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BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award

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This is an elongated version of an article that originally appeared on The Spectator Arts Blog here.

Did you know that if you took your bowels and laid them end to end, you’d die? That joke works with practically any of the useless facts you were given about the human body as a child. Did you know that if you took off your skin and laid it out it would cover five tennis courts? And then you would die. If everyone in China stood on each other’s shoulders they would reach past the moon? And most of them would die. And life would go on in Midsomer completely unchanged.

There is, however, one substance, deep inside many of us that is inexhaustible. No matter how much you pull out of us, lay end to end, stretch across tennis courts, croquet pitches or badminton galleries, wind around the surface of Jupiter, or hurl, cackling, into the fiery bowels of the sun, there will still be more. Day after day, week after week it comes. That substance? Hatred of Richard Curtis.

No matter what his achievements, his international successes, his seemingly irredeemable niceness, all qualities we claim to value, almost everyone can be driven into a fizzing, supercilious foam by the mention of his name. Assailed from the left, scoffed at from the right, article after article after article appears, solely about how appalling Richard Curtis is.

I’m guilty of it myself. In an article I wrote for The Spectator last year I spent much of the middle section berating Mr Curtis, culminating in this particularly unpleasant couple of sentences:

“Fortunately, even as wrong-headed, ill-thought-through, patronising, glib and stupid as No Pressure is, it’s not Richard Curtis’ worst film. That’s Love, Actually.”

It’s all too cool and easy to join in the Curtis-bashing without thinking. Or even with thinking. With thinking and gleeful anticipation at all the horrid things you can say with impunity. And with writing yourself little notes in the middle of the night when you dream a particularly acidic putdown and don’t want to forget it before morning. I assume.

But all of the comedy I truly loved growing up had Richard Curtis’ hand in it. The first television programme I ever learned off by heart, imitating each and every one of the performers’ vocal tics, was Blackadder’s Christmas Carol. At school, we all knew it off by heart (when I say ‘all’ of us, I mean those of us not involved in the rugger, violence or sodomy cliques. Four of us).

We knew every series off by heart. And it introduced us to the hard stuff: A Bit Of Fry & Laurie, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, worlds that had seemed impenetrably adult before.

In the mid-nineties he was responsible for the teenage female population of Great Britain becoming infinitely more susceptible to awkward public school boys with unruly hair, when Four Weddings And A Funeral became a hit. My teenaged self is forever grateful. Many women now entering their mid-30s may well not be.

In fact, as the creator of so much of the comedy I devoured repeatedly during my formative years Richard Curtis is certainly responsible, at least in part, for the fact that I now make my living writing and performing comedy. That may be another black mark against him for many.

When I started writing the terrible student plays that terrible students write, I kept crossing out jokes, muttering ‘too Richard Curtis’. Now I just cross them out, muttering ‘too shit.’

How, then, did it reach this pass? How is Curtis-lambastation such an easy trope to fall into? How has Britain’s media become a trough of venom for one of the most successful figures our country had produced in the last century?

He has many of the virtues our right-wing media purport to hold dear. He’s a self-made man; and, although Harrow and The House don’t exactly smack of clawing one’s way up from the streets, he won a scholarship to Harrow, and his career has been marked by an quite boggling amount of work. Richard Curtis clearly works hard. Almost constantly.

And I think this is one of the things we hold against him. We’re lazy. We’re all lazy. Writers are crippled with the knowledge of all that time they’ve wasted checking emails, ‘doing research’, or playing Mineswee… rechecking emails. And when we catch a moment between wines for a quick snooze, we fall asleep haunted by the knowledge that somewhere Richard Curtis is writing something that millions of people will love, and that will lead to his having to build an extension to his bank.

Mr Curtis’ body of work is an indictment of every lazy one of us. Added to which, to a certain part of the right-wing commentariat, it’s probably just typical unpleasantness about a scholarship boy; every haughty reference to The Boat That Rocked a coded whisper about how Curtis has second-hand hockey kit.

He is also an incredible public fund-raiser. Funds that, much to the chagrin of the same cabal of tiresome proto-fascist foghorns, are freely given by people whose concerns are much the same as those of Richard Curtis: alleviating poverty in Britain and abroad with grass-roots projects.

It gives the lie to those libertarians (or, indulge me, ‘fibbertarians’) who claim that they don’t object to things being done for the poor in and of themselves, it’s just when they are done by governments that it’s also a problem for them when Richard Curtis does it. The fact that they are whipped into a steaming, broken, hate-froth by a man who spends a lot of his time organising charitable giving, bankrolled by his private income in the free market (where, incidentally, he’s pretty successful, too) just goes to indicate what decrepit, empty, noise-hoses they are, blaring hateful inanities until their eyes burst, or until Nanny turns down the topsheet. To be clear: they are against the Nanny State, not nannies

You’d think that if you wanted charitable giving to replace the welfare state you might at least take a polite interest in the activities of a man who has raised £630 million through Comic Relief (not counting his involvement in Live Aid or Live Eight). You might be a little intrigued by the way in which it operates on the Golden Pound principle, whereby none of the administrative costs of the organisation are paid for by donations, but rather through interest on money in the bank or corporate sponsorship.

If nothing else, Comic Relief took a grim, drab, wet, minor public school in the bumcrack of Surrey in the late 1980s, where most of the spring term was spent running between classrooms with books over your head to fend off the rain / hail / prefect urine, and offered the possibility that maybe, just for one day, the teachers might let you tell jokes, watch videos, do silly things to raise money. They never did, of course. Being slippered by a man in a plastic red nose is very similar to being slippered by a man without one, but it at least gave us hope.

We’re often told that the left ‘hate success’. They can’t bear it. They search around for anyone showing the slightest zest or entrepreneurial spirit, and then tear them down like a bunch of barely-motivated lions mauling a zebra. Or Richard Branson.

Very few Britons have been as internationally successful as Richard Curtis. It’s often a bit of hyperbole, but it actually would actually take too long to list all of his accomplishments here. His creations are beloved by the world: he co-created Mr Bean. He single-handedly invented a whole genre of films ‘the Britcom’. He’s Oscar-nominated and has a string of hits to his name. He came up with two long-running sitcoms. He hasn’t met a format in which he hasn’t had a huge success. He has exported a certain sort of British culture across the world, and had it embraced everywhere.

It isn’t the left who hate success. Dastardly from Wacky Races (or Stop The Pigeon if you’re a purist) hates success. As do people who write endless gloating articles about Richard Curtis’ perceived failings.

And how can we hate Richard Curtis? He’s so nice. So absolutely, irredeemably, bastardly fucking nice. He’s polite, unfailingly respectful (in public at least) of those around him, gathers talented people and gets excellent work out of them, for free. He’s a national treasure. What is there to get so upset about?

Four things keep coming up.

I’d probably best address the one I played on in the article I wrote: that he seems to have a tin ear for emotion, that he seems not to distinguish between real, earned emotion and cheap sentiment. I was first troubled by this in the infamous “we actually are expected to entertain, even for a beat, the fact that Julia Roberts’ stardom is more of a burden than Gina McKee’s not-having-any-legs and not-being-able-to-have-children” pastry distribution scene in Notting Hill.

To me, this made Love, Actually unwatchable actually (have a look at the other article for some of my specific problems with it), but, you know what? Curtis straddles the line between emotion and sentiment, and the exact position of that line is different for all of us. For some of my friends “Oh, is it raining? I hadn’t noticed…” is intolerable, but I relax into it with an enjoyable mental squelch.

Millions upon millions of people disagree with me about Love, Actually. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m emotionally deficient. Or maybe it’s all right when people disagree about films. And when he gets it right, he gets it exactly right, as he did at the end of his episode of Doctor Who last year.

The second recurrent criticism is just a vague sort of dislike-by-association, because people have him linked quite closely in their minds with Tony Blair and the late 1990s. I don’t see any real evidence for this, although the years of Curtis’ greatest success and prominence as an international figure were also those of the rise of New Labour.

I think Mr Curtis made his feelings pretty clear about Tony Blair in Love, Actually, and that we should bear in mind that one of them two of them holidays with murderers, dictators, alleged hirers of child prostitutes, and seems unable to distinguish between ‘morality’ and ‘venality’; and the other makes funny films and raises money for the poor.

Another criticism is that he is ‘too political’, something you won’t hear those same commentators saying about Rupert Murdoch. When these fibbertarians spend their time bemoaning the way a private individual chooses to give their time to causes they support, you really have to question their commitment to the principles they claim to espouse.

Their problem, of course, is not that he is too political. I’m sure, if pressed, they would concede that he’s entitled to be exactly as political as he wants. They are merely concerned that he is too good at being political, at achieving things and publicising the causes about which he cares. They remember The Vicar Of Dibley.

hat sitcom took a highly contentious issue (about which some of the pepole who so rail against Mr Curtis probably wish we were still arguing now) and showed its absurdity with some delightful casting and a dopey sidekick. He healed the rifts in the General Synod with a Christmas episode about having to eat lots of dinners. And he did it with a warm heart, jokes about words that sound funny, people who don’t understand things, and without ever stooping to the level of his detractors. (Yeah, me! Take that!)

His concerns are close to those of the general public, which is why when Richard Curtis decides the Robin Hood tax is a good thing, the aim of the bankers’ arm of the right-wing commentariat (which is all of the right-wing commentariat) suddenly becomes to destroy Curtis himself. The flying donkeys have been unleashed, beware a torrent of horse-manure.

The last criticism I have heard a lot is that Richard Curtis’ best work is behind him. To which my response is: And?

John Cleese’s best work is behind him, Woody Allen’s best work is behind him, but that is no criticism. When you have left behind things as glorious as they have, you can keep trying on the offchance. When even your relative misses far exceed most other people’s hits, it’s not a terrible thing to not be on your personal top form.

In conjunction with Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis also gave us something that is, I think, more valuable the whole Britcom genre. I call it the Comic Rallentando of Airy Passages. Or CRAP. This is something you’ll see a lot in the more florid passages of dialogue in Blackadder, or whenever there’s a particularly delightful mental image to savour, Rowan Atkinson slows down as he approaches the end of the sentence, and the silly word (ideally a monosyllable) that completes… it.

Atkinson’s eyes roll around the whole room before giving that last word. Often ‘pebble’, or ‘plinth’, or ‘Bob.’

I found myself using the other day with the word ‘glans’. I hadn’t realised when writing it, but as I mouthed that ‘glans’ in front of a room full of people I couldn’t help but think of Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, rolling their plosives around in public.

That’s just one of the rhythms they gave us. When he worked with Rowan Atkinson, we had the joy of seeing someone delighting in writing word for someone who delighted in saying them. Every labial, oily crevice of a word would be exposed. Richard Curtis gave us a comedy in which language wasn’t funny because it had a second meaning, or because it revealed character, but because it was funny to say.

I have problems with some of Richard Curtis’ films, I do think he sometimes takes the easy option for his characters and stories, but he has given us new modes and rhythms of comedy. He wrote the comedy language that a lot of us learned as we grew up. He’s a dominant international figure, an ambassador for Britain, has a phenomenal body of work, and he has added to the lexicon of British comedy, changing it for the better.

Comic Relief is his crowning achievement, a unique testament to the man’s passions and achievements and one that engages all sorts of people across the country to do naff, unsophisticated things because it makes them laugh. Once every two years, Richard Curtis gives us an opportunity to change the world in small, tangible ways and to revel in laughter.

And nothing makes cold hearts sicker than knowing not only is the country laughing, but the country’s giving at the same time.

Oh, and for the record? Bernard And The Genie was excellent. I watched it so often I wore my videotape out. It should be on every Christmas, everywhere. And this Friday, I’ll be watching to see what new things he has come up with to entertain, amuse, and to save lives across the world*.

I’m putting money into Richard Curtis’ pot. I suggest you do, too. And then I’m punching myself in the face for contributing to the torrent of bile that washes over him, and doesn’t seem to have the slightest effect.

Did you know that if you took all of the venom spewed by all of the commentators and put it into a swimming pool, then you’d die. Both because there’s loads and you’d die of old age, but also because venom is… venomous and you shouldn’t even be in the pool in the first place, and… Oh, Richard Curtis is great. Give money to Comic Relief.

The End.

(*This is a fib. This Friday I’ll be at a gig. But I’ll watch it when I get in.)

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Tapley, Wallis, and Amused Bystander

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, famous alumnus. And, in all fairness, he was reasonably famous before we started.

I’ve been teaching Nick Wallis, Breakfast presenter for BBC Surrey, how to do standup comedy, in aid of Comic Relief for the last few weeks. Summaries of bits of our lessons can be found here, here, here, here, & here.

Having exposed himself to the hecklers and monsters of Reigate a couple of Fridays ago, last week Nick had to go and perform for a minute in front of Jo Brand, Jon Culshaw, Hugh Dennis and Emma Freud last week. He had to do actual standup in front of actual standups. You can read all the details, including how Nick felt he was going to be ‘sick on the spot,’ and watch a video of his performance here.

Teaching standup is an odd thing. One week you may be fearing for your students’ safety, the next wiping a tear from your eye as the knob gag that you helped them work up from a weak pun is rapturously received by an audience of… tens, usually.

Still, doing this with Nick has been especially gratifying. Not only has it been heartening to see him take to comedy so easily, but it’s also been a way of raising money for Comic Relief. It’s rare that a a profession so mired in (and fuelled by) cynicism and bitterness gives you an opportunity to do something so utterly wholesome.

What was particularly encouraging was the way in which the judges said that Nick was “most like an actual standup”, “comfortable”, and “so good looking”. I am going to take credit for all of those things…

My notes would be: if you’re going to do an improvised bit, Nick, make sure you’ve got a punchline to end it with, and a way of getting back to the material you’ve prepared. And, stop putting in extra words again, you’re swamping your punchlines with verbiage! But I shall berate you thoroughly for all that next time I see you.

Well done. Next stop: the Komedia on March 17th!

If you’d like the same sort of comedy tuition that Nick Wallis has been receiving, why not drop me an email about one-to-one lessons, or look at the Courses page?

Cover of Dungeon of Dread

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Dear Nick,

What you are about to do is not important.

It may feel like a nerve-wracking ordeal devised especially to torment you, but it isn’t. Your every waking moment might be filled with the dread of imminently having to stand on a stage whilst people watch you and laugh at you. Or, even worse, watch you and not laugh at you. But, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that important.

It is five minutes. In the middle of other people doing their five minutes. Even if it all goes horribly wrong, if the only reactions from the audience are yawns, gasps of horror, or wheezes of despair, it’s not that important.

You won’t be ruining anyone’s life. You probably won’t even be ruining anyone’s evening as there will be lots of other comedy to watch. To you, this is an experience that can consume your every waking moment. To the audience, you’re a brief distraction from the problems in their lives and their own ever-present dread of mortality.

So, relax. Take it easy. I’d suggest that you take a chill pill if it didn’t sound highly illegal, and exactly the sort of thing that caused all that trouble for that nice Dr Shipman.

Relax. Drink the experience in. You don’t get to spend much of your life being silly in front of people. Even if they don’t like it, so what? It’s not like they don’t like you. Unless they do.

And, even then, so what? What does it signify, at the end of the day? That you and some other people met for five minutes, discussed some ideas, and didn’t come to any mutually satisfying conclusions.

Relax. It’s not that important. No one’s life depends on it.

Except in your case, of course, as you’re doing it for charity. The fundees of the Comic Relief charities are directly dependent on your success for life-saving treatments, in some cases.

So don’t relax too much.

Rick Wakeman in 30. October 2003 in Somerville, MA

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The CRCCISC posts are a series of tips to help Nick Wallis, breakfast presenter for BBC Surrey, prepare for his first standup gig, at The Komedia, on March 17th. There are more details in this post.

Dear Nick,

The second lesson is even easier than the first. It’s simple: be forgiving. Be understanding. When you look at the world and notice its absurdities and ridiculousness, pause for a minute to try and understand why it might have got itself into such an absurd state, before condemning it out of hand.

Admittedly, condemning things out of hand is funny. Anger is funny. Your frustrations are funny. But they’ll only take you so far. About as far as being Rick Wakeman in an episode of Grumpy Old Men. And no one wants that.

Comedy has enough middle-class white men sneering at a world that doesn’t quiet defer to them in the way they’d like. You’ll get laughs pointing out everyone else’s deficiencies, but you may well lose your soul in the process.

Keep your bitterness, your ire, your condemnation as arrows in your comic quiver; they’re all easy ones to fall back on. Spend a day trying to find the other kinds of comedy in world. Glory in silliness; see humankind’s foibles as symptoms of what we’re trying to get right, rather than evidence of all we get wrong; meet the world with an open and generous heart.

Above all, if you go to meet someone to talk about standup and you find they may have been out at the Chortle Awards until incredibly late, doing unmentionable things to the free bar, and that they’re now in no real state to see their own feet, never mind tutor anyone in comedy, be forgiving. Be understanding. Be quiet.

And maybe bring them some paracetamols.

Picture of the inside of a Moleskine ruled not...

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The CRCCISC posts are a series of tips to help Nick Wallis, breakfast presenter for BBC Surrey, prepare for his first standup gig, at The Komedia, on March 17th. There are more details in this post.

Dear Nick,

They say that every journey begins with a single step. This is true. Unless you own a car.

You are starting a long journey of self-discovery, one that could one day lead you to the heady heights of a room above a pub in Islington, where hostile strangers will stare at you, and sigh audibly over your punchlines. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. And the last day of the first bit of your life. And the middle day of a section of your life that surrounds this bit.

Your first task is simple: go shopping. Go and buy a notebook and a pen.

Once you have bought them, keep them with you at all times. The style doesn’t matter. Whether you go for a leather-bound Moleskine and a Mont Blanc or a ring-bound pad with a biro is entirely up to you, but, from now on, you must have them to hand whenever anything strikes you as interesting or amusing.

When you’re at work, having them sitting next to you, at home have them next to you. When you go to bed leave them within reach. Take them with you to the loo. Whilst in the loo you might produce some great stuff. You could also write some jokes.

Write down anything that occurs to you as you think of it. Don’t try and remember it later: the best jokes have a habit of disappearing when you try to remember them. At least, that’s what I say happened to mine…

Give your notebook a name. Like ‘Janice’. Learn to love it, hate it, to take it everywhere with you. Use it as a filter to catch the nuggets of interesting stuff that are whizzing through your brain. Have an affair with it No, don’t have an affair with it, because that could end messily and the one thing you don’t want to lose is Janice.

This is the first step on your journey, and, thankfully, it just involves a trip to Rymans (other stationers are available).

Dare to be a hero, Nick. Go and buy a pocket-sized notebook.

Get scribbling.

Tapley, Wallis, and Amused Bystander

What could possibly go wrong?

There are certain small moments of indescribable joy when one’s teaching comedy. There’s seeing a quiet child suddenly find a huge voice when you’re playing improvisation games in a school. There’s watching new jokes coming into being. There’s the look of unadulterated horror on a breakfast DJ’s face as he realises that he has agreed, for Comic Relief, to perform an original set at a proper comedy club in front of a proper audience in a few weeks’ time.

That last one’s my new favourite. You can see his mind’s eye roving over each imagined hostile face, and sweating its way through each uncomfortable, silent second. This is going to be fun.

Yes, as those of you who listened to BBC Surrey (104-104.6 on your FM dial) the other morning will know, I’ll be training Nick Wallis, presenter of the breakfast show, in comedy for the next couple of weeks. Then, on March 17th, he’ll be performing a set, in front of a room full of paying punters, at The Komedia in Brighton.

Nick, of course, will be fine. Not only are (in my Treason Show experience) Komedia crowds delightful in the extreme (and VERY forgiving), but the fact that it’s for charity should mean that no one is going to be judging him too harshly. None of that, of course, will stop him visualising a room so quiet that you can hear people’s expectations crumbling.

Especially now that I’ve mentioned it.

The fact that it’s for charity is a double-edged sword, however.  If I fail to train Nick well enough, we will actually be making the lives of the less-fortunate much, much worse. I get the feeling that for every gag he does that falls flat, Lenny Henry will personally close a hospital in Somalia. For every weak pun, Billy Connolly will throw sawdust and scorpions into the well of a village in Burkina Faso. Each time Nick fluffs a line, Richard Curtis will punch a child carer.

So we’d better get it right…

I’ll be keeping track of Nick’s progress here over the next few weeks, and he will be blogging about it over there. In the meantime, if you run a comedy night in Surrey, and have a spare five minutes to give to Nick between February 25th and March 17th, drop me a line…

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