Richard Curtis interview: Captain comedy

IT'S all aboard the love boat in Richard Curtis's latest film, a tribute to pirate radio in the 1960s. The creator of Comic Relief tells Aidan Smith why he makes no apology for returning to the cosy warmth of his boyhood bedroom

RICHARD Curtis doesn't like personal questions, says the PR, and I'll have a much more enjoyable chat with him if I steer clear of them. But it seems like a dereliction of duty not to ask HM Impresario of Comedy the first one instinctively scribbled on my notepad while watching his new film: did he, as a young boy, bid his mother and father goodnight then rush upstairs and dive under the covers for a secret fumble?

"Yes, that lad at the start is me," he says, sipping tea in a Glasgow hotel. "Pop music is absolutely my most favourite thing and I used to listen to the radio all the time, even in bed when my parents forbade it." It's tempting to think that when Curtis makes a film – most obviously, Four Weddings And A Funeral or Love Actually – he tries to envelop the whole country in a big, snuggly, 15-tog duvet of love and friendship and politeness and poshness and floppy hair, but most of all love, absolutely his second most favourite thing. The Boat That Rocked, though, is different.

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Here Curtis pushes off from the shores of a blanketed Britain to plouter about in the North Sea with a bunch of comedy chums which doesn't include Hugh Grant. For the first time in a while, 'Love Is All Around' doesn't feature on a Curtis soundtrack. Of course, The Boat That Rocked isn't that different. It's still got Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans and Emma Thompson. There's a wedding scene and a Christmas scene.

This is Curtis's tribute to the pirate radio of his boyhood and 62 other late-1960s ditties enhance the snugly nostalgia. There's a race against time, another Curtis staple, and one of those classic Curtis endings where the music swells and this time the waves swell too, and emotion is piled on top of emotion, and sweet resolution on top of sweet resolution, like so much bedding.

We're all boarding-school pupils when we watch a Curtis film and he's the kindly matron ensuring that fleece is all around. Aptly, his next music-related memory concerns his own schooldays. "I used to skip chapel so I could listen to Pick Of The Pops," he says, "and when I found out that the Beatles' White Album was to be broadcast in its entirety, I stood against a radiator to fake a hot flush so the nurse would send me to the sanatorium where I could hear 'Piggies' and 'Revolution No 9' and all that wonderful strangeness."

That record was released in 1968, the year after Radio 1 hit the airwaves with some of the shipwrecked pirate jocks from Radio Caroline, one of the stations scuppered by the hastily drafted Marine Offences Act. In the film, Kenneth Branagh plays the Government's Minister for Fun Reduction and Jack Davenport his assistant, a man called Twatt. If you're Curtis's age – he's 52 – Philip Seymour Hoffman's DJ may remind you of Emperor Rosko, while the ghosts of the young, not-yet-megalomaniacal Kenny Everett and Tony Blackburn dart in and out of the cramped booths, developing their bonkers craft.

"I liked you calling it 'in mild defiance…'," says Curtis, who's come to these promo duties direct from Comic Relief, of which he's co-founder. (I wasn't aware I had.) "I was only acting in mild defiance of my parents when I listened to the pirates. They were very tolerant, as I hope I am with my children." Was he excited by the pirates' daring? "Of course. I knew they were on my side." Did he like that they were anti-establishment? The mildly defiant Curtis considers the question carefully. "Well," he says, "my parents only owned eight records, including 'Unforgettable' by Nat King Cole, Mantovani Does Theatreland and My Fair Lady, the Australian version. But our babysitters would arrive with their little boxes of singles and play us the Supremes, so it was music which marked out the differences between our generations."

It is through music, too, that Curtis can delineate his journey from boy to man, revealing some of the personal stuff that's supposed to stay well hidden. "1965, my first Top Of The Pops, tremendously exciting, the Hollies sang 'I'm Alive' – that's in the film… 1968, my first Christmas Top Of The Pops, and all because my mother – we were living in the Philippines at the time – cancelled lunch to give the money to Biafra… Philippines to Sweden, a TV pop show called Op Op Opa!, and a boy was dragged from the front row to be laughed at by 3,000 people – that was me, dressed in my school uniform as usual, even though it was the holidays.

"I'd love to have been a DJ, but then I've always wanted to be someone more interesting than I actually am ... I tried to be in a pop band at school but we only got as far as choosing a name: Versus. I still like it… Posters on my wall? I wrote off for one of The Who, allegedly scarlet, and was hugely disappointed it was orange… My emotional education came from Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt and Kate Bush; they were my only girlfriends in my teens… For my 21st birthday Rowan Atkinson took me to see Abba play Wembley."

Young kids can like Abba, and so can menopausal women – but 21-year-old heterosexual men? "I know," says Curtis gleefully. He admits he never really made the leap from unselfconsciously loving pop to self-consciously stroking his chin to rock. "I've never been a snob about music, or hopefully, anything."

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It's pointless trying to convince Curtis that DJs have got smaller and so has music's importance. "To me it's omnipresent. On Comic Relief we got all our money from four extraordinary songs – Elbow performing 'Puncture Repair' raised 2.1m in 100 seconds."

And mention of Atkinson brings us to Edinburgh, where the university friends performed on the Festival Fringe four years running. "I was always heartbroken in Edinburgh," says Curtis. "One time Rowan turned up and I wasn't able to talk to him because I was so in love with a girl doing Shakespeare at the Freemasons' Hall. I was always heartbroken in my 20s." Still, this hasn't put him off the city: his next film, about time travel, will be set there.

Love, it was bound to crop up sooner or later. Curtis's films are criticised for being gloopily sentimental, with Love Actually being dubbed an "indigestible Christmas pudding" while another reviewer wailed: "If movie theatres had windows I'd have jumped out before the end." He sighs when I bring this up.

"It's bizarre. If Britain had as many serial killers as we see portrayed on our screens, then you and I would be the last two people alive and I would be on the point of murdering you. Yet these films are acclaimed for their brilliant realism while I get slagged off for writing about the major experiences affecting millions and millions of us, love and friendship. I bet that outside this hotel we'd find plenty of laughing and smiling and holding of hands." You may not like Curtis's films but you've got to admire his optimism, here in Glasgow today.

Spurned in Edinburgh, ridiculed in Sweden, reduced to transatlantic pining for beautiful songstresses – you can see how Curtis ended up making the films he does. And in each of them there's a character called Bernard, after the man who stole his first true love. I thought he'd broken with tradition for The Boat That Rocked until he says: "Wait for the DVD extras – James Corden is Bernard."

The stars of Curtis's latest leap to his defence. Tom Sturridge, who plays a younger version of Hugh Grant, romantically bumbling, fringe all over the place, says: "Richard genuinely believes that love and friendship are the most important things, and thank God." Chris (The IT Crowd) O'Dowd says: "Of course there's sentimentality in Richard's films but it's not manipulative. He has a huge heart." And Nick (Hot Fuzz) Frost adds: "Richard is our Woody Allen and he loves weddings – he even came to mine." Was he invited? "Of course, and he told me my speech was the best he'd ever heard – high praise because he's such an authority."

So that's Richard Curtis: film-maker, fundraiser, professional wedding guest, jolly nice chap – and he likes personal questions after all. He talks about his father, who died last year, and how he hopes that a highly emotional visit the pair made to the old man's home village near Venice might one day inspire a film. Then, returning to music, he talks about how his partner Emma Freud wants the church at her funeral to echo to every song there's ever been with the word "angel" in the title.

And him? "'Across the Universe' by the Beatles, that'll do nicely." v

• The Boat That Rocked opens April 3