He makes us nice enough for export

No drugs, no council estates and lots of toffs: Richard Curtis's Britain is the only one the rest of

Identity crisis? What identity crisis? Oh, that identity crisis. The Richard Curtis crisis. This is the real dilemma of millennial England, rather than the post-devolution angst we have been anticipating ever since we elected our present government. This is something far more testing, something that has been stalking us for 20 years. The Curtis crisis simply crept up on us. We giggled at Not the Nine O'clock News, we roared at Blackadder, we let our children watch Mr Bean; a few of us formed a Tall Guy cult; rather more allowed themselves to be charmed by Four Weddings and a Funeral. The Vicar of Dibley was growing on us - and then there was no escape. Suddenly it became impossible to be English and not have a position on Richard Curtis. We thought he had merely been entertaining us; in fact the man was reinventing us.

Curtis has written two of the most successful British films of all time, Mr Bean and Four Weddings. Between them they have made just under $500 million to date. At the age of 40, Curtis has already had two Oscar nominations and won a Bafta lifetime achievement award, plus a mantelpiece full of accolades from around the world. It is too early to tell if Notting Hill, the not-quite-sequel to 4WF released in the UK and US last month, will be as profitable as its precursor, but the hype was definitely bigger.

Both these films have been more successful with foreign audiences than at home. Mr Bean is that rare achievement, a visual comedy that transcends language and can therefore clean up at children's matinees and in-flight screenings from Manila to Murmansk. Four Weddings is a different bowl of profiteroles. Beginning with bad language and rushing into sex on the first date, it rates a 15 certificate in Britain and qualifies only as a "little picture" in the US. It has made £28 million here; in comparison, The Full Monty made £57 million at home but did less well than Four Weddings in the US and the rest of the world. Diffident, floppy-haired England is definitely a more successful export than England in a post-industrial masculinity funk.

Since BBC Television signed up Curtis, along with Rowan Atkinson, at the 1979 Edinburgh Festival, a kind of global warming has been taking place in the worlds of his writing. Not the Nine O' clock News was primarily political satire - not as grotesque as Spitting Image nor as aggressive as the later shows from Comedy Store alumni, but fundamentally iconoclastic. In the same vein, Blackadder, which Curtis co-wrote with Ben Elton, followed the fortunes of a house of the English aristocracy, from the Norman conquest to the first world war, portraying each generation's manifestation of Blackadder as a venal, cowardly and corrupt oppressor of the turnip-eating underclass. As bashing the rich remains an acceptable pastime, the series reappears regularly on our screens.

Curtis's first film script, The Tall Guy, featured Jeff Goldblum as an actor who lands the title role in a musical adaptation of The Elephant Man, the most tasteless theatrical conceit since Mel Brooks's Springtime for Hitler. Since this work was a merciless expose of London's chattering classes, it remained a cult success, in contrast to the inoffensive Mr Bean, which silently mugged the global audience.

By Four Weddings and a Funeral, Curtis seemed to have mellowed or perhaps learnt that in the world entertainment market you definitely catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. A few fabulous sneers from Kristin Scott-Thomas, the comparison of the first bride to a giant meringue and then it's sweetness and light all the way. Everyone in this story is as adorable as a Midwestern beauty queen, and even the Scott-Thomas character is soon revealed as a martyr to love and therefore totally forgivable. Significantly for England, the film visited enough English Tourist Board must-sees - medieval churches, country pubs, stately homes, Georgian terraces and the Museum of the Moving Image - to become an international branding exercise. It also portrayed a social group who were just close enough to the Hollywood English of David Niven and Miss Marple to convince the world market that the product was genuine.

Is Richard Curtis's England the real thing? Of course not. Is it part of the real thing? Possibly. It is a Disneyworld England, purged of all poverty, ugliness and cruelty, permanently sunlit and caring. This England is the one we don't mind the rest of the world seeing, a softly lit, smiling country which has turned its best side to the camera and sucked in its beer belly.

While foreign audiences enjoy this theme-park ride through our society, Curtis's England is derided by native intellectuals as an upper-class ghetto in which nobody works and everyone drinks champagne, so unlike the home life of our own dear underclass as it is portrayed in the works of Mike Leigh or Irvine Welsh.

Earlier this year a government report on the declining export potential of our television found that foreign audiences were repelled by films with sordid settings and characters mumbling in dialect. Who needed a government report, when audience figures speak for themselves? Informed by class hatred and the anger of the marginalised, Leigh's and Welsh's work may have been critically acclaimed in Britain but they have failed in the global marketplace.

A Daily Telegraph columnist ventured to comment on Notting Hill, saying how pleasant it was to see a film in which nobody was on benefit or injected heroin. He called Curtis's characters "ethnic toffs", an interesting and apt description. "Ethnic" suggests that a toff is doomed at birth and has no choice in the matter, which for many is the case. It also implies that a toff has as much right to fair treatment as an Albanian. Curtis himself is less than an ethnic toff, being of Czech descent, born in New Zealand and raised in the Philippines and Sweden before becoming a scholarship pupil at Harrow and a student at Christ Church, Oxford.

School contemporaries remember that scholarship boys were viewed with "loathing and disgust" at Harrow and say that Curtis won over the hearties by sheer good nature. He directed plays and eventually became editor of the Harrovian, as well as head of his house. Remarkably, he has developed the perspective of an outsider without any sense of alienation.

In the manner of Walt Disney, Curtis is creating new entertainment on old templates. He is reinterpreting mythological themes. British critics have considered the diffident Hugh Grant character to be stereotypically English in his clownish innocence, an example of the bumbling charm of pre-cool Britannia. In fact he is an archetypal hero found in every storytelling culture. Like the sons of honest woodcutters and poor widows in fairy tales, he is a vulnerable figure who must learn courage in order to win his princess. His toffery is as much of a symbolic disadvantage as is poverty. Curtis himself has pointed out that Notting Hill is simply a retelling of The Princess and the Woodcutter, which itself is the northern European interpretation of the ancient theme of love between a mortal and a goddess.

Like Jacques Tati, Inspector Clouseau or Chaplin's Tramp, Curtis's heroes are baffled by modernity and prone to incompetence. In one scene in Notting Hill, Grant and his circle of friends at dinner try to win the last chocolate by competing to be the worst personal failure at the table. The Curtis hero may have friends who are landed gentry or successful lawyers; typically, he also has friends who are comically stupid. He himself has nothing to offer his princesses but a shared flat, an old banger and a pure heart.

The sheer niceness of Curtis's England has a halo effect. Although 4WF begins with a spate of four-letter words, delivered while the hero struggles against all odds to get to a wedding on time, viewers have never complained about swearing in this context, because, Curtis suggests, it is inspired by "panic and chaos", rather than rage. Notting Hill has been criticised for including no black characters in a portrait of the area of London that is the heartland of the Afro-Caribbean population. The crack dealers of All Saints Road are indeed out of the picture, but there are four black characters in the film - a Hollywood star, a City wide boy, a security guard and a journalist. The all-pervading positivity of the scenario apparently makes them invisible to viewers who are looking for black characters with negative attributes.

Curtis has been accused of intolerable cuteness in his work, which is unjust. The purpose of romantic comedy is always to look like candyfloss while addressing the painful issue of love. The story of Notting Hill is acutely relevant to an era in which many men find themselves falling in love with women who are higher earners and achievers than they are. Four Weddings was a classic story of growing up, in which the hero reluctantly moves from the comfort of an uncommitted group to the scarier state of commitment to a mate.

Love presents these characters with their greatest challenges. All other issues are skilfully sheared away by a writer determined to focus the attention of his audience on their emotions. Nothing makes an intellectual feel worse.

Both stories employ a messenger whose role is to put the hero in touch with his true feelings and send him forward on his quest. In Four Weddings the messenger is the hero's deaf brother; in Notting Hill it is his ex-girlfriend, now married to his best friend but in a wheelchair, crippled in an accident. This motif is not a hostage to political correctness but another mythological device; the disability symbolises an affinity with the divine that gives the messengers their insight. The characters are close relatives of Tiny Tim - and, it must be said, more human into the bargain.

Since the sixties it has been acceptable for the English to hate the upper classes and portray them negatively in drama. The rationale is that the upper classes have the upper hand, that they are a privileged elite guilty of exploiting the rest of the population. The sensitive, kind, innocent, well-meaning, limited but loving people in Richard Curtis's stories do not fit this world-view. His crime, in intellectual eyes, is to treat the ethnic toffs as human beings.

This article first appeared in He makes us nice enough for export

1999-07-05