Richard Curtis rarely rewatches Four Weddings and a Funeral. “There isn’t a natural circumstance where I say: ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do for the next two hours, see one of my films.’” Partly, it is knowing the punchlines. Partly, it is being a bit busy. On the wall of Curtis’s Notting Hill home office (stucco fireplace, neon art, whopping clock), just out of frame of his laptop camera, are six Post-it reminders of pre-Christmas tasks. Wrap presents? Make pud? Nope: rewrite a film, cast an online panto, appoint a new CEO for Comic Relief. Et cetera.
Anyway, for those of us a bit less pressed, things are different. Four Weddings – in which Hugh Grant’s stuttering bachelor, in a series of morning suits, woos Andie MacDowell – was the runaway winner in a new, slightly strange poll to find Britain’s most rewatchable movie. In a list of 50 films co-curated by the British Film Institute and Google Pixel, the tale of Charles and Carrie took 49% of the votes, with Skyfall on 37% and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on 33%.
There are obvious reasons for such a dramatic victory. Little looks more alluring during lockdown than attending a succession of well-oiled parties with a great bunch of mates. “The cluster of warmth increasingly seems more central than the love thing,” says Curtis. On the phone a few days later, the film’s director, Mike Newell, agrees. “I now think it didn’t hit the mark because it was funny or romantic, but because it was about the development of friends. That’s what gives it its great undertow of warmth. It’s a cocoon.”
Four Weddings’ parallels with the TV show Friends – that reigning king of rewatch culture – do not stop there. They are contemporaneous – Friends started in 1994, the same year Four Weddings came out – unfolding in a past that is reassuringly recent, but lacking the mess of the internet. Nostalgia is a driver in baser ways, too. “Just people trying to remember what Hugh looked like before he lost his looks,” says Curtis, who looks exactly the same as ever, a straw-haired ted in expensive specs.
Yet what is weird about rewatching Four Weddings is how modern it feels. Yes, the lack of diversity is dodgy, admits Curtis. “Lenny Henry always teases me by saying: ‘I could have played that black guy nodding during the funeral.’” But overall, the sensibility doesn’t jar. A gay character dies from something other than an Aids-related illness – radical stuff in the mid-90s. And the central power-play (worldly woman runs rings round ditzy fella) is likely to appeal even more to viewers today.
Curtis gives a friendly nod and explains why that is wrong. “Charles’s uselessness and self-doubt is probably closer to the way a lot of men have always felt.” Plus, Curtis has long been a fan of women in charge: think Emma Thompson in The Tall Guy, Dawn French in The Vicar of Dibley, even Queenie in Blackadder – a reflection, he says, of personally wanting “someone more strong-willed and well-organised and emotionally coherent than I was”.
Maybe there is a little regret behind the prevarication. Carrie was not his finest hour, and he knows it. “Mike said that, before you hand in a script, you have to read it 30 times as each character. I don’t know how fully I did it with the Andie part. I didn’t think very hard about where she’d been or what she’d done. But I do remember thinking quite a lot about what happened in her marriage to Corin Redgrave. And Andie was particularly good at that moment [just before Charles’s wedding to someone else] where you see a lot of stuffing and pride has been knocked out.”
Fond as he is of the film, Curtis is frank, almost unfussed, discussing it – a symptom of its age as much as its roaring success. “I’m much more sensitive about About Time [his 2013 time-travel comedy romance with Domhnall Gleeson]. I still want people to see and like it. The message of Four Weddings was just: ‘Find Andie MacDowell and don’t marry her.’ About Time goes into babies and parents dying and the normal run-of-the-millness of life. I was really trying to make a film that would make people think: ‘I should look around me and enjoy my life more.’ With Four Weddings, have whatever opinion you like about it!”
Curtis is not, it turns out, lending his support to the BFI/Google campaign to champion the rewatching of Four Weddings – or any movie, in fact. Rather the opposite: he hopes the poll might introduce British audiences to homegrown films that they have never seen: Local Hero and Gregory’s Girl and Rita, Sue and Bob Too. “The more people realise that Withnail and I might be better than Animal House the better. These films are a great reflection of who and what we are.”
This is not Brexit fretting, but nagging concern over Americanisation. One of the reasons Four Weddings rang true, albeit at a fairly rarefied pitch, is because the producers stood firm over the language. “Enormous erection alone is very questionable,” read a fax from US backers before release, “but a priest having one is even worse. I doubt it’ll fly.”
“I hope we don’t get entirely accessible to everybody else,” says Curtis. “Americans don’t adapt for us. Every film you watch set in New York has 15 references to things that you don’t understand, and it’s not offensive. We love their films.”
Indeed, the film Curtis cites as his own preferred rewatch – Elf – is impeccably American. He gives it his full focus every year, as he does with all movies, sticking out the final hour of Tenet desperate for the loo lest he missed a line explaining things.
Curtis, 64, knows this diligence may make him a fogey. Seeing his four children watch films today reminds him of how his generation used to listen to albums: as background music. “It’s a context for that two hours rather than the total focus. It gives you permission to pay 75% attention. It’s why people like watching Bond films, in bits. They’re not wondering: will Bond die? They’re thinking: there’s a good chase coming up.”
Films have adapted accordingly, thinks Newell, now 78. By which he means that most are “candy wrapper” junk without human truths, to be chucked after consumption. “Almost anything of the superhero stuff is just not very interesting. It’s Ian McKellen with a funny hat on. He can do extraordinary things by looking beadily at the camera! ‘Oh no, look! He’s doing it! Oh no, stop!’”
Franchise films, feeding off audience appetite for lightly repacked known quantities, are the profiteering sister of the rewatch, something that Curtis’s most successful big screen outings are also testimony to. Newell says: “What Richard wrote was – whether intentional or not – a short franchise. Three movies [Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Love Actually] in which Hugh’s character doesn’t really change.”
All three reward rewatching. Four Weddings especially. It is immaculately scripted and performed. It is bright and taut and forever wrongfoots you, despite the spoiler title. But surely seeing it more than, say, four times is a bit self-defeating? Don’t we risk egging one another down a cultural cul-de-sac?
“You terrible old meanie!” says Newell, cackling. He won’t take the bait. Rewatching could – should – be like the close textual analysis FR Leavis taught him. “It’s always surprised me that movies aren’t treated the same way as books. Black-and-white films are automatically shut out of people’s regard, but are infinitely more complicated and sophisticated than films today. We should not be under the tyranny of the new.”
Curtis appears more relaxed. “Yes, in some ways we’ve replaced intensity and uniqueness with access and accessibility. And it’s a loss.” But he remembers the pearl-clutching when VHS tapes came in and quotes the American screenwriter Paul Schrader. “He said: ‘Well, madrigals were huge in the 14th century. They gave everyone great joy for 130 years, and then they drifted away.’”
Having a choice over whether to rewatch something surely beats the alternative. “When I grew up, The Sound of Music played for eight weeks over the summer at the Folkestone Odeon. The following year it was The Battle of Britain.
“And then if you did find a film you felt really deeply about, you still probably only saw it once or twice. So you’d store it in your soul and say it was your favourite. Whereas I think younger people say: ‘That’s my favourite and I’m just going to watch it all the time.’”