which has spawned so many.
It’s very seldom to encounter an accomplished individual who has mastered so many different disciplines who possesses such modesty regarding his contribution to British life. With an unrivalled repertoire of quintessentially British romantic comedies from Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually, it’s easy to realise that Richard Curtis remains one of the most influential playwrights of his generation and has earned his title as an entertainment titan. From Comic Relief to the British romantic comedy, Curtis is a visionary, trailblazer and pioneer of modern popular culture, making a formidable contribution to popular culture. In an uncertain world, his repertoire of British comedy remains a staple of our shared cultural identity. For a budding comedy historian, it was an honour and a privilege to welcome the great Richard Curtis on to my podcast and if I can experience just a tenth of his success, I’d die a very happy man! Merry Christmas x