Richard Curtis is one of the most prolific writers for the big and small screens.
The New Zealand-born writer, who moved to England at age 11, has written some of the best television comedies of the last couple decades — “Blackadder,” “Mr. Bean” and “The Vicar of Dibley.” He’s also written some of the most successful British romantic-comedy films — “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” He’s made plenty of forays into drama, such as the acclaimed television film “The Girl in the Cafe” and “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.” Yet “Pirate Radio,” his latest project, is only the second feature he’s directed, after 2003’s “Love Actually.”
It’s not that Mr. Curtis doesn’t enjoy getting behind the camera. It’s that he’s simply too busy doing other things — and not just writing.
“Because of Comic Relief, I have a sort of half-speed career,” he says on a recent visit to the District. The 51-year-old filmmaker founded the charity in 1985. “Oddly enough, I got involved by mistake. I met a girl at dinner who was going to Ethiopia or Sudan during the famine in 1985. And I’d had a glass of wine too many and said, ‘If you want some company, I’ll come.’” He admits that he had hoped to spend some time with the girl, but the charity involved thought they should spread their time around, so she went to Sudan and he went to Ethiopia. He had been raised partly in the Philippines, so he had seen poverty, but that hadn’t prepared him for famine-era Africa.
“Once you’ve seen something like I saw in Ethiopia in 1985, it’s very difficult to not have your priorities shifted,” he says.
His first charity television program raised $30 million. “After that, it’s been difficult to give it up,” he reports. “I gave up writing completely for 2004-2005, when we did Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaign.”
In fact, Mr. Curtis was in Washington not to promote his new film, but to hear a speech by Microsoft philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates. “I look forward to directing, but it’ll probably be only once every three or four years,” he says. He’s very humble about his work and says he and those with whom he works are just doing what regular folks would do given the chance.
Mr. Curtis obviously takes great pleasure in his charitable work, but “Pirate Radio,” which is about a pirate radio ship off the coast of Britain that broadcasts the rock ‘n’ roll the BBC ignores, enabled him to work on something for which he really feels an affinity.
“Pop music has always been my first love. I love my girlfriend, but not as much as I love the Kings of Convenience,” he says with a smile of his longtime partner, Emma Freud.
The film is about 80 percent true, the director says. “There was this astonishing mismatch between supply and demand in 1964 in England,” he says, explaining that despite the country producing “the greatest pop music,” no more than “three songs a day were played on the official BBC radio, because the radio was run by 50-year-olds who were still interested in Johnny Mathis.”