Throughout the 1990s, Richard Curtis was the cash cow of the British film industry, a writer born aloft on the wings of stuttering Englishmen and Hugh Grant’s baby-blue eyes. No matter who directed them, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill were Curtis’s films – he was untouchable.
In 2003, he stepped behind the camera for the first time, but after Love Actually – a film so schmaltzy it officially used up the world’s supply of schmaltz, actually making those who watched it feel a little depressed. It remained to be seen whether the writer-turned-director had the guts to emerge from the cushiony-soft womb of the rom-com.
Set in 1967, The Boat That Rocked isn’t a massive stretch: a traditional British comedy based around the boom in pirate radio stations in the mid-’60s, and the ministry’s attempts to shut them down. But it does address a fascinating development in media freedom: the emergence of stations like the infamous Radio Caroline – impounded in ’68, sunk in ’80 and shipwrecked in ’91.
Taking advantage of a loophole in British law, these boats played to over 20 million listeners and battled the hegemony of the government-owned BBC radio, then playing just two hours of popular music a day. These were rebellious havens for rock and pop, but also home to some of the cheesiest radio egos ever to go on air.
‘The real story of pirate radio is absolutely gripping,’ says Curtis. ‘It was shut down by the government after everything had been going well and the newspapers had supported them. Then there were a couple of high-profile stories, including the murder of the owner of one station and allegations of payola. Suddenly ‘pirates’ took on a deeper meaning.’
‘But this isn’t the story of Radio Caroline,’ the writer/director is quick to point out. Indeed, a socio-political thriller was never really on the cards, was it? Curtis’s stomping ground is that of crumbling British egos, gently picking them apart with a fine comic needle. This is no different. ‘It’s about six megalomaniacs on a boat with nowhere to go,’ he summarises with the verbal equivalent of a waft of the hand.
Curtis is also a big Robert Altman fan and, as with Love Actually, has assembled a vast Altman-esque cast including Nighy, Emma Thompson, Rhys Ifans, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Kenneth Branagh.
Research was kept largely to period details and talking to the odd former DJ. ‘They were all lied to. They were all told that it was the Hilton on the sea, but it was actually pretty rough,’ the director explains. But Curtis relied on his imagination for much of the story.
‘It’s surprising how much you kind of already know – so much information is already in your head. When we did Blackadder we did no historical research, and strangely enough, it turns out you know more than you think you do. At the end of Blackadder 2, Ben (Elton, co-writer) gave me the Ladybird Book of Elizabethan England and we’d covered 12 out of the 15 chapters – we’d done potatoes, the Armada, executions, circumnavigation and all of that stuff.’
Well, as long as you’ve covered potatoes.
To keep the ‘pirate’ spirit alive, Curtis arranged for what he calls ‘boat camp’, living aboard the 208-foot fishing trawler where they filmed (also known as the Timor Challenger) to get the feel of what it was like.
‘We worked out a few things, like how they would live, which cabin for which DJ, and we watched a lot of documentaries. Then, on the second night, everyone got extremely drunk and behaved very badly (laughs)!’
It’s difficult to imagine the white-haired, gently-spoken Curtis behaving too badly. Despite being born in New Zealand, Curtis’ background is as English as a hot buttered crumpet draped in the crown jewels. All of his childhood stories tend to involve either pulling a fast one over matron in order to listen to The Beatles’ White Album, or sneaking out of chapel to catch the BBC’s Pick Of The Pops.
They are quips that reveal a music aficionado of the highest order. Curtis’s boyish enthusiasm even extended to giving each actor an iPod of 30 tracks containing songs their DJ would have played and then blaring out ’60s music over the ship’s speakers every lunchtime.
‘I really wanted to write about pop and the joy of pop, and all of the pleasure that it’s given me; and I think that the boat is a sort of metaphor for that – good times, people out at sea away from society. It’s meant to be that feeling that pop music gives you – of freedom and excitement, and of the wind in your hair.’
The Boat That Rocked is potentially another kind of freedom for Curtis, a breakaway from the cloying formula of the rom com, which he’s surely exhausted. Whether he’ll achieve the same global success with this Brit-centric curio, well, that’s as unpredictable as the sea itself.
The Boat That Rocked is released in cinemas on April 16