Five signs you're watching a Richard Curtis movie

Wonderfully awful: the many films of Richard Curtis
Wonderfully awful: the many films of Richard Curtis Credit: Film Stills

You’re just a person, standing in front of a cinema, asking Richard Curtis to feed you floppy-haired British nonsense. Responsible for the likes of Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, there’s much to loathe about the Richard Curtis oeuvre, from its unrelenting schmaltz to its cringey New Labour-era politics. Of which anyone who isn’t white, London-based and upper-middle-class is generally uninvited.

But as the real world has gotten meaner, it’s become more difficult to have ill feelings towards his work, as fantastical and ridiculous as much of it is. A lot of it is nostalgia, the eagerness to return to a period of time that felt slightly more hopeful and nicer than the years that actually followed. It’s rose-tinted England, with a collection of tropes that remain silly and contrived, but now also feel like something of a security blanket.

The charm in Richard Curtis, it turns out, is how easy it all is to make fun of. A saccharine, blinkered version of the world, full of fussy, stammering, delightfully sweary rich people who can provide even the most cold-hearted of viewers with something resembling warmth, it’s comfort cinema. As he returns to the romcom fold with Red Nose Day Actually, a belated short film in aid of Comic Relief that serves as a sequel to the 2003 Christmas classic, here are five marvelously, brilliantly awful signs you’re watching a Richard Curtis movie.

1. The most terrible friends in the world

Eurgh: Tim McInnerny, Emma Chambers, Gina McKee and Hugh Bonneville in Notting Hill Credit: Universal

Single white male seeks flamboyant flatmate with array of quirks who may or may not be borderline insane. That’s presumably the Spare Room want ad for any Richard Curtis hero, as no matter how many different cities they live in, or professions they work in, they will all presumably have a mad person living with them.

From Geraldine James’s hippy nymphomaniac in The Tall Guy to Rhys Ifans in his pants in Notting Hill, these people never resemble actual human beings, but supply easy comedic respite from the genre’s twee central duos. But as annoying as these capital-C 'characters' seem, they’re not half as cloying as Curtis’s "ordinary" sidekicks, among them the gay minstrel show Tom in Bridget Jones’s Diary, or the quartet of monsters Hugh Grant surrounds himself with in Notting Hill.

Like a cacophony of flibbertigibbety D:Ream devotees, there’s Hugh Bonneville as Bernie the sad stockbroker, Emma Chambers as an eccentric blonde who works in a record shop, Tim McInnerny in a series of bad M&S sweaters and, presumably for a bit of diversity, the very able-bodied Gina McKee rolling around in a wheelchair. They’re the epitome of every champagne-socialist, Lighthouse Family-listening, upper-middle-class, late-Nineties Londoner, and so sincere with it that it must be a kind of parody… surely?!

2. The adorable swearing

Everyone swears in Richard Curtis land. But not in a threatening, intimidating, won’t-someone-think-of-the-children sort of way. No, Curtis is all about adorable swearing, where posh thirtysomethings flail their arms about while howling cutesy expletives.

“Oh my arsing God in a box!” one character yelps in About Time, joining the embarrassing pantheon of Curtis lines like “S---tery brickitty, it’s my sister’s birthday!”, “What in the name of arse is going on?”, “Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks!” or any iteration of the word “Bugger”. You can’t possibly have a Richard Curtis script without them.

3. All the wacky-but-sad female side characters

John Hannah and Charlotte Coleman in Four Weddings and a Funeral Credit: Universal

Richard Curtis loves his wacky female side characters, but especially if they’re also unbearably tragic, too. To be fair, these women also share a few other characteristics besides sad eccentricity. Like their uniformly terrible hair or the kinds of outfits worn only on a dare.

Charlotte Coleman’s Scarlett in Four Weddings and a Funeral is largely the definitive example of this trope, a character who isn’t just a wacky flatmate with bad hair, but also quietly sad and sweary. She’s the Richard Curtis jackpot! Scarlett, as played by the late, great Charlotte Coleman, is all cute, flaky and pixie-ish, with an unflinching love for curse words that is only matched by her love of booze. Until we discover the hurt little posh girl buried deep inside her. Under a table at one of the film’s weddings, she confides in a young bridesmaid that she’s actually horribly lonely.

“Most of the blokes I fancy think I’m stupid and pointless, so they just bonk me and then leave me, and the kind of blokes that do fancy me, I think are drips. I can't even be bothered to bonk them, which does sort of leave me a bit nowhere.” Don’t worry too much, though, she gets her happy ending.

Bad hair: Margot Robbie and Lydia Wilson in About Time Credit: Universal

The same trope got wheeled out in Curtis’s 2013 film, About Time, in the character of Domhnall Gleeson’s eccentric little sister. Katherine, or Kit Kat as she likes to be known (blegh), is a bohemian free-spirit who transmits her wackiness with a statement flower crown, harem pants and hair that looks like the product of a fork, an electric socket and a mood board with nothing but pictures of X Factor-era Diana Vickers.

Of course, like Scarlett, Kit Kat is secretly broken inside. Career woes, relationship troubles and a drinking problem result in her crashing her car in one of the film’s various timelines, cementing her as yet another female side-character in Curtisville covering up their self-hatred with sartorial nonsense.

4. The instantly-dated soundtracks

While many of Richard Curtis’s films have become classic romcoms passed down the generations like a particularly cozy jumper, their music is very much stuck in the eras in which they were made. As if his music tastes run the gamut between Now That’s What I Call Music 45 and Now That’s What I Call Music 46, Curtis soundtracks are stocked with the kind of sleepy MOR thrown in a trolley during the weekly Tesco shop -- Wet Wet Wet providing aural nausea for Four Weddings with Love Is All Around, and later Ronan Keating’s park bench opus When You Say Nothing at All during Notting Hill. It’s all majestically dire.

Then there are appearances from acts that seem to have been banished into the ether shortly after their respective Curtis films left cinemas, the likes of Swing Out Sister, Alisha’s Attic, Gabrielle and Duffy supplying treacly ballads for Working Title before plummeting out of the charts all-together.

But Curtis’s MOR cheese hits its peak with Love Actually, which not only features soundtrack appearances from Dido, Norah Jones and Maroon 5, but also a rare Mutya-era Sugababes single that’s a complete dud, Eva Cassidy’s Songbird, and the seemingly requisite ‘Eighties black women getting covered by mid-Noughties pop stars’ anthem -- a trope congealed into existence by Geri Halliwell’s It’s Raining Men in Bridget Jones and put to a merciful end here with Girls Aloud’s Jump!

5. The fictitious London made uncomfortably real

Not real: Hugh Grant swans through Notting Hill in the 1999 film Credit: Film Stills

In 1999, the Curtis version of Notting Hill was one of artisanal mung beans and loft apartments, where Carnival wasn’t a thing and the local community was a sea of whiteness. It was roundly slammed at the time, critics accusing Curtis of creating a racially backwards doppelganger of the area, one that seemed curiously devoid of the non-white faces that made Portobello Road such a rich tapestry of different races and cultures.

Awkwardly, the Notting Hill of Notting Hill has over time become the actual Notting Hill, the success of Curtis’s film sparking a wave of developer investment in the area that has gradually eroded much of what made it so interesting in the first place. Now the area, and many like it, are filled with luxury apartments, ‘investment’ properties and boho boutiques, so much that you wouldn’t be all that surprised anymore to find Julia Roberts swanning around in it.

Curtis himself has recognised his own part in being somewhat responsible for London’s gradual gentrification since his romcom heyday, and it’s difficult to watch his work without picturing a sleazy Foxtons agent carrying a clipboard on the fringes of every shot. As a result, it’s the one aspect to his films that reads as genuinely uncomfortable in a modern context -- a Richard Curtis-ism that can’t so easily be compensated by a stammering English gent or a novelty Christmas jumper.

Please review our commenting policy