It was only a matter of time before Richard Curtis made a film about The Beatles. His 2019 movie, Yesterday, was a celebration of a group that Curtis – and many others of his generation – had grown up with. But even before Yesterday, the influence of The Beatles had already made its way to the very heart of the director’s filmmaking — and no, it’s not something that can be found in his soundtracks or the various hairstyles of Hugh Grant. Instead, The Beatles inspired Curtis on a more fundamental, human level. I’m talking about friendship, namely that between John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr in those early days of their career.
In 2019, Richard Curtis was invited onto Edith Bowman’s film music podcast, Soundtracking. During the interview, Curtis, who was joined by his directorial partner for Yesterday, Danny Boyle, recalled watching The Beatles on television in the 1960s. For Curtis, the notion of four best friends taking on the world together was absolutely intoxicating. Indeed, looking back at the televised performances and interviews that Curtis might have watched as a child, it’s clear how much of The Beatles’ allure was down to their chemistry as a group of friends. There was a theatricality to their dynamic, one which led them to finish each other’s sentences, tease each other, and make light of their immense fame. This theatricality is perfectly demonstrated during an interview in which The Beatles are asked how their friendship was faring under the strain of a life on the road: “Well, it’s actually alright because we’ve…” McCartney begins, looking to his bandmates who, in perfect unison, say: “We’ve been together now for fourteen years,” in the voice of some old deary. “We’ve been mates for quite a long time, so we don’t get on each other’s nerves so much,” McCartney continues, before they all pretend to duff each other up.
The charm of these interactions was not lost on Curtis, who would later describe The Beatles as representing a form of friendship he was desperate to replicate in his own life. And whilst we can’t say for sure if he succeeded in reality, in films like Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary, he can be seen to imitate the friendship dynamic of The Beatles to captivating effect. Take the scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary, for example, in which the titular Jones goes out for a night with “the urban family”, one made up by herself and her three friends: Shazza, Jude, and Tom. Each of these characters, as the voiceover tells us, has a distinctive personality. In much the same way that Lennon was labelled ‘the smart one’, McCartney ‘the cute one’, Harrison ‘the quiet one’ and Ringo Starr ‘the funny one’, Shazza, Jude and Tom each bring something different to the table. As a result, they feel like a genuine group of friends with heartfelt chemistry.
Together, they treat the world with a playfulness that seems to capture The Beatles’ unique characterisation as adults who had all the joy of children. This youthful exuberance is also present in Four Weddings, a film that is dotted with scenes in which the older generation – whether that be annoying hotel guests or stuttering vicars – are made the object of fun. In the same way that The Beatles, during the famous train scene in A Hard Day’s Night, regard adults as a curious peculiarity of life, Curtis takes every opportunity he can to mock the straight-laced and po-faced adult world. Much like The Beatles decades earlier, Curtis’ romantic comedies were, perhaps more than anything, a celebration of youth.
Another example of how The Beatles influenced Curtis’ depiction of friendship comes from Notting Hill. Like Bridget, William Thacker, played by a particularly floppy-haired Hugh Grant (not to be confused with the huge grant that allows undergraduates to attend university) has a group of highly individualistic friends. During the dinner scene, in which Thacker and his gang battle for the last brownie by telling sob stories, Curtis can be seen to replicate The Beatles’ charmingly self-deprecating humour – as showcased once again in A Hard Day’s Night. In that film, The Beatles appear more like a family than a group of friends, a dynamic that translated to their live performances. And, in Notting Hill, it’s possible to see how Curtis (either consciously or subconsciously) absorbed the kind of friendly mockery which has led people to hold up his films as examples of “British humour”.
Looking back at some of Curtis’ classic films, it seems that many of their uniquely British qualities can be traced back to the country’s greatest musical export, The Beatles. Looking back, Curtis’ early work seems to evoke a nostalgia for that freewheeling period of the 1960s in which young people ruled the world. In doing so, films like Notting Hill and Four Weddings continued a legacy that began in the 1960s which, by the ’90s was cropping up all over the place. It’s almost as if Britain was going through a period of cultural nostalgia. Bands like Oasis and Blur appeared to recapture the essence of Beatlemania, whilst Curtis’ films seemed to evoke a camaraderie that The Beatles pioneered in their own time. And in doing so, Curtis has left an indelible mark on the face of popular culture, one that has since come to define the British national identity in an array of subtle ways.