A guest post by Anne Hogben, the Guild's Deputy General Secretary:
Richard Curtis Masterclass at the Haymarket Theatre Monday 5th October 2009
I slipped out of the office on Monday and went to sit at the feet of Guild member Richard Curtis and Emma Freud as they sipped tea on the set of Breakfast at Tiffany's at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and gave a Masterclass to young actors. I scribbled down some notes.
Curtis claims that he started out desperately wanting to be an actor but he was never any good at it. He seemed to have the unfortunate knack of being invisible on stage. Or being visible in the wrong way. Once, when cast as Hermione, he was supposed to be carried offstage by two actors but one of them forgot about him and he ended up being dragged off by his ankles by the remaining actor and his wig fell off. It got the biggest laugh ever and it was that laughter that made him wonder if acting was right for him.
He gave up acting and started sketch writing with Rowan Atkinson. He pointed out that around 95% of comedy writers start on BBC radio sketch shows and that's where he learned his craft. For Curtis, it is still important to insert the set-piece gags within the 30-minute sitcom.
He stressed what a terrible ordeal it was writing for Blackadder. The actors were constantly critical of the scripts. Every day meant endless re-writing. He would have to invent several different lead-ups to the same punch line. It was a very unhappy time but he wouldn't have missed it for anything. He pointed out ruefully that being successful doesn't necessarily mean being happy.
Four Weddings and a Funeral
He took the job of choosing a director very seriously. He wanted a British director with a particular kind of British humour. He studied a lot of classic British comedies and it was Ready When You Are Mr McGill, a television play by Jack Rosenthal and directed by Mike Newell in 1976 that captured that in essence for him. In turn, Mike Newell took on the job of casting very seriously and, in a way, the film was made then because each actor had a very clear idea of who their character was before shooting began.
Asked for advice from some aspiring young writers in the audience, Curtis begged them not to send scripts to him. He stressed that it is much more important to amuse and entertain your own generation and the way to find your own voice is to work with your own contemporaries. Every generation has its own voice.
Asked about his own working methods he explained his own "rule of five". On one day work on the characters, the next day the dialogue, then the jokes, then the plot. (sorry, I can’t recall what the fifth thing was!). Do a different thing every day. This helps to keep things fresh and you focus on just one thing at a time. It is a long process but it will all join up at the end. He confessed he often leaves an encouraging note for himself at the end of each day so that he will find them in the morning with a little tip for how to get started that day. It is important to be nice to yourself because it is such a long process.
Five seems to be his magic number because it is also the number of shots he take at everything. Try doing a line five times and one of them will probably be right. Five different approaches etc.
Make a note when something moves you or makes you laugh and try to find out why.
When he is in the zone he can churn out around 30 pages a day. Later on he does some very rigorous editing. If 1% of it is any good and ends up being used then that is great. He knows he is very lucky that his script editor, Emma Freud, is also his partner and mother of his children and he knows she likes him and likes his work and wants it to be as good as it can be. He is not so sure about the qualification of a lot of other script editors and is wary of them and not sure they always know what they are doing.
He finds video stores very depressing - "a graveyard of a million people's dreams and nothing you actually want to watch." He wants to spend most of his time and energy on his charity work with Comic Relief and do something about eradicating malaria.