This film taught me nothing at all about shopkeeping

Instead of selling books, the hero of the film spends his time mooning after an American actress
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I HAVE always been passionate about bookshops, so I was very much looking forward to seeing the film Notting Hill, much publicised as the story of a man who sold travel books in Notting Hill.

You can imagine my chagrin on finding - when I finally saw it this Wednesday - that although the hero of the film does in fact stock travel books in his shop, he only sold one during the entire film, and never seemed to reorder any stock, or discuss the usefulness of the Lonely Planet series vis-a-vis the Rough Guide, or anything instructive at all. In fact, he seldom visits the shop and spends most of his time mooning around after an American actress and she, unaccountably, after him.

Anyone wishing to learn more about the book trade would be therefore well advised to avoid this film. More especially, I would advise my daughter to avoid this film, if she hasn't already seen it. This is because when my daughter lived in Notting Hill, she ran for a while the Travel Bookshop in Elgin Crescent, which was and still is as far as I know the only real travel bookshop in W11, and is situated more or less where the one in the film is. She therefore already knows more about the travel book trade than a film could teach her.

Actually, real bookshop life was, as Sophie recounted it, slightly more interesting than the fictional one. The neighbours were more interesting, for a start - right across the road there was a cook book shop managed by the then obscure Clarissa Dickson Wright. They got a better class of celebrity than Julia Roberts drifting in, too - and possibly a better class of malingering. In the film there is a rather conventional shoplifting incident in the shop. That is not what bothered Sophie in real life.

"What used to get up my nose," she once told me, "was the people who would come in and use the place as a reference library. They would be planning a big holiday, and instead of buying all the necessary guides and books, they would come and stay for hours copying the stuff out of OUR books, making notes, often writing in the books themselves and then leave without saying - or buying - anything!"

Potential for humour there, especially as one of those people was Richard Curtis himself. Sarah Anderson, who owned the shop then and is still a co-owner, remembers him coming in about six years ago and making copious notes about the shop. Somewhat illegible notes, perhaps, as the travel bookshop in the film didn't turn out at all like the real one.

"For one thing," says Sarah Anderson, "the Hugh Grant character is a rotten bookseller and very unsuccessful, and doesn't seem to have much stock, and we are really a thriving concern. Mark you, we can't grumble. The film has done a lot for our business. It's been out for quite a while, and yet we still get loads of tourists coming in - especially Japanese - wanting to see where it all happened.

"The fact that we are clearly quite different from the fictional shop, both inside and out, doesn't deter them - they still want to know where Hugh Grant sat, where Julia Roberts stood, and everything. The amazing thing is that when they find they can't get autographs from Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts, they ask the bookshop staff for their signatures instead .... !"

The one unsolved mystery is why the Julia Roberts character would fall for the Hugh Grant character. Sarah thinks it's because American women really like that kind of British male.

My wife has a more intricate theory. She says that William Thacker, the Hugh Grant character (who may, come to think of it, be the only film hero ever named after a famous writer with the last two letters removed), is totally colourless apart from a damp charm, but seems to be interesting because he is surrounded by unusual and interesting friends. And I think it may be true.

Thacker is surrounded by slightly wacky characters, all more engaging than him, who give him a sort of honorary interest. He is only interesting by association with these off-centre middle class friends, even with his flatmate Spike, who is so implausible he seems to have blundered in from a Carry On film by mistake. Without them, he would be invisible.

Actually, the character which poor old Hugh Grant is forced to play was so infuriatingly null and void that when my wife asked me afterwards if I identified with any of the people, I said: "Yes. Mrs Thacker, William's divorced wife."

"But she didn't appear in the film," she said.

"That's why I identified," I said, "She was the only one who had the wit to ditch him and clear off."

Comments