Richard Curtis backs our appeal: 'Love is London's superpower — kindness is the ultimate romantic gesture'

Richard Curtis backs our appeal: 'Love is London's superpower — kindness is the ultimate romantic gesture'

The Love Actually creator and Comic Relief co-founder talks to Katie Strick about filming mishaps, awkward dating encounters and his rollercoaster love affair with our capital city as he joins our appeal

Richard Curtis — BAFTA-winning filmmaker, Comic Relief co-founder and creator of some of the greatest British rom-coms of all time from Love Actually to Notting Hill — is telling me about his favourite if not ever-so-slightly guilty Christmas pastime, which he expects quite a few Londoners might relate to at this time of year: of wandering the streets after-dark, looking in through people's windows at their twinkling lights and festively-dressed trees.

"I’m not accusing myself of a crime here," laughs the famed screenwriter and father-of-four, his dog Betty sitting in his lap. "But I'm completely obsessed with that thing of when it's always cold outside and you look in through someone's window and you can see a fire and a Christmas tree and the lights... In LA you’ve got to walk 10 minutes to see your neighbour whereas I love the fact that even the most expensive houses in London are semi-detached. It's that proximity of everyone in London makes it a very democratic city in a way; that keeps us all very aware of the fact that there's a variety of needs; that you're in a mixed society with mixed fortunes... That's one of the things that's lovely about London: it's cosy."

Curtis, 67, certainly looks pretty cosy in his little corner of north-west London today. He is speaking to me from his new home in Hampstead as his wife Emma Freud — his co-producer for films including Bridget Jones' Diary and About Time — bundles into the room to give him a goodbye kiss before heading out. The couple moved here last month after secretly marrying in September after 33 years together (and two failed proposals), 25 of those living in their beloved Notting Hill — the inspiration behind their 1999 film of the same name and the postcode that will always have Curtis' heart more than any other (he and Freud owned a house with a blue front door, just like Hugh Grant’s character William Thacker in the film).

Curtis and his wife miss west London, of course, but already feel at home in NW3 thanks to welcoming little moments like those Curtis has with a friendly Big Issue seller he passes on his walk to the Tube each day. That same seller recently handed him a pot of honey from his hometown in Romania to thank Curtis for his regular cash donations. "I love that feeling," says Curtis. "It reminded me of the time I first went to Ethiopia with Comic Relief and someone said 'Thank you very much for the help that you’re giving; if ever you in England are in trouble you must get back in touch with us and see if we can ever help in any way'. It's always worth trying to imagine the lives of the people you’re giving money to and the fact that they were someone’s dad, someone’s uncle, someone’s kid at some point. It’s worth remembering the humanity of everyone."

Harper's Bazaar Women Of The Year Awards 2018
Curtis with his wife Emma Freud
Dave Benett/Getty Images for Har

Remembering to show a love for humanity — for other Londoners — not just to friends and romantic partners, is certainly a fitting message for my interview with the notorious rom-com writer, as he becomes the latest famous figure after Benedict Cumberbatch and Judi Dench to back The Standard's Winter Survival Appeal with Comic Relief to help fund charities supporting people across London who are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. As the co-founder of Comic Relief with comedian Lenny Henry, Curtis has been linked to The Standard's winter appeals for two years now, but today he joins our appeal in a more personal capacity; as the guest for a very special charity episode of The Standard's new podcast, London Love Stories with Katie Strick, to raise funds for the joint campaign.

The eight-part podcast series follows Londoners and their real-life love stories, from couples that met on the Tube to fateful 999 calls, but Curtis' love story is a little different to the others featured in the series so far. His particular episode is not about his love story with his wife, nor with his various ex-girlfriends — though both certainly feature — but with London; the city that has provided a backdrop for the last 40 years of his life and for so many of his films, from Four Weddings and a Funeral to his latest Christmas movie, Genie, and the city he believes is one of the most loving in the world, not just in terms of Londoners' propensity for romance, but their propensity to show love to each other, too.

I feel as though when I come to London I'm just experiencing the world, not just bumping into Miss Marple

For Curtis, a key ingredient that make London one of the most romantic in the world is its diversity: the people, the food, the variation in the voices of its Tube announcers. "I still feel in Paris everybody’s French and everybody’s… mean," he teases. "But in London there’s all kinds of people, from your original Cockney to your polite posho. We’ve got such a rich blend of cultures and colours and particularly food. I feel as though when I come to London I’m just experiencing the world, not just bumping into Miss Marple."

Curtis has now said on multiple occasions that he regrets not injecting more of this diversity into what is arguably his most famous film, Love Actually, which celebrated its 20-year anniversary last month. The script originally contained an LGBTQ love story, which was cut "and I feel I let myself down there", and he'd have loved to have featured other religious festivals like Hanukkah and Diwali. Instead, he chose to base the story in the run-up to Christmas because Christmas is a deadline. “I was trying to think of a time where if there were 10 people in similar situations they’d have to sort it out by December 25,” he explains. “I always used to think I could seal the deal before Christmas. And I do think I bought quite a lot of red coats, like the one Martine [McCutcheon] wears in Love Actually, in the hope that it would change some girl’s mind, but it never did. Well… once. I think I bought one for Emma, and things have turned out ok on that front.”

Bill Nighy in Curtis' smash Christmas rom-com Love, Actually

Love Actually went onto gross $247 million dollars and is still held as one of the all-time classic Christmas films, despite criticisms about its lack of diversity and its middle class London fantasyland. Could Curtis be tempted to make another one that’s more reflective of London in 2023? "There are things that I’d do differently… But I don’t think I’ll do [a remake] because Love Actually was one of my films that was closest to a disaster," he tells me. "Two months before it came out, it was an absolute mess... So I feel as though I’ve got lucky once, I don’t want to risk it again."

Still, Curtis says he's also delighted by how little London has changed over the last two decades, in many ways. His beloved Portobello Road "still absolutely smacks of what the Portobello Road always smacked of, which is all the market places and the curious stores selling incense and vegetarian food," he says. And he many of his favourite filming locations remain unchanged. “When I pass those ponds where Hugh Grant and Colin Firth had a fight, I think ‘there’s Hugh and Colin’, and when I go to Trafalgar Square I remember a very windy night actually on top of the National Gallery, trying to get a beautiful shot of the enormous Christmas tree heading down towards Downing Street… To some extent, London is just one big extraordinarily beautiful film set which has managed to drag me through my career.”

Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in romantic comedy Notting Hill

Indeed, there is much in Curtis’ films that still ring true of what he believes makes London so romantic today: the history, from Shakespeare to Dickens; the lights ("if ever you’re shooting a scene and people are sorting their lives out, it’s night and London’s looking very pretty"); the river and its bridges. "Almost every time I’ve fallen in love and wandered by the side of the river contemplating suicide it’s been in London," he says, referencing some of his favourite riverside moments on screen, from that scene on the Embankment in Four Weddings to Liam Neeson's father-son sit-down on a bench in Love Actually.

The filmmaker's own London Love Stories episode, out today, hears everything from his best dating advice for single Londoners ("look at yourself from the outside and say 'What does this person need? What are the qualities that I really want from the person that I might fall in love with?'") to his own awkward dating encounters before meeting Freud. It also hears him walk through his most cherished memories from his four decades in the capital, from Camden, his first home in London as a 20-year-old budding screenwriter trying to impress girls by buying them red coats for Christmas, to Clapham, where he found himself driving every Tuesday throughout his twenties for dinner with the same group of friends — the inspiration for Charles' dinner party set in Notting Hill.

Two months before it came out, Love Actually was an absolute mess... I don't want to risk that again

Friendship like this one, he says, is as key an element to his films as romantic love. "You need friends less when you’re in love but more when you’re not... It’s almost like the mirror image of romantic love: having your friends there to pick up the slack when things go wrong. I do think you’re reminded of this at Christmas if you’re lucky enough to be lucky. It's a lovely time to check on the people you know best. Take advantage; make a few extra phone calls; see how those friends you’ve been worried about are. For a lot of people Christmas is the most testing time because their lives are not where they want their lives to be, and it’s one of the times when people need the most friendship; the most support; the most advice."

Curtis' expression turns more sombre at this point in our interview, as he returns to the subject of those who aren't lucky enough to have a fire or a tree or a welcoming window Londoners like him can peer into longingly. Latest figures show that one in six people in the UK is currently living in relative poverty, and he is particularly worried about the increased pressure on baby banks, donation centres that provide free essentials such as second-hand clothing, toys, and nappies to children under-five.


As a successful director and screenwriter, Curtis realises he and Freud are in a better position to give generously than most, but says it doesn't have to be grand financial gestures that can make a difference. Small donations to a Big Issue seller can help, or sharing one fewer present. "I sometimes think the key event in my whole life, weirdly, was in 1968 there was a famine in Biafra [in West Africa]," he remembers. "My mum gathered us all together and said 'We’re not going to celebrate Christmas this year. No presents, no special food, let’s just take all the cash that we were going to spend and give all of it to that appeal'."

For Curtis, a young boy back then, it was one of the best Christmasses he ever had. "It was just baked beans and bacon and for the first time ever we were allowed to watch the Christmas Top of the Pops," he says.

How you can help

£10 could provide a nourishing meal for a Londoner every day for a month

£20 could provide a duvet and pillow to a young person helping them sleep at night

£50 could contribute to a new school uniform for a child fleeing with a parent from an abusive relationship

£100 could provide 400 meals for families at a local community centre

£300 could pay for all that’s needed by a family expecting a baby, including new cot, mattress and pram

£1,750 could get a truck packed with enough food for 7,000 meals

The screenwriter's quips about being allowed to watch David Bowie on Top of the Pops for one year only might be relatable to anyone banned from TV on Christmas Day, but there is a serious message: that "Christmas is happy enough anyway," for most of us lucky enough to live comfortably, with our own tree and twinkling lights. Honey, twenty quid or whatever it is we decide to share with our neighbours in need, London certainly has a propensity for generosity and small acts of kindness. Perhaps that's what really makes it the most romantic city in the world, actually. Just like Curtis and his Big Issue seller on a quiet street in Hampstead, give generously and freely and unselfishly and you never quite know what you're going to get back in return.

Please search 'London Love Stories with Katie Strick' wherever you get your podcasts to hear more about Richard's love story with London and why he would encourage Londoners to show love to one another this Christmas.

In a nutshell

We have partnered with Comic Relief to launch our Winter Survival Appeal Christmas Campaign, with Comic Relief pledging £500,000 to kick off our fund. The money we raise will help fund charities in London and across the country helping people who are struggling with the cost of living crisis

To make a donation, visit