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29 March 2014

Richard Curtis

Tag(s): People, Philanthropy
This week the Marketors held its Spring lunch at the beautiful Skinners’ Hall. This year’s Master, Michael Harrison, has chosen Communication as his theme and to illustrate that he had persuaded Richard Curtis to speak to us. I had the privilege of introducing him to the attendees.  Richard Curtis, CBE was born in New Zealand to Australian parents. His father worked for Unilever.  He and his family lived in several different countries before moving to England when he was 11. He won a scholarship to Harrow School, where, as head boy, he abolished fagging.  He won a first-class Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature at Christ Church, Oxford where he met and began working with Rowan Atkinson.

After appearing at the  Edinburgh Fringe, they co-wrote for BBC Radio before writing comedy for film and TV. Richard was a regular writer on the TV series Not the Nine O'Clock News, where he wrote many sketches, often with Rowan Atkinson. Richard was the co-writer of the Hee Bee Gee Bees' single "Meaningless Songs (In Very High Voices)" released in 1980 to parody the style of a series of Bee Gees' disco hits.

First with Rowan Atkinson, and later with Ben Elton, Richard then wrote the Blackadder series. Richard and Rowan continued their collaboration with the comedy series Mr Bean.  He created and co-wrote The Vicar of Dibley for comedian Dawn French, which was a great success. In an online poll conducted in 2004 Britain's Best Sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley was voted the third best sitcom in British history and Blackadder the second.

Richard had by then begun writing feature films. His first was The Tall Guy , a comedy starring Jeff Goldblum, Emma Thompson and Rowan Atkinson. But his breakthrough success came with the romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral. Starring Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell, it was produced on a limited budget but went on to be the biggest grossing British film in history at that time. But Notting Hill, again with Hugh Grant and this time Julia Roberts, broke that record to also become the biggest grossing British film of all time. His next film was the adaptation of Bridget Jones's Diary from novel to film. Richard knew the novel's writer Helen Fielding. Indeed, he has credited her with saying that his original script for Four Weddings was too upbeat and needed the addition of a funeral.

Next came Love Actually which he also directed. This time Hugh Grant was joined by Colin Firth, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman and Keira Knightley,

I told Richard that this promotion of Hugh Grant’s career has had consequences in Oxford. While he may have gone to Christ Church which benefitted from the Brideswell Revisited effect Hugh Grant went to my alma mater, New College which saw a big increase in applications to receive some of the Hugh Grant stardust.
 Other films on which he has worked usually as writer include the Mr Bean films, The Boat that Rocked, War Horse with Stephen Spielberg, and About Time. In 2007, he received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award, the highest award the British Film Academy can give a filmmaker.
As well as producing TV programmes and films in his earlier days Richard also produced commercials including two for me when I had just taken over as MD at Sony.  Frankly they weren’t particularly successful but I don’t hold that against him.
Most normal mortals would settle for that but Richard has also spent much of his time campaigning. He was a founder of both Comic Relief with Lenny Henry, and Make Poverty History. He organised the Live 8 concerts with Bob Geldof to publicise poverty, particularly in Africa, and pressure G8 leaders to adopt his proposals for ending it.

The Livery Companies taken together are a major philanthropic force. The last figures I saw show annual giving in excess of £40 million, more than half of which goes to educational projects. In addition there is considerable in-kind giving.

But Comic Relief, and its sub brands Sport Relief and Red Nose Day, are on a different scale. Comic Relief’s mission is to drive positive change through the power of entertainment.  In 2012 Comic Relief raised £89 million and donated £86 million, huge numbers which have been even bigger in previous years. The charity takes a long term view of its activities and in 2012 had £157 million in investments. Altogether Comic Relief has raised almost a billion pounds since its inception. Richard received the BAFTA Humanitarian Award at the 2008 Britannia Awards, for co-creating Comic Relief and contributions to other charitable causes.

So Richard Curtis is both one of the people who have brought more joy to our lives through his entertainment and one of our greatest humanitarians. The Master’s theme is Communication and in our guest speaker we had one of our greatest communicators through the written and spoken word, through radio, TV and film, and above all through humour and generosity of spirit.

Richard had just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the US release of Four Weddings and a Funeral and began by gently mocking the US based marketing manager of a chain of movie theatres who had written to him at the time to complain about the title which he was sure would spoil the film’s chances. But Richard believes in the power of marketing and told us how proud he was of the aggressive marketing used for example with Red Nose Day.

Who would have thought, he asked, that Pampers, working with UNICEF would have eliminated maternal and new-born tetanus in 10 countries? Or that Tesco would place so many computers in schools? Or that his Dad’s firm Unilever would commit itself completely to sustainable living? Or that Sainsbury’s footfall would beat Tesco’s in the week of Comic Relief activity.

For Richard the key is to be bold and think big. When he started Comic Relief he had not had all the successes that I listed in my introduction. He had the experience of writing for Not the Nine O’Clock News and the first Blackadder series which was not particularly successful. He was in the middle of writing the second series which was greatly improved by the addition of Ben Elton’s contribution. But he was hardly a household name and his film writing career was still in the future. Nevertheless he proposed to the BBC that they give him not just an hour or so of programming but seven hours on a Friday night. He then spent four months of his life planning and writing those seven hours of programming. In the end it was a great success but what kept him going was the thought that if his efforts saved the life of just one little girl in Africa it was worth it.

He challenged us as Marketors to think of some area where our efforts could make a difference. He was confident that with our skills and with the Livery tradition of philanthropy there would be some way in which by thinking big we could achieve something truly worthwhile. Richard’s achievements are so inspiring that he speaks with huge credibility but without arrogance. Over lunch he and I spoke of leadership and governance. He had just met Mike Coupe, the incoming chief executive of Sainsbury’s, one of the lead sponsors of Comic Relief. Mike had impressed him that the role was now more about the public image of the company and Richard thought that had changed in business. I agreed as in the past well known personalities in business had usually put themselves forward as a way of promoting their business but now the expectation, certainly in a consumer facing business, was that the leader would be out front living the values of the company and defending it or apologising when something went wrong.

But the real key was the issue of governance. When public trust in institutions like Parliament and the police as well as
commercial organisations like the banks is falling, at the heart is always a failure of governance. What is interesting about the City of London institutions starting with the Lord Mayor and going down through the Masters of the Livery Companies is that the office holders are all elected for just a year in office. That way no individual can distort the way in which the institution behaves. In addition those who have passed the chair stay as members of the Court and can keep an eye out for excessive behaviour. Richard was fascinated and I think I gave him food for thought as to how his charitable boards are run. After all this system of governance has stood the City of London well for over seven centuries.

Copyright David C Pearson 2014 All rights reserved

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