Something that’s always fascinated me is why people cry on flights. It often happens when we’re watching an emotional movie – constantly pressing pause so the stranger sitting next to us won’t feel the need to comfort us. Is it the loneliness of being 40,000 feet up in the air? Is it the lack of distractions – no email, no WhatsApp? Or might there be something else going on as well?
In 2011, the airline Virgin Atlantic asked customers about their emotions during flights. A whopping 41 per cent of men said they had “buried themselves in blankets to hide tears in their eyes from other passengers”. I vividly remember the time this happened to me. On a flight from New York to Amsterdam, after a long book tour, I watched a romantic comedy called About Time. It’s a beautiful story of a young man who discovers that love, kindness and gratitude are the most important things in life.
In my circles, films like these are often described as ‘guilty pleasures’. For those who prefer to see themselves as intellectually sophisticated, it can be hard to admit that we actually love them. It’s even harder if you’re the kind of man who suffers from the delusion that love, kindness and gratitude are the enemy of your manliness. Maybe that’s why so many men cry on planes – it’s as if they’re suddenly released from their narrow, restrictive gender role, and can finally be themselves.
I must admit though that I’ve always been a fan of romcoms, and not just as ‘guilty pleasures’. While I was researching my new book, a friend sent me a video in which screenwriter, producer and director Richard Curtis – the man behind About Time – summarised in 75 words what I was trying to say in 500 pages.
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‘‘If you make a film about a man kidnapping a woman and chaining her to a radiator for five years,” he said, “something that has happened probably once in history – it’s called a searingly realistic analysis of society. If I make a film like Love Actually, which is about people falling in love, and there are about a million people falling in love in Britain today, it’s called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world.”
Could he be more spot-on? So often, we equate ‘realism’ with ‘cynicism’. But what if the cynics are really naive? What if we need to rethink what it means to be a realist?
And so I didn’t have to think long about who I wanted to interview for this issue. Richard Curtis is a fascinating man. He’s famous, of course, for classics such as Blackadder, Mr Bean, Notting Hill and Love Actually. But he’s also been hugely influential with his charity work (raising more than a billion pounds with Comic Relief and Red Nose Day) and his activism (Curtis is part of a group called Millionaires for Humanity and a strong advocate for higher taxes on the rich).
In 2010, The Spectator called Curtis a “political agitator of the most dangerous type”. The magazine accused him of using “the very techniques which he has perfected in his films” to spread the propaganda of the “soggy left” (an excellent blurb, I’d say, if he’d ever want to publish an autobiography.)
But when I ask Curtis if there’s a connection between his work and his political views, he gives me a puzzled look.
“I don’t think that I’m representing minority views. Yes, I’ve been an advocate of things like the Robin Hood Tax, which was this idea of trying to just take a little bit of money off the profits that are made in financial trades. An eminently sensible idea, I think. A lot of what I’m saying couldn’t be more mainstream.”
Rutger Bregman: It’s mainstream now. But 15 years ago you spoke to Gordon Brown about the issue of tax evasion and the rich not paying their fair share. Brown said: “It won’t come up during…”
Richard Curtis: “…our lifetime”. Yes, that’s what he said.
He was wrong, wasn’t he?
It clearly has come up.
Tell me about this group you’re part of, Millionaires for Humanity. Is it a private group on Facebook? An elitist society scheming to…
[Laughs] It’s just a letter I’ve signed. A way of making a point. If people assume that all wealthy people are against higher taxes, they should know that’s not the case. In the last few months we’ve learned once again how absolutely key many of our lower-paid workers are. And think about the NHS. After the Second World War, when everybody had shared and people had sacrificed their lives, we decided we must have a national health system. That must have been expensive at that moment, when there was very little money to spare, but it was created out of a crisis. My hope is that the current crisis will have a similar effect.
If you’re not a political agitator, then what are your films essentially about?
There’s no doubt I was over-obsessed with love when I was young. When I was 10, I’d been obsessively in love already with two girls. I could tell you everything about them – they’d been the key things in my mind. I was like a young David Attenborough being obsessed by collecting animals, or a young musician who plays the piano all the time. But my obsession was love.
One of the most powerful moments in About Time is when Bill Nighy – who plays the role of a dying father – gives his son the advice to “marry someone kind”. It reminded me of a landmark psychological study that proved people around the globe think kindness is the most important thing in a relationship.
That doesn’t surprise me. We often find that the structures of society don’t reflect the granular nature of society. Most people are, as we’ve discovered during Covid, immensely kind and immensely responsible. But that is often not reflected in the political discourse. Think about a single mum who can’t pay her gas bill and who has to go to prison – there’s not one single person who’d want that to happen. And yet, society has structured itself to say, ‘Formally we need to place this single mum in prison for the non-payment of £110.’
Another quote from the film: “Nice isn’t necessarily boring.” Tim in About Time seems almost avant-garde in his masculinity. He’s sensitive, friendly, gentle. Could it be that feminism is great news for men as well, because it frees us from old-fashioned gender roles?
Yeah, I agree. My daughter Scarlett is a feminist who wrote the book Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies). She interviewed all the kids in our neighborhood under 20. When she asked: Are you feminists all of them put their hands up. I think we may be heading for a generation to whom it’s much more natural to think about these issues. I am quite hopeful that the battle for equal rights is going to be fought more enthusiastically by both sides. And that men are going to listen a lot more.
What differences do you see between your generation and the generation of your daughter?
When we talk about the big challenges of our time, like climate change, the younger generation feel the urgency in their bones. They feel it in a way we never did. I’ve never been a person on the edge, even though I think I am becoming a little bit more so. A little bit more extreme.
Why do you think that is?
I’m getting older. Running out of time.
You have less to lose? Or are the issues becoming more urgent?
Both of those things. I’m also learning lessons from people like Greta Thunberg and my daughter. Lessons of intolerance. Obviously extremism at a certain point becomes either violent or contradicts its own purposes. But I would encourage young people who read this magazine to be as energetic as they can.
You could argue that kindness sometimes stands in the way of justice. That friendly people don’t change the world. You mentioned Greta Thunberg – she’s probably a lovely person in real life, but that’s not her attitude in politics, right? She speaks truth to power.
I’ve always believed that you need the people who don’t have a sense of humour about things. In my life, I’ve tried to bring people together. But I know that’s not enough.
What do you mean? That there are different roles to play in every movement?
Yes. There’s a fascinating book called Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild. It’s about the British anti-slavery movement in the 19th century. Hochschild tells the story of a guy called Thomas Clarkson, who almost no one knows about today. Clarkson travelled up and down the country, holding rallies, really kicking things off. And then there was William Wilberforce, who received a lot of the credit for the abolition of slavery. He was the parliamentarian who was trying to sway the centre to make it happen in law. But he needed all the rallies, all the extremism, all the hard work from the people on the fringe in order to make it happen.
You are an optimistic person. Is optimism a privilege for people who are rich, white and male?
I’m not sure. I don’t feel it’s true that you can’t be optimistic and kind when you’re poor or less privileged. I think we’ve seen that with Covid as well, that actually everyone in small communities have found the richness of compassion, optimism and understanding in their communities.
I asked the question because yesterday I was watching About Time again. I love the film, but I also realised that a lot of people could look at it and see mostly privilege. It’s a story about rich people living in a big beach mansion. You could say: Well, this is exactly the problem.
I think that’s a fair criticism. That really is the argument for hearing more voices. If I get decommissioned so that somebody with a more relevant and political story has their life heard, I would support that decision.
[We’ve talked for an hour when Curtis mentions he hasn’t always felt so privileged]
You haven’t asked me whether it’s been disadvantageous being a redhead. I’m very glad to see that it’s worked out all right for you.
I only have a red beard. My hair, or what’s left of it, is blonde.
I had such red hair when I was young that my nickname was Blood Nut because my dad said it looked like an axe had been put through my head and that I’d bled on to my hair.
Tim, played by Domhnall Gleeson in About Time, is also a redhead.
Was that on purpose?
Only on purpose once we’d cast Domhnall. I’m glad this seems to be a good generation for redheaded people.
Final question – if your films are about love and kindness, then why are they controversial? Why do you have so many fans, but also quite a few haters?
I’ve got a lot of respect for people who don’t like my films. As long as, in their own lives, they’re trying to change things rather than simply trying to knock things down. I often say that Cynics’ Nose Day has never raised a penny. But if the cynicism and the hostility to the softness in my films is matched by a hard commitment to changing things, then that’s great.
This interview is in this week’s special edition Big Issue, guest edited by author and historian Rutger Bregman. Buy a copy from your local vendor or subscribe to receive the magazine directly to your door or device via our print subscription or on The Big Issue app.