Pirate Eadio is Star of Richard Curtis Film 'The Boat That Rocked'
Director's Love of Pop Inspired Movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost and Kenneth Branagh

The Sunday Times, 15 March 2009
By Stephen Armstrong

Last year, a 16-year-old Italian girl, the niece of a friend, came to stay with me. It was her first time in London. What would you like to see, I asked — the tourist stuff, like Big Ben and the Tower of London? Or Carnaby Street, Selfridges and Hoxton? No, she said, I want to see the door. The door? The door from Notting Hill — the blue door where Hugh Grant lived. So we trotted over, asked around and found the door — except the blue door has been auctioned off and replaced by a new one painted a rich glossy black, so it looks like every second door in London. All the same, we took four photographs of her outside “the door” so she could show her friends when she got back to Arezzo.

It’s hard to think of another British film-maker who could inspire such Beatles-style devotion in a girl who was, after all, only seven years old when 'Notting Hill' was released. The English Tourist Board hasn’t issued a guide to Guy Ritchie’s East End, after all. Richard Curtis, however, has delivered something of a low blow to poor Alessandra and her friends with his new film by setting it in the middle of the North Sea.

'The Boat That Rocked' is an unashamed tribute to the handful of pirate radio ships anchored off the UK coast during the 1960s, which broadcast rock’n’roll to a beat-starved nation rationed to two hours of pop a week by the BBC. At their peak, about 25m people — more than half the population of Britain — tuned into the pirates every day. Many of the DJs hailed from Australia or America, with their bustling, highly experienced pop music stations, and the on-air stars shattered the dreary RP intonation of bow-tied BBC announcers. Inevitably, the government decided that Something Must Be Done and, in 1967, outlawed any contact with the offending ships — which meant the stations’ advertising revenue was cut off and their supply ships were barred from sailing from UK ports, ultimately starving the pirates of revenue and even food. In a classic case of woolly government principle meeting nervous populist pragmatism, the BBC promptly hired most of the pirate DJs to front the launch of Radio 1.

The film boasts an astonishing cast: Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman as the loud Yankee main man on Radio Rock; Bill Nighy as the ship’s owner and captain, Quentin; Rhys Ifans as a cocky, sensual mike controller, Gavin; Nick Frost as the sarky jock Dave; and Kenneth Branagh as the cold, cruel minister determined to close down the fun. It’s the kind of cast in which Jack Davenport, Chris O’Dowd, Ralph Brown, Rhys Darby, Will Adamsdale, Tom Brooke and Mad Men’s January Jones “also appear”.

The film is less tightly focused than 'Four Weddings' and 'Notting Hill' — Curtis was inspired by National Lampoon’s 'Animal House' and the 'M*A*S*H' movie, which are closer to a series of loosely connected sketches than a narrative where each scene advances the next. And ultimately everyone, Hoffman included, plays second fiddle to the real star, Curtis’s lifelong passion: pop music. The film is drenched in the tunes of 1967, and the tomfoolery on Radio Rock is constantly cutting to scenes of hard-working Brits entranced by the pirate sound. There are even choreographed dance routines.

Curtis, 52, was born in New Zealand to a nomadic Unilever family, living in Sweden and the Philippines before settling at school in England, and pop was, ironically, his only constant in an ever-changing world.

“Pop music is absolutely my favourite thing,” he enthuses, sitting in a windowless room at the heart of BBC Television Centre during a brief muffin-and-coffee break from the chaos of preparing this year’s Comic Relief programming. “I’ve absolutely no talent at all, but so much enthusiasm. My dad had about eight records — Smetana, Mantovani, Nat King Cole, that sort of thing. But baby-sitters would come in with their box of records and put on the Supremes.

“When I lived in Sweden, I remember standing in the snow outside the Foresta hotel, waiting for the Beatles to come onto the balcony. And I have strong memories of being at school — where I was generally a well-behaved boy — but I’d sometimes hide in the music rehearsal rooms because Pick of the Pops exactly overlapped with chapel. I even remember standing against the radiator to get so hot that I could be put in the sanatorium by matron, so I could listen to the first playing of the Beatles’ White Album.” He stops and smiles. “I can even tell you that the No 1 this week is Flo Rida, with his cover of Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round. It’s always been my first love, so to make a movie about it was a logical thing.”

And clearly Richard Curtis movies are always about love. This is why impressionable adolescent Italian girls are drawn to him, and why cynical hacks and stand-up comics like to mock his work — albeit in such intimate detail, they’ve clearly watched everything from beginning to end. It’s unfashionable to love — if you send reams of fevered verse to the one whose mere existence can slice through your heart every minute of the day, you’re liable to get a restraining order. Curtis doesn’t even have the Byronic self-mutilation of a Romantic poet to justify his addiction to the emotion. He seems so damn nice: cheerful, softly spoken, self-deprecating and devoted to charity, founding Comic Relief and Make Poverty History, organising the Live 8 concerts.

So why has he returned to the lurching passion of alternating loss and fulfilment during two decades in which British cinema generally explored gangsters, identity and adversity in a series of grotty flats and suburban houses?

“It’s peculiar, isn’t it?” he muses. “I’ve never been very interested in unpleasant stories. I’m extremely interested in the unpleasant things in the world, which is why I spend half my time doing Comic Relief. For some reason or other, I’m more interested in writing about things I’ve enjoyed and that are meant to give people pleasure than I am in writing about murder. I can’t really explain it. I attribute it to a happy childhood with no residual anger.” He warns, however, that his embrace of on-screen joy may be about to end. “The other films I’ve been thinking of writing were one about my dad, who was very ill and died last year, and I’m halfway through writing a script about malaria.” He shrugs apologetically. “So I thought, you know, we deserved to have a bit of fun. The last-chance cafe before I become old and serious.”

It’s tempting to search for Curtis in his movies. His 1989 debut, 'The Tall Guy', was set in Camden and featured Jeff Goldblum as Rowan Atkinson’s foil in a live West End show who courts a nurse — all technically true of Curtis at the time he wrote the thing. 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' in 1994 charted Hugh Grant’s on-off romance with Andie MacDowell via meetings at various weddings. Curtis wooed Emma Freud, his partner and the mother of his four children, in similar circumstances. The pair even vowed never to marry, just as Grant and MacDowell swear eternal devotion to each other and their unmarried status at the film’s rain-soaked climax.

It’s easy to assume, therefore, that Tom Sturridge plays a version of Curtis: Carl, a kid from a public school who joins the pirates on their tiny boat at his mother’s behest to learn a little about the world. The basic facts are very different — Carl has no father, whereas Curtis still talks about his with immense affection — but they share a wide-eyed passion for the demented DJs who people the good ship Rock, from Hoffman’s Count (based on the pirate star Emperor Rosko) to the world’s most annoying man, Rhys Darby’s Angus “The Nut” Nutsford, who is clearly a version of Kenny Everett. “One of the things the pirates did was bring a lot of black music in from America,” Curtis enthuses at one point, “and suddenly this whole wonderful world of popular music was being pumped into people’s homes.”

So is he Carl, in some tiny way? He body-swerves the question. (“Richard doesn’t like talking about himself very much,” I’d been warned before the interview.) “Those days are such a distant memory,” he shrugs. “What is drawn from my life is the sense of claustrophobia I hope you get from all these slightly odd people living on a boat all the time — I work in an office with eight other little offices next door to each other. There’s a director here, a writer here, a journalist there. And I was thinking: if this was the boat, and we only had that small kitchen and the little TV area to live our lives . . . well, imagine what it would be like to have Chris Moyles, Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand and Terry Wogan all living in your house, 24 hours a day. I think it was very, very, very intense, and two or three years was enough for most of them. In fact, one year was probably enough. When you see the footage, they’re happy when the boats come in.”

He briefly, and wryly, compares the forced intimacy of the pirate ship with the intensity of making 'Blackadder' — “lots of men with big ideas sharing a room” — then points to further similarities between comedy and rock’n’roll. “It’s not always true, but a lot of rock stars and a lot of comedians — and I’d include myself in this — are in their prime between 23 and 27.” He was writing for 'Not the Nine O’Clock News' and 'Blackadder' during those years. “It’s that time when there’s no money in it, and you’re still discovering new jokes and doing things for your friends and having first thoughts, and you’ve got lots of ideas and you’re not repeating anything,” he nods thoughtfully.

That gradual, creeping success must have seemed strange to him, not least because comedy writing was his third choice of career after pop star and, surprisingly, actor. “I thought I was a good actor at school because they only did Shakespeare. As long as you had a big ruff and learnt your lines, you were considered to be acting,” Curtis remembers. “But when I got to university, I found there was something about me that was utterly bland on stage. I went up for Othello, got cast as the clown — a part none of us remembers — then got a note telling me I’d been promoted. ‘Good news!’ it said. ‘We’ve decided to cut the part of the clown, and you are now playing Third Gentleman.’ I thought the only way I could get on was to write stuff myself, so I joined a group of people performing a revue. One of them was Rowan, and when I got on stage with him, I knew I had no talent and he had all of it. From that point, I gave up.”

He began writing with Atkinson and went on to make comedy history. The acting bug never quite left him, and he’s managed a few cameos over the years, but they haven’t been terribly successful. In 'The Tall Guy' he played a man coming out of the gents as Jeff Goldblum went in. Afterwards, he asked Goldblum: “How did I do?” And he said, “No, terrible, you smiled at me. In toilets, everyone always looks away.” Mike Newell even cut his kilt-wearing legs from the Scottish scene in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' because he said they were overacting. Curtis clearly relishes telling these stories as proof that acting, like music, involves a shamanistic power bestowed on only the few. And, though he avoids comparison with Carl, he constantly reflects that boy’s awe and excitement at the talent and the adventures he’s witnessed. It’s as if he feels he can never quite pay life back for the things it decided to give him. His next television project, for instance, is the 'No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency', which piloted last year, directed and co-written by the late Anthony Minghella. Astonishingly, Curtis seems partly driven to televise Alexander McCall Smith’s books because he feels a tiny bit guilty about Comic Relief.

“It is our responsibility to raise as much money as we can, so the films we show about Africa tend to be about the darker, more unhappy side of things,” he says, speaking carefully. “But when you go to Africa, that is not your experience. You see bad things, but you see happy, funny, witty, contemporary things. When I went to Ethiopia the first time, during the famine, I had this brilliant driver who was completely obsessed with Bobby Bare and Billie Jo Spears. I was driving towards desperate tragedy listening to Dolly Parton and just thinking, ‘It is a peculiar world.’

“So 'The Boat That Rocked' is not a film about Jimi Hendrix dying of drugs or someone being killed at a Stones concert. It’s about a pirate radio station that people loved. In the same way, the 'No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency' is about crimes, but they’re not big crimes. It’s meant to be a real effort to say something positive.” He pauses, then sounds faintly irritated. “There’s this idea that if you write about someone falling in love — which happens a million times every day — that’s unrealistic and sentimental, but if you write about women being brutally murdered by a serial killer — which happens, if we’re unlucky, maybe once a year in the UK — then that’s searingly realistic.” He sighs. “I just don’t understand the mathematical truth of that.”

The Boat That Rocked opens on April 3

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