Stephen Pollard

Stick to making your schmaltzy films, Mr Curtis

Richard Curtis’s films — rose-tinted, upper-middle-class parodies of modern Britain — are bad enough, says Stephen Pollard. But his politics are even worse

Stick to making your schmaltzy films, Mr Curtis
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Richard Curtis’s films — rose-tinted, upper-middle-class parodies of modern Britain — are bad enough, says Stephen Pollard. But his politics are even worse

There are few film-makers whose name instantly conjures up a style, an atmosphere, a set of recognisable characters, even a plot. Richard Curtis is one of them. From Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill to Love Actually and Bridget Jones’s Diary, the label ‘Richard Curtis’ on a film tells you straightaway pretty much all you need to know.

For myself, I’d rather boil my eyeballs than spend another second of my life being sucked in to his film-making-by-numbers Disney-Britain. Curtisland might be framed as a rose-tinted, upper-middle-class paradise where the men are all Hugh Grant and the women look like Julia Roberts, Renee Zellweger and Kristin Scott-Thomas, but to me it is a dystopian nightmare worse even than A Clockwork Orange. Clearly, however, I’m not the audience for whom Mr Curtis writes his films and, annoying as I find them, it’s a free country. Each to their own.

Would, however, that the man himself were as laissez-faire in his own attitudes. Richard Curtis is not simply the writer and director of some of the most self-satisfied films ever made. He is also, far more significantly, a political agitator of the most dangerous type; a man whose agenda is all the more pernicious for being promoted using the very techniques which he has perfected in his films. He is, if you like, a Leni Riefenstahl for the soggy left — a film-maker who has learned, and relentlessly exploits, every available trick for planting his message in the minds of his audience.

It’s been difficult in recent days to miss his latest work, on behalf of the ‘Robin Hood Tax’ scheme. ‘A tiny tax on bankers that would raise billions to tackle poverty and climate change, at home and abroad’, is how the umbrella organisation behind the campaign described its scheme. ‘By taking an average of 0.05% from speculative banking transactions, hundreds of billions of pounds would be raised every year. That’s easily enough to stop cuts in crucial public services in the UK, and to help fight global poverty and climate change.’

With slogans such as: ‘This is the first tax you’ll be in favour of’ and ‘Small change for the banks, huge changes for the world’, the advertisements have been designed to lead people to the website, robinhoodtax.org.uk, where they can sign a petition demanding its implementation. The campaign seems to be working: on Monday, Welsh Secretary Peter Hain gave it his backing.

The centrepiece of the effort is a short Richard Curtis film. It’s a three-minute masterpiece of its kind, with his regular collaborator Bill Nighy playing a smug, patrician banker who grows ever more unsettled and obfuscatory as he is quizzed about the impact of the tax, making it obvious with every passing second that only greed and self-interest could possibly lie behind any objections to the plan. This is a familiar conceit, and one that Curtis has employed before.

Curtis’s entrée into political propagandising was in founding Comic Relief in 1985. It’s difficult to think of a charity that is said to have raised over £600 million, and whose vision is ‘a just world free from poverty’, as anything other than a good thing, and some may bridle at my description of it as an organisation propagandising for a political aim. Comic Relief has clearly done much that is admirable, but the problem lies with the bigger picture — the definition of the ‘just world’ that Mr Curtis seeks, and how he and the organisations whose agendas he pushes plan for us to get there.

This was made especially clear by his involvement with — indeed, his chore-ographing of — the Make Poverty History protests around the G8 meeting at Gleneagles.

Make Poverty History was launched with a special New Year’s Day 2005 episode of Mr Curtis’s BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, and built up towards the G8 summit in July. Two weeks before the G8 summit, the BBC aired The Girl in the Café, his most explicitly agenda-driven film to date.

Bill Nighy (of course) played Lawrence, a civil servant working for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who falls in love with Gina, a feisty young woman he meets in a London café. Lawrence takes Gina to a G8 summit in Reykjavik, where — ooh, the embarrassment — she turns out to be an activist, and confronts the Prime Minister over third world debt. Lawrence sees the truth of what she says and tries to help her to end world poverty.

The piece was pure agitprop, pushed at BBC1’s viewers at prime time and rewarded with a 29 per cent share of the total television audience that night.

As with Comic Relief, Make Poverty History, which ended in 2006 — although I somehow missed the official announcement that poverty is indeed history — was laudable in its aim. Who would not want to alleviate poverty — except, perhaps, some of the charities whose business is built on its existence? But there is a familiar problem: not the mushiness of what Sarah Palin last week called, in another context, the ‘hopey, changey stuff’, but rather the sheer specificity of the Curtis plans for changing the world, and their utter wrongheadedness.

His Make Poverty History campaign had three aims: ‘trade justice’, ‘drop the debt’ and ‘more and better aid’. Each was dangerous and misguided.

Trade is the engine of growth, and the protective tariffs that Curtis promoted do nothing except keep resources in unproductive, low-return activities such as basic farming. So long as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea and India had such tariffs, they remained stuck in poverty. Without them, trade with the rest of the world has attracted the investment that brought comparative advantages in the manufacture of an ever-widening range of products. Sectors in which they have no comparative advantage have shrunk as a proportion of national output and been replaced by cheaper, better imports.

The abolition of debt and an increase in aid — in effect the same thing — are red herrings. A genuine campaign to make poverty history would champion open trade, reduced regulation and, critically, property rights, rather than Curtis’s agenda, which would reward governments for the policies that have kept their populations in poverty by handing over more aid for them to siphon off.

Curtis’s push for a Robin Hood Tax is equally misguided. The ‘Who We Are’ section of the campaign site is far more hilarious than any of his films. Support is expressed from groups such as Christian Aid and Save the Children, as well as the National Union of Teachers. Maybe I’m unusual, but I don’t look to the NUT for advice on financial policy. And what about the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds? There must be more robins and blue tits banking with HSBC than we’ve realised.

It pains me to say it, but the world would be a better place if Richard Curtis went back to churning out romcoms.

Stephen Pollard is editor of the Jewish Chronicle.