Appalling, Endearing, Amusing
8 September 2011, 5:23 PM
Your Humble Blogger happened to watch Pirate Radio a little while ago. I enjoyed it a lot, by the way—there’s the advantage of terrific music, but there’s also the Richard Curtis thing, which is what I wanted to talk about here. I have mentioned one of his works before, but I don’t think I have ever really talked about him as a writer, and a damned good writer.
I love Blackadder (particularly Seasons Two and Four), and I adore The Vicar of Dibley, and I am completely smitten with The Tall Guy, and I am crazy about Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I am fond of Notting Hill and I rather like bits of Bean and I enjoyed Love, actually very much, actually, and of course I split my proverbial over Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death, and there isn’t much I like better than Robbie the Reindeer in Hooves of Fire. That’s quite a list, right there, isn’t it? There are probably a handful of screenwriters that have a comparable list, but not more than a handful. So what is it that Richard Curtis does well that puts him in that rarified company? I mean, he’s funny, of course, but he’s not the funniest writer around or even in the top ten. And he does romance well, but I don’t think he’s in the top ten there, either.
I’ll tell you what I think he does very well indeed, possibly better than anyone else: creating characters that are objectively appalling, but who are nonetheless endearing and fun to watch. John Howard Davies, who worked on Bean and The Vicar of Dibley as well as Fawlty Towers and Steptoe and Son and a million others, is quoted in his Guarniad obituary as saying that “All the best sitcom characters are relentlessly horrible”. I don’t completely agree with that—it would be possible to list ten great sitcom characters that are not horrible, or at least not relentlessly horrible—but certainly there are lots of great sitcom characters that are relentlessly horrible. But relentless horribility is not enough. There are lots of lousy sitcoms with lousy horrible characters. The trick, the amazing trick, is to have a character that is utterly appalling, relentlessly horrible, foul and vile, but who we in the audience love nonetheless.
The horrible characters in Four Weddings and a Funeral make a potentially cloying movie much better as does the remarkable room-mate in Notting Hill. Rowan Atkinson was even more appalling playing (essentially) himself in The Tall Guy. But it is (as Mr. Davies says) the sitcoms that make the best use of this talent.
Blackadder himself is perhaps the best possibly example of the appalling character who is endearing in his horribility, and he is surrounded by people who are appallingly stupid, appallingly vicious or appallingly insane. Dibley is populated by people who are appallingly selfish, appallingly stupid or have appallingly foul personal habits.
In Pirate Radio (aka The Boat that Rocked) the boat is inhabited by vain, obsessive, self-important twits. Misogynists at best, the DJs (particularly) treat anyone and everyone around them as the butts of their own pleasure. Not only are they manipulative and abusive, but manipulation and abuse are their first resorts, their habit, their delight. Their only redeeming quality is that they like pop music. Think about that—they may be venal, nasty-minded and petty, but they like The Kinks. In another writer’s hands, I would have been utterly depressed within twenty minutes, and probably shut the thing off before the half-hour mark. Mr. Curtis can make me enjoy being on the boat with these people and even root for them, even as I laugh (rather than cringe) at their appalling behavior.
Of course, it’s all a matter of taste—my Best Reader, for instance, can’t stand the appalling people in Fawlty Towers; I find them hilarious. I can’t stand the characters in Seinfeld, who are perhaps the most universally beloved relentlessly horrible characters in American history. Different people like different things, because people are different one to another, and that of course is what makes the universe interesting and fun. But for me, Richard Curtis tops the list at creating those characters that are both endearing and appalling, the great achievement of sitcomitude (and which, by the way, can even survive the characters Leaving The Bar, which is another matter altogether).
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,