Profile: Richard Curtis - From gags to riches

`Notting Hill' is charming, witty, delightful. But has the writer of `Blackadder' gone soft?
Dim the lights and pass round the popcorn. Romance and escapism reign supreme, and they're coming to a cinema near you. For those who have spent the past week on Mars, Notting Hill opened this weekend. The reviews are glowing, the queues are gathering and Richard Curtis's mantle as Britain's leading comedic writing genius is assured.

Not that it wasn't already. His contribution to the country's comic output is already prolific and hugely respected. He has written scripts for Not the Nine O'Clock News, including the songs "I Like Trucking" and "Nice Video (Shame about the Song)", and also Mr Bean. Then he created Blackadder, one of the most enduring sitcoms of the Eighties. More recently he has written The Vicar of Dibley, starring Dawn French. Then there are the movies: The Tall Guy, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bean.

The last two are among the top three money-makers in British cinema history. Four Weddings was made for a modest pounds 3m but has grossed more than pounds 250m. Now, of course, there is Notting Hill, which stands a good chance of eclipsing the others.

Curtis says of the film: "What I really wanted to write was a film where I wouldn't have to get up so early in the morning while I was working on it. So I thought I'd set it in the street where I lived." Except that when they came to film the script, the street was rebuilt at Shepperton Studios and so Curtis found himself driving for over an hour each morning to get to work. Funny how things work out.

In every other aspect, Curtis has stuck to familiar territory; there's the self-deprecating, thoroughly decent chap (Hugh Grant), the unattainable American beauty (Julia Roberts), a group of supportive buddies and scene after scene of London looking gorgeous and cool and quaintly prosperous, which, in a sense, is what W11 is to Curtis. His world is insulated and shaped by living among a coterie of like-minded friends and loved ones. "If you want to write a movie that's realistic and grounded, it's much easier if you can imagine the place."

Even easier, if you happen to live the life. Just as Woody Allen has brought his life to celluloid via the chic interiors of Manhattan's Upper East Side, Curtis has succeeded in a similar vein with Notting Hill.

If Allen has chosen as his muse his love interest of the moment, Curtis has stuck steadfastly to Hugh Grant, the foppish yet charming love interest in Four Weddings. Grant is clearly Curtis's alter ego, something Grant twigged pretty early on. "I remember reading the script for Four Weddings and thinking, `My God, I've never met anyone like this.' It was that rather odd, rather un-English combination of having an acerbic wit but also quite liking people. Then I went to the first rehearsal and saw Richard and thought: `I see, it's you.' Really, I just aped him. And now I've made a career out of it."

Everything Curtis touches seems to turn to gold - even his property. The front door of his W11 converted Baptist chapel appears in the film. When the place came on the market recently for pounds 1.3m, estate agents were smugly confident they would get well over the asking price. Meanwhile, Curtis is uprooting to a bigger property in the area to house his family - the radio and television journalist Emma Freud and his two young children. Emma is also his script editor and sternest critic. As he fondly told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs: "She's a very ruthless, almost unpleasant script editor. The thing I dreaded was the bloody letters CDB, which stand for Could Do Better. I used to think, `But I've worked on that for a week'."

It was partly down to her fastidious eye that the script for Four Weddings underwent some 17 rewrites. Amid all this creative activity, Curtis also finds time to work for charity - he is a founding member of Comic Relief, another project that relies on collaboration with close friends. Curtis seems to thrive on these familiar and enduring relationships where work and personal life spill into one another. He says: "I like to work with people who are fond of me, who really know me."

Curtis, 42, who has two elder sisters and a younger brother, grew up within a similarly stable clique, although it was mainly abroad. His father worked for Unilever and travelled a great deal. They lived in the Philippines and Sweden. For a time the family lived in Manila and enjoyed a colonial life based around the polo club and the swimming pool. He went to prep school in England where he won a scholarship to Harrow. There he developed a passion for acting, once playing "a very moving Hermione in a very pretty green velvet dress".

From one close-knit set to another, he went to Oxford where he got a first in English, despite devoting much time working with the postgraduate student Rowan Atkinson in revues. He also met Helen Fielding. "I was appearing in a college play as Marlene Dietrich," she recalls, "wearing fishnet tights and dancing with a chair. He said, `I want to be your boyfriend.' I said, `What a stupid thing to say.'" Still, she did go out with him for a time and the two remain close friends. Curtis is reputed to be helping Fielding out with her characterisation of Bridget Jones as she makes that tricky switch from book to screen. With Curtis's romantic sensibility, Bridget Jones certainly won't remain a neurotic singleton for long.

Which leaves you wondering if there are, or ever have been, any surprises about the man who is a relentless pursuer of happy endings; who chose "And I Love Her" by the Beatles and "If I loved You" by Frank Sinatra for his appearance on Desert Island Discs. In his work, at least, there's certainly a significant contrast if you look back to the biting satire that laced the best of Blackadder. But somehow the trail goes cold after that. Perhaps Ben Elton, who helped to write the series, was a Lennon to Curtis's McCartney. That may explain why the rest of his material, especially his films, are seamlessly buoyant and resolutely inoffensive. The cutting sarcasm and glorious nastiness in Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder dialogue would stick out like a tarantula on a wedding cake in much of Curtis's subsequent writing. Although his work evolved from the "alternative" comedy circuit of the mid-eighties, which included Ben Elton, Angus Deayton, Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry, he is now very much part of the establishment, someone who resides happily within the status quo of populist British humour.

There are sometimes public flashes of that cutting humour he clearly has such a talent for. At the Evening Standard Awards for Four Weddings, for instance, Curtis explained that he based one character in the film on Stephen Fry, with the punchline: "I never felt Andie McDowell really caught the essence of the man."

Not that his brand of celluloid niceness isn't sharp or entertaining. Every now and then, though, it would be nice to stumble across a hint of complexity that defies formulaic safety. Yet the man is squeaky clean and likeable to the core, rather like his films. "I've never taken drugs," he confessed. "I don't sleep with girls under the age of 16, don't smoke, don't get drunk and only drink wine." Fibbing isn't one of his vices, either. One friend, who shared a flat with him in Camden during the early Eighties, says he's seen him drunk only once; Curtis threatened to drink him under the table, where they ended up within 20 minutes. It never happened again.

He also admits that Curtis can be the "ultimate control freak" to work with. "It's doubly frustrating because nine times out of ten he's right. And he makes things better."

When pushed to think of something slightly mischievous Curtis may have got up to in his youth, the same friend hummed and hahed, then finally drew a blank. "I'm afraid he's the real thing. He's one of those irritating people who are as good as they're made out to be." Then, sounding faintly jubilant, he said: "Oh, actually, I've just remembered something. He once got arrested at Reading station for apparently stealing a Sunday supplement from a pile of newspapers. They took him to the police station and one of his friends had to bail him out. But that really is the worst thing he's ever done."

Picture the scene: English railway station, policeman and a forlorn figure on a bench. "Awfully sorry ... er [hand reaches for fringe] ... I was, um, just waiting for the last, um, train and ... oh no, you're going to arrest me, aren't you?" Yet another perfect Hugh Grant moment. The Americans would love it.