I have now watched Love Actually two Christmases running. I have no idea why. Last year it was broadcast on Christmas day itself, and I couldn't really move to turn it off. This year, it was Boxing Day, and I actually only watched the middle 45 minutes or so after the cricket highlights, though ITV managed to insert enough adverts and news bulletins that this dragged on for two hours.
Richard Curtis, the writer of Love Actually (along with Four Weddings, Notting Hill and much else) is inane, pleasant and excruciatingly irritating all at the same time. The fact that all his films are implicitly or explicitly about Richard Curtis would be narcissism enough, were it not for the fact that he evidently seems to find his own dreary middle class foppishness so damn romantic and entertaining. Love Actually - and this really is the most morally confident spoiler anyone could ever issue - is basically 12 different plots, centred around Richard Curtis falling in love, in 12 different ways. In some of them Richard Curtis is gay or Prime Minister or a porn actor, just to prove how transferable his dreary middle class foppishness is from one scenario to the next.
If Love Actually (2003) is of any worth whatsoever, other than to help DFS sell leather sofas every 5 minutes on boxing day evening, it is as the full stop at the end of an era in British cultural and political history that we should probably not mourn. I would suggest that the era in question lasted from 1992-2003, between John Major's General Election victory (and immediate capitulation to the foreign exchange markets) and the Iraq War. John Major originally coined the phrase to define this era: "a nation at ease with itself". Richard Curtis erected its most banal and characteristically saccharin monuments.
Lets work backwards. Firstly, the fact that, in Love Actually, Hugh Grant plays a (foppish middle class) Prime Minister is clear evidence of Tony Blair's impact on Richard Curtis's consciousness. Just as John McCain declared that "you're all Joe the Plumber!", Curtis appears to be saying "you're all Richard Curtis!", even Tony Blair. But it would have been inconceivable in 1992 for the Prime Minister to have been depicted in a rom-com as a witty, smiley, sexy, pretty regular guy. Back in those days when Tories were Tories, and Labour were Labour, an apolitical (foppish middle class) and likeable Prime Minister wouldn't have been an option. We weren't all Richard Curtis back then, least of all our political leaders.
Secondly, take the cultural indicators of a "nation at ease with itself". Proud social liberalism compensates for the complete absence of politics in these films. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) featured a gay relationship that was discussed by the film's characters as the model for all relationships. At the time, Curtis probably thought this put him on the vanguard, waging war against The Sun newspaper (though I wonder if he'd have been equally comfortable alienating The Daily Mail) and old-style Tories, who were nevertheless already on the wane. In this respect, Curtis was backing the right horse commercially: British attitudes towards homosexuality have changed more dramatically over the past 25 years than on nearly any other topic. The films also have a carefully-guaged level of ethnic diversity, presumably another reflection of what it's like to be Richard Curtis ("I live in Notting Hill and I have black friends"; it was around 1992 when Richard Curtis might have dared to attend the Notting Hill Carnival for the first time.)
Another indicator of a "nation at ease with itself" is its urban renaissance, which Owen Hatherley has now demolished in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. Curtis's characters (at least those representing Curtis) are resolutely urban - but only inasmuch as they inhabit dreamy gentrified terraces, entirely unaffordable mews houses and hip Manhattan-style lofts. Again, in 1994 Curtis may have been signalling something that was emerging and unknown to many of his audiences. A decade later, with a nation afflicted by asset-based acquisitive insanity, it was becoming unmanageable and a major source of social division.
Then take Curtis's bizarrely solipsistic obsession with celebrity. Notting Hill (1999) involves a foppish middle class bookshop owner falling in love with a film star who happens to be passing. Love Actually features various unlikely interactions between elite celebrities and regular people, a riff that is hammered home by cameo roles for various of Curtis's mega-famous friends, or getting the actual presenters of TV shows (such as Michael Parkinson) to play themselves. I couldn't help thinking that the implausible near-lynching of Charles and Camilla at the hands of the SWP a few weeks back was quite an amusing twist on Curtis's theme, that depicts London as a small urban village made up of a few major celebs then a lot of idle nobodies: if only the idle nobodies were played by masked anarchists, and not middle class fopps, maybe Curtis would be on to something genuinely entertaining.
This obsession with celebrity is clearly a Blairite cultural trope, summed up in that famous Downing Street drinks party attended by Noel Gallagher et al in 1997. But that in turn was partly a function of the cult of meritocracy, a post-industrial, post-class fantasy in which the difference between the wealthy and the poor is a proportionate reflection of their 'talent' and 'creativity'. Many of the less wealthy characters in Curtis's films are also disorganised and lazy, a slightly darker indication of the Thatcherite residue that survived within this "nation at ease with itself". Curtis's entire oeuvre could indeed be read as communicating one single message: I deserve all my money. The chance interactions between celebrities and commoners that excite Curtis's imagination are gruesomely convivial and egalitarian. Nobody is shouting "off with their heads" or "Tory scum", as occurred when Charles and Camilla mixed with the rabble. They're much more likely to fall in love.
As for the inequality that provides the comedic basis for virtually all of Curtis's films, 'poverty' is depicted as something quaint, humorously shambolic and, in all likelihood, voluntary. In Curtis's universe, even the poor are Richard Curtis, perhaps because he once lived in a bedsit off the Portobello Road while scrounging flash dinners off his less humorously shambolic mates. Worse still, any Londoner might notice that the poor appear to live in a fair amount of luxury: those shambolic lofts and falling-down old terraces might have been infested with vermin in 1973, but became home to lawyers during the 1990s. In this respect, Curtis's apolitical urban aesthetic depended on audiences in Dorset and Surrey failing to keep up with quite how gentrified certain parts of London were becoming, since they turned their backs on it twenty years earlier.
The era that John Major announced and Curtis defined ended a few years back. In 2003, Hugh Grant's character in Love Actually lost interest in the drinks parties and pop stars, and waged war on Iraq, in tandem with a very different set of friends. He was never quite the same since, and I doubt Richard Curtis would have still been comfortable with extending him the compliment "you're also Richard Curtis" beyond this point.
As for the foppish middle class drop-out nobodies, with inexplicably well-financed lives, audiences today would assume that they were either up to their ears in credit card bills, or living off the luck of inherited assets. Materialist economics has returned, as well as politics. The social liberalism is a legacy, an obviously welcome one with lasting consequences, but scarcely representing the end of cultural conflict, and apparently having less and less impact upon the highest echelons of power (two brothers and a married couple now dominate one political party, while an Oxford dining club dominates the other). As for celebrity culture, this is now out of control, both dominating our imaginations and sense of selves, and manically pastiched over and over again via talent shows and reality television. It is making us mentally ill.
An image with which to understand what happened in Britain over the past two decades: Richard Curtis round at John Major's house, sans celebrities, sans ethnic minorities, sans exposed brickwork and sans laughter, reflecting that, actually, while they had a great deal in common with each other, perhaps they had less so with the rest of us or the elites that now govern us.