i nodded goodbye to my slumped Caféé nero friends and made my way up the road to portobello Studios. this isn’t my first meeting with Curtis. we’ve run into each other a couple of times before at red nose events. he hasn’t changed. even though his well-developed business acumen must by now have earned him enough cash to buy up most of west London, he still manages in conversation to exude all the innocent eagerness of a child unpacking a first Christmas stocking. you can’t imagine that this man ever finds it hard to get out of bed in the morning or feels the need for a handful of pills or a large slug of alcohol to tide him over a bad day at the office. he is, and i think i mean this as a compliment, the only person i’ve ever met who seems to have taken to heart the old hippy clichéé that tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life. But, of course, it is just this niceness, this unglazed optimism, that so riles his critics. in an age where public personalities are only promoted by confessions of inner torment or revelations of aberrant behaviour, it is almost an insult to the cultural ethos of the nation to have a public figure with about as much evident angst as Francis of Assisi. i tell myself that he can’t possibly be as pleased to see me as his face and tone suggest. After all, he only has to look at me to know that i
must have the sort of friends who would not regard his life and work as wholly admirable. i need to get a little nasty. “you once spoke about what you called ‘a critical fallacy’ – the prevalent cultural idea that anything that is harsh or violent is inherently true to life, whereas anything that is warm and positive is inherently false. isn’t that a bit fluffy? A bit easter bunny?” have i already gone too far? Curtis doesn’t do interviews. he says he doesn’t like to talk about comedy because that only makes it boring, and he doesn’t speak about his charity work because that doesn’t raise a single penny for the cause. And now, a minute after warmly welcoming me into his busy office, he’s being asked to defend his life philosophy. But he doesn’t hesitate. “i really do believe that there is a tremendous amount of optimism, goodness and love in the world and that it is under-represented. But if you do feel it and experience it then you should write about it. the dark side is always dominant. what is the nastiest thing that has happened to me? what is the worst thing i can imagine happening to me? what were the worst three days of my life? Ah. i shall write about that. it is a sort of sentimental conspiracy about violence. you write a play about a soldier going AwoL and stabbing a single mother and they say it is a searing indictment of modern British society. it has never happened once in my entire life. whereas you write a play about a guy falling in love with a girl which happens a million times a day in every corner of the world and it’s called blazingly unrealistic sentimental rubbish. it has always been that way. nobody has really written anything intelligent about Shakespeare’s comedies. people prefer to write about tragedies because they can’t get to the bottom of happiness or comedy.” i tell him that this reminds me of a recent article in Prospect by Julian gough in which he wondered why so many contemporary novels were tragedies. why, asked gough, did writers all “cluster under the same tree when there was a forest to explore”? richard nods in agreement.
“sentimental is a complicated word. A lost word. what is wrong with being touched by what goes on around you?”
“And comedy is also true to the life that we see around us. i’ve always thought that nothing i write is as funny as what goes on around me, not as funny as most people are at the end of a good evening when they’re surrounded by friends and slightly drunk. Laughter is such a big part of the way we live.” But wasn’t he aware that many people found his enthusiasm for comedy peculiarly inappropriate when it was juxtaposed with pictures of starving children? Comic relief might have raised nearly £500 million pounds for disadvantaged children in Africa and the UK since he co-founded it back in 1993, but it had also amassed a legion of critics who felt that putting on silly noses and acting daft every couple of years was a vulgar self-serving way of promoting a good cause. “yes, there is a slightly peculiar contradiction in my life between the Comic relief side and the comedy writing side. But i can explain that. what we do on red nose day is make things as funny as we can so that people can see the other side to all the sadness we show. i suppose what we are fighting for is that everyone should have the privilege of leading a happy life and being able to laugh like the rest of us instead of being worried that their husband is going to beat them up or they are going to die of a mosquito bite.” didn’t this argument play into the hands of those who described his charity work as sentimental, as playing with emotions rather than wrestling with difficult problems of policy and practice? “i think ‘sentimental’ is a complicated word. A lost word. what is wrong with being touched by what goes on around you? i am very touched by what is good and true. it’s a family characteristic. it was very true of my dad in his final years. whenever he talked of an act of kindness i can remember the tears in his eyes. And i can’t help being emotional when i come across something kind, when i find how warm people can be. But what struck me when i went to ethiopia after the Live Aid concert was the lack of sentiment. i thought the nurses and the water engineers there would be highly charged, highly emotional, with tears in their eyes. But they weren’t. they were bluff northerners with beards busy drawing maps. they were doing something they did well for other people. And when i came home i decided to use my own skills in the same way. to see what i could achieve.” when you’re sitting a few feet away from richard Curtis it’s not difficult to succumb to his apparent integrity, his slightly defensive but utterly consistent claim that he can act in no other
July August 2007 new humanist 17