More so in light of the controversy surrounding Russell Brand this week, we seem to have a annoyingly odd habit in this country of knocking our finest talents down when it suits us. Particularly when they so much as dare to connect with something beyond the supposed smoke and mirrors world of wealth and celebrity that often comes with it.
As one of the founders of the quasi-annual Comic Relief and a byword for very British humour, Richard Curtis has been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment several times, namely for daring to connect to real, human emotions in his many works as a scriptwriter, producer and director over the years.
As I drag out a lot of my favourite Christmas films and shows that I watch every year at this time once again – most of which are his work – I am left pondering this conundrum even more. One might say that it’s easy to make light of Curtis for what he does – a good old, British giggle undercut by a bit of heart and soul, as on ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, ‘Notting Hill’ and, of course, ‘Love Actually’, which most believe is about Christmas-y as Curtis gets. Which is where I’d say NUH-UH.
Some 12 years before the star studded antics of Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson and er, Martine McCutcheon finding love in the festive season came to our screens, there was another, sadly lesser known festive offering Richard gave us.
‘Bernard and the Genie’ first aired on BBC One at Christmas 1991, but apart from repeat airings the following couple of years after that, seems to have been consigned to VHS only hell. It starts by setting up two dual plotlines. The first, in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago, sees a jobbing knife thrower, Josephus (played by Lenny Henry), consigned to the innards of a magic lamp by a wicked magician as punishment for accidentally killing his daughter.
The second, in modern day London in 1991 at Christmas, sees affable but shy art dealer, Bernard Bottle (played endearingly by Alan Cumming) sacked unceremoniously by his penny pinching boss (played with hilariously biting sarcasm by Rowan Atkinson) after securing a few priceless paintings and daring to suggest a charitable move from the sale of it.
Coupled with finding out on that same day that his best friend has been sleeping with his fiancée behind his back, he is soon left, jobless and dateless in his Canary Wharf flat with only serial liar Kepple the doorman for company, and the old lamp (now this is where our plotlines meet) that his now ex-fiancée got him for last Christmas.
A quick rub on the lamp and suddenly, Bernard and newly appointed genie Josephus are united, and with every wish at his command they get up to all manner of scrapes along the way and completely turn Bernard’s life upside down – for the better. I won’t give the rest of the plot away to those who are yet to see it, but I hope you’ll discover it’s every bit as brilliant as my description of it implies.
Whilst I will grant you that some parts of the film haven’t dated well, the humour and the heart of the story hasn’t changed one bit and is every bit as relatable as Curtis made it back at the turn of the 90’s. His classic sitcom ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ starring Dawn French (pictured above) was always excellent at doing this – case in point with Geraldine’s speech about the nativity play in the Christmas episode from 1999 – undercutting sidesplitting comedy with touching moments of humanity.
When you get to one particular part of this film where Bernard and Josephus talk about the real meaning of Christmas, you come to see that even more. Particularly in a society where the cynical and aggressive commercialism of Black Friday has now come into our consciousness in the run up to the holidays, Curtis’s films and shows seek to remind us of the important things in life in an accessible way.
And, with his adaptation of the Roald Dahl book ‘Esio Trot’ starring Dame Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman set to hit our TV screens this festive season – once again, using humour to remind us all of human emotions and affection we all look for at this time of year, this is why I feel he’s the best at what he does, and why we could all seek to see the world a little more like he does.
So if you get the chance to this Christmas, watch ‘Esio Trot’. Watch ‘Love Actually’. Or better still, get on YouTube and watch ‘Bernard and the Genie’. To quote Bernard Bottle’s sniveling boss, it makes a fully fledged bastard of a case in point as being perhaps the greatest Christmas film ever.