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Director Richard Curtis on the set of his rock and roll comedy PIRATE RADIO, an Alliance Films release.
Director Richard Curtis on the set of his rock and roll comedy PIRATE RADIO, an Alliance Films release.

Q & A

Richard Curtis rocks the boat Add to ...

Richard Curtis makes films for people who believe in the improbable.

His enormously popular romantic comedies Love, Actually, the Bridget Jones series and Four Weddings and a Funeral , all of which he wrote or co-wrote, show people falling in love who would, in most realities, never even meet. Likewise, his ongoing work with Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean has given the world a Chaplinesque dysfunctional icon who, despite his profound ineptitude, always comes out on top.

Curtis's latest film, Pirate Radio , recreates the lost world of mid-sixties British radio broadcasting - an era when the BBC, the official broadcaster, refused to play popular music. Britons who wanted to hear the Beatles, the Who or anything not made by a symphony orchestra, were forced to tune into amateur radio stations run from ships anchored off-shore (and therefore outside the legal purview of the government).

Talk about unlikely, the idea that people would willingly live on dingy old fishing trawlers just for the pleasure of playing My Generation over and over. But, ah, that was the sixties; or so we are reminded every day by the booming boomer remembrance industry.

To his credit, Curtis has directed a film that is really about the buoyant stupidity, and charm, of youth, those years when any ridiculous proposition seems not only possible but vitally necessary. Sadly, however, the chipper Curtis gave no advice about getting that accursed A Whiter Shade of Pale dirge out my head.

Your generation appears to have a limitless capacity for nostalgia.

Well, do you know, the funny thing is - and this movie is set when it's set, because that's when the pirate radios happened - the more I think about it the more I think it's also a film about how I felt when I was 23. I think maybe the boat's a metaphor for, you know, the first apartment you move into, with too many people, bad food, one person who sleeps with everybody and one person who's slept with nobody. For me it was a basement in Camden Town, listening to music, so I don't know that it's only about the sixties, but it is advantageous if you make a movie about the sixties that there was lots of good music around.

Was the British government really against the pirate stations for cultural reasons, as the film posits, or did they just want the tax revenues?

Yeah, it was a lot of reasons, but they were weird reasons. The strange thing is that it was actually a left-wing government that abolished pirate radio, and the reason they did it, really, was monopolistic. They didn't want commercial radio because they thought broadcasting was so responsible that it shouldn't be in the hands of people who were only doing it for money. But, consequently, the people who ran their radio stations were old and boring. They didn't see any need to play pop music more than about three times in an afternoon.

Some critics have argued that women don't have much to do in this film. The only strong woman character is the ship's cook! Were women that absent in the pirate radio movement? Were there no female DJs?

You know, you write one story about one thing, and you write another one about another thing. I mean, I'd just written The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency [for television] which has two very strong women characters, and the thing I wrote before that was a sitcom about female vicars. So, I think if you're going to write a movie about a pirate radio station, the joke has to be that they didn't have girls on board because it would have driven them mad, and then you do the best that you can with that set-up. There were no women DJs, that I have heard, but once or twice people have mentioned that there were one or two.

Do you see parallels between the pirate radio story and the debates about online piracy?

Um, that wasn't in my head, but I think there are interesting, really interesting, issues about pop music as it changes. I have noticed, for instance, that my daughter and her friends never listen to whole albums any more, together. Music has become in some ways more private, and I think that there are really interesting things going on in the Internet, and that the issue of the financial model is pretty extraordinary. For instance, there's a huge rise in the number of festivals now, at least in Britain, partly because people don't share their music, so they desperately want to go somewhere where everybody is sharing the music.

The film has two distinct looks - the severe, modernist look of the government offices vs. the scrappy, do-it-yourself look of the ship. Are you setting up a high- vs. low-culture dialogue in the film?

Ha! I don't know if I'd describe Ken's world [Kenneth Branagh, who plays an uptight government minister]as high art. In fact, in my mind was the thought that Ken's character would hate all the art in his office, that it was one of those things where he'd been put in a new office and had to tolerate the modern art.

Obviously, the clash of the two styles is on purpose. I sort of feel that there was an innocence about people's attitude to pop culture that there isn't now, because it's been established that pop culture does have the opportunity to be great as well as trite, to be socially powerful. But I think people were just sort of stumbling on that truth in the sixties, which was kind of delightful.

I love Kenneth Branagh's little blond mustache.

Oh, he was so proud of the mustache! He said, I'm gonna grow you a mustache, and then if you don't like it I'll cut it off when I arrive. But I knew that that was like saying, "If you don't like my child, you can put it in the next room." I obviously had to say it was a lovely mustache!

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