It's Notting Hill, but not as I know it

Deborah Orr
Wednesday 19 May 1999 23:02 BST

The hype has been with us ever since Julia flew in on Concorde last summer and the Portobello Road was carpeted with artificial snow. Richard Curtis rides again with not a sequel to, but a sort of reprise of, the nation's favourite romantic comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Finally, five years on from Curtis's low-budget triumph, we're within spitting distance of seeing Hugh Grant scoring with another chick from across the pond.

The film, which opens tomorrow, revolves around the "what if" idea of an ordinary chap meeting and romancing a mythically famous actress. William Thacker (Hugh Grant) runs a failing bookshop, rents a room in his bachelor pad to Spike, the smelliest man in the world, and confines his social life to his wacky younger sister and a few old friends, who are self-deprecating, benign, posh people - charming failures like him. Then Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) walks into his shop and a couple of years of star-crossed courtship begin. The script is hilarious, the acting impeccable, and the whole caboodle melds marvellously. Only one flaw spoils the project. Why is it called Notting Hill?

I can recall only one other film with a west London title, and that was 10 Rillington Place. Based on the book by Ludovic Kennedy, the film recounted the arrest and hanging of Timothy Evans for a string of murders in the Notting Hill of the Forties, and the subsequent discovery that it was not Evans, but John Reginald Christie, who had committed the crimes. Richard Fleischer's film makes an interesting contrast to the British movie destined to be this summer's romantic blockbuster, and not only because its portrayal of daily routine in the seedy area is so astoundingly different from the lives we are invited to sample in the Notting Hill of 1999.

After all, Notting Hill was to sink lower than this in the 50 years before Notting Hill arrived. It was still to face Mosley's Fascists, Rachmanism, race riots and a crack epidemic, in the time it took to expunge Rillington Place from the map, for an Alastair Little restaurant to spring up on the next street, and for property to become pounds 100 a square foot more expensive than Mayfair.

Instead, what makes the two films such a striking comparative study is the way 10 Rillington Place is grounded in a horrific reality and concerned with establishing the truth, while Notting Hill is a romantic fantasy, concerned with the gilding of the idea of perfect love, and therefore essentially timeless and placeless.

So why does the title invite us to pay particular attention to time and place? It's not because, like Woody Allen's Manhattan, the film is really about the writer's love-affair with his home patch. When asked in an interview why he lived in Notting Hill, Richard Curtis replied that it was because it had a really good branch of Woolworths. And this idea of Notting Hill as a practical, down-to-earth sort of place is essential to the plot of the film.

But the baggage of its highly specific location, and the association of its screenwriter with that location, invites one to question this portrayal. While in the film Notting Hill is a place of modest perfection, dwelt in by ordinary people whose own perfection is also modest, we know all too well that this isn't true. Notting Hill comes hot on the heels of Notting Hill Gate, the area so hip that Peter Mandelson lost his cabinet job over a secret loan to buy a house not quite in the magical area so sought-after by the famous and well-connected.

And many of its inhabitants really are well-connected. Take the blue front door of Richard Curtis's converted chapel (on the market at pounds 1.3m), which is used as Hugh Grant's front door in the film. Curtis is married to Emma Freud, sister of the PR magnate Matthew Freud, close friend of Peter Mandelson and currently having an affair with Elisabeth Murdoch while his estranged wife "Pidge" Freud is left to attend the premiere of Notting Hill with a nobody like Diana's loving brother, Earl Spencer. So, it takes far less than six degrees of separation to link William Thacker's front door with the heart of government, the centre of British aristocracy, and the most powerful media family in the world.

Nor is it that some essential plot device turns on a specific event that could happen only in Notting Hill. While Thacker muses on the splendidness of the market and the private gardens, the portrayal of the area is extremely partisan. The event for which Notting Hill is best known - its carnival - doesn't figure.

Ever since 1968, when the Notting Hill Carnival was started in response to massive racial unrest, the nation has had an update on the area every August bank holiday. In the past, the angle was always "trouble", but during the Nineties that has subsided. It's not that black and white have come to live peacefully together, it's that the West Indian population has been edged out by wealth. Is that part of the celebration of Notting Hill that the film's title declares it to be? Is that why the only black character with a speaking part is a security guard, not in west London, but in north London? It's utterly absurd to peg Richard Curtis as even the most gentle of white supremacists. But it's equally hard not to view Notting Hill as a tribute to the triumph of the trustafarian.

But even that is not explored honestly. While many Bohemians, outsiders, creative and media types and fairly ordinary Londoners moved into the area in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, it is the whites with inherited wealth (and Thacker isn't living off his empty bookshop) who have come to dominate the area, and to reclaim it as their own.

What these young whites were after, and expected the blacks to provide, was drug culture. One result of this symbiosis has been "heroin chic". Now this kind of social miscegenation occurs largely in the surrounding areas, which have become hip by association. They aren't as expensive, they are the sites of vast council estates, and they retain many of the problems usually associated with the inner city.

The only place left in Notting Hill that is still "edgy" is part of the All Saints Road, best known for drug-dealing and riots. And the rich still buy their drugs there, as do Bohemians like Thacker's flatmate Spike. But although Spike (Rhys Ifans) would in real Notting Hill life rarely be seen without a joint in his hand, in the film he is merely a chain- smoker.

Maybe I'm being unfair. A romantic comedy cannot concern itself with reality, even if it is named after a real London area. Or maybe I'm dwelling too much on the reality of London because of the circumstances under which I saw the film in London's Soho on a Friday evening when the third nail bomb exploded, this time in a pub in central London.

Later, we were told that these attacks were on all of us, not just beleaguered minorities. This was true. The London nail-bomb campaign was a terrible protest against the recent history of growing tolerance and understanding in London, and Britain as a whole. Notting Hill has contributed significantly to that process, so why doesn't Notting Hill acknowledge this?

There are signs that those involved in the film's massive publicity machine are aware that such an omission could cause difficulties. In a promotional supplement plugging Notting Hill, one article suggested that only "curmudgeons" would complain about the lack of representation of the black, Caribbean and Portuguese communities that have lent the area so much of its vibrancy. And it's true that it's hard to voice such groaningly politically correct criticisms without sounding stroppy.

But it's also true that white popular culture has always proved itself adept at colonising black culture, then denying its originators much in the way of credit or financial reward. The emergence of Notting Hill's Notting Hill as hip, happening, cool, trendy and white is the apotheosis of that process, and it is a kick in the teeth to the communities who have given so much to the area, and so much to Britain. It would have been most welcome, in the wake of London's nail-bomb campaign, for the nation to be able to unite around an upbeat, clever romantic comedy which conveyed a rounded vision of the benefits of urban cosmopolitanism.

Instead, in this Notting Hill we see only a place of urban beauty, elegant houses, beautiful gardens, wealth, and whiteness, where the rich dress down in a particular kind of way, maintain expensively dishevelled homes, spend their days in cosseted leisure, and live close by but cushioned from the dangerous excitement of a sprawling cosmopolitan city. They pretend that they're ordinary Londoners, but live high above ordinary London and its burdens and limitations.

They affect normality, but only as a game that subverts their privilege and wealth. Just as Anna Scott wants to be treated like an ordinary girl, except that she also wants to earn more money per movie than ordinary girls would rack up in a dozen lifetimes. In that much, Notting Hill and its ethos is true to the location which named it. But it also means that this is the place in Britain where it is most likely that a world-famous actress might weep before a local man and ask him to love her. That's the unwelcome fact which ruins Richard Curtis's conceit.

Anthony Quinn's review of `Notting Hill' will appear in the new film section on Friday

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