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Richard Curtis: “if the future is rotten, a few extra quid is not going to help you”

The screenwriter and film director explains why the key to sustainable investment lies with pension funds.

By Philippa Nuttall

Politics are largely absent from Richard Curtis’s films. In recent years he has come under criticism for apparently failing to tackle the difficult themes of the day. The tendency to evoke a Britain of foppish white middle-classdom, lacking in either multiculturalism or poverty, reigns supreme in films such as Notting Hill and Love Actually

Away from cinema, however, Curtis has a parallel career pushing for social and economic change. Few people are aware that the writer and director co-founded – with the comedian Lenny Henry – Comic Relief, the UK charity aimed at removing poverty and discrimination, which led to the massive televised fundraising event Red Nose Day. Since its inception in 1985, Comic Relief has raised over £1bn.

Curtis is likewise a founding member of the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, and today is a UN advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals. His latest foray is into the world of finance, setting up Make My Money Matter, a UK campaign aimed at ensuring that pension funds protect rather than plunder the planet.

“The pop music world had done so brilliantly with Band Aid and Live Aid, and it came to me and a few friends that it would be great for the comedy world to make its contribution,” Curtis told me over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. The different initiatives he has led since the 1980s are “just a question of shifting the focus on social justice into different places of my life”.

Comedy has been a driver of Curtis’s life. At university in Oxford, he collaborated with Rowan Atkinson (best known for his incarnation of the iconic Mr Bean) with whom he also wrote the Blackadder series, a pseudo-historical British sitcom, the BBC sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News and ITV’s satirical puppet show Spitting Image

“I always think there is a role for humour,” he said in response to my question about whether the medium can deal with deadly serious issues like climate change. He offered the comedy he made for Christmas 2020 to highlight the work of Make My Money Matter, in which actor Jason Isaacs plays the CEO of a company thanking people for destroying millions of acres of forest. Curtis also cited a series of short films he made with Peep Show’s Robert Webb. Webb stars as Desmond the “nasty” dirty pension opposite Susan a “lovely” sustainable pension. “People are quite ready to think about pensions in a funny way; that while you sleep your pension is creeping around and investing in arms and things.”

However, writing or directing a blockbuster series or film around climate change (sustainable pensions on their own would seem a very niche subject) is not on the cards, Curtis suggested.

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“I am not doing much writing at the moment,” he said, but admitted climate change is constantly in his thoughts. “I am working on an animation film that centres around terrible storms at Christmas, and we just inserted a bit to say these things will happen more and more unless we sort the climate thing out.” 

The climate crisis will increasingly appear across all types of culture, insisted Curtis, though he confessed that most are focused on apocalyptic scenarios rather than comedy. “We are seeing an increasing number of TV series and films predicated on some kind of environmental disaster. Because it is so much on people’s minds, we will see climate change at the front of all sorts of things – like there were lots of films about the Vietnam War in the 1960s.”

And if he tackled the subject? Curtis mentioned his 2005 television film The Girl in the Cafe, in which characters played by Bill Nighy and Kelly Macdonald attend a G8 summit and try to drum up support for action on debt and poverty in Africa from bigwig politicians. Put like that, the plot holds little appeal, but the film came away with multiple awards from the 2006 Emmys. “I would now come at it from the other way round and have an individual see how much our own lives have to do with what is happening generally,” said Curtis. “Individual responsibility would be the way in if I were to approach [climate change].

“I’m terribly keen on reviving the Good Life,” he added, referring to the hit 1970s British sitcom. Viewers followed the amusing antics of Tom and Barbara as they attempted to escape the rat race and become totally self-sufficient in suburbia, while being permanently stony broke. “They would definitely change their pension and their bank, not that you would find much money in there.”

The idea of individual empowerment goes to the heart of the Make My Money Matter campaign. It calls for change from governments and pensions funds, but equally puts the emphasis on what individuals can do to move their savings and pressure their employers to do the same. “It is quite a simple choice: do you have a pension that makes a huge contribution to climate issues, or do you ignore that,” he stated.

The trigger for Curtis’s work on sustainable pensions was, he said, watching a TED talk by “the amazing” Australian oncologist Dr Bronwyn King. “She has this moment of revelation when, as a cancer doctor, she talks to a financial adviser for the first time, and realises that the top things in her pension are cigarette companies and she realises she has probably killed more people with her savings than she has saved with her life’s work,” he explained. “That really struck me. I then found that the size of pensions worldwide is $47trn and I thought, ‘Oh this is the thing.’

“I didn’t realise my pension was invested,” he commented with a wry smile. “I just thought it sat in Gringotts bank and magically grew.” For anyone who hasn’t been following, Gringotts is the only goblin-owned wizarding bank in Britain in the Harry Potter series.

While many people are focused on cutting their carbon footprint by flying less, going vegetarian or buying second-hand clothes, their finances are likely having the biggest impact, said Curtis. Moving your money from a traditional pension fund invested in all manner of harmful industries, from arms to fossil fuels, to a sustainable fund supporting renewable energy and the circular economy cuts your carbon emissions by 21 times more than other green actions, his campaign says.

Pensions are not generally the most engaging of topics, but Curtis said that perception is changing as people realise the power they have to change the world through personal investments. “I hope pensions have moved from being a smoky and slightly boring thing to a reveal that you have this weapon in your armoury,” he commented. “Everyone I talk to says, wow I can do that and make one change and still eat hamburgers for the rest of my life – I thought it is great if people do both.

“One thing I love about pensions is the profound logic that a pension is something you collect in the future. If the future is rotten, a few extra quid is not going to help you. You don’t want to inherit a pension in a world where you don’t dare go outside because there is forest fire and smog. We want to inherit a world that is sustainable and sorted.”

[See also: “Climate change will be the biggest human rights violation ever”: the lawyer making fossil fuel companies quake]

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