Richard Curtis: why I wrote Mary and Martha

Forget Four Weddings, the writer's new drama aims to stop a million funerals

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I don’t know exactly when it was that I became a little obsessed with malaria. I think it was in a conversation with a man called Jeffrey Sachs who wrote the brilliant book The End of Poverty and has a slightly controversial haircut. He talked about malaria being this “low hanging fruit” – a disease that was entirely preventable and curable but was killing a million people a year, most of them children.

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Not long after, I saw an extraordinary documentary called Fever Road. It was mainly set in a village in Kenya where every single summer a chunky percentage of the children inevitably died of malaria. They had “malaria month”. Every year. Just like that. If you take my son Charlie’s class – that’s Charlie himself, Barney and Sam gone this year. Kassim, Rosie and Jimmy, who plays in goal, next year. But basically the documentary had the same message – a preventable, curable disease was killing close to a million children a year.

I took this back to Comic Relief – and the more we looked at it, the more it seemed like the perfect example of what we’d claimed: that it really is possible for a small amount of money to change and save the lives of the people we serve in Africa. A mosquito net costs £5, the rapid testing kit costs 40p, the emergency drugs cost £1.20.

The next Red Nose Day we started making films about malaria. Gary Barlow, Cheryl Cole, Chris Moyles, and the group who climbed up Kilimanjaro promised to buy thousands of mosquito nets – and eventually did succeed in raising the money for over a million. And we started making our short documentary appeal films on the subject for the night. They were terrible, terrible things to work on. It soon became clear that if we sent one of our presenters to certain African hospitals, they would be absolutely certain to see children dying of malaria.

In one particular memorable moment, Chris Moyles is watching a little boy recovering in the hospital and he slips out for a fag. As he leans against the hospital wall, he sees a man putting a small wrapped bundle into the back of his car. It’s his child. His Charlie. Cigarette over, Chris goes back to see how the first child is getting on. But in the two minutes that he’s been outside, little Makebi has died. I’ve got another son called Spike. That’s Spike gone.

I started to get obsessed and really confused. Our newspapers often concentrate for weeks on the death of one child in the UK – but here were a million children, dying every year, and nothing in the papers. Billions of pounds spent on wars, with uncertain outcomes – but not enough money put aside to fight a curable, preventable disease where there is actually a plan, a blueprint for getting the deaths down to nearly zero – yet, it’s never at the top of anyone’s agenda.

It’s hard to forget the look on David Tennant’s face on Red Nose Day 2011 when he wanders around Mbale Hospital in Uganda with a list of children’s names, reading out what disease they’ve got: “Aswena – malaria. Stephen – malaria. Peter, Shikebu, another Peter – all with malaria. Gracious – diabetes, caused by malaria.” Then David turns to the camera and talks about the people who don’t give money on Red Nose Night and begs the viewers not to be “that person”.

That’s how I felt – was I going to be a writer who knew about this stuff intimately, and yet continued to write fictional films, usually featuring weddings? And that’s why I wrote Mary and Martha.

It’s about two women – an American, Mary, acted by the wonderful Hilary Swank, and the quintessential British actress Brenda Blethyn playing Martha. Both of them start the movie with no connection to malaria. Both of them end the movie utterly obsessed and passionate about the issue, having been personally and terribly affected by it. The film is really about being a parent, and about, as Brenda’s character says, the question of “What can a mother without a child really do?” What they decide to do is find out about malaria, and do whatever they can to fight against this terrible killing machine.

I don’t know what the film will achieve – I just hope that people who watch it will enjoy it in that way that sad things can be enjoyable – and maybe, some of you who do, will find that you want to do something to save one life, or be part of the movement that makes sure that in our lifetime we save millions and millions and millions of children’s lives, unnecessarily lost.

The number dying of malaria each year now has gone down to around 650,000. This amazing progress shows the battle can be won. But there’s a tragically long way to go. The faster we get there, the better.

Mary and Martha is on tonight at 8:30pm on BBC1 (9:00pm on BBC2 in Wales)


A British victim, a mother’s anguish

Every time Lee Dagnan waved his mother Daniela goodbye after a visit home he would say the same thing. “He’d tell me not to watch him walk away as he knew I’d cry,” says Daniela. “Of course, I always did.” In recent months though Daniela, 47, from Stamford, Lincolnshire, has shed more tears for her son than she thought possible. Lee was just 26 when, in March last year he died from malaria while working as a security guard on board an oil tanker in the Middle East.

For Daniela, watching Richard Curtis’s film was a painful experience “I was in bits watching it,” she says, “but I really hope it highlights the fact that malaria isn’t something that only happens to people who live in Africa.”

Daniela still struggles to take in the fact that malaria claimed the life of her only son, one of four children born to her and her late husband. A larger-than-life personality with a taste for adventure, Lee was home for Christmas 2011 then returned to Africa in January 2012 to serve another three-month contract. Lee’s work, inevitably, took him to malarial zones when on-shore, although he took the anti-malarial drug, Malarone, whenever he could. “I worried about him terribly, of course, but he always said, ‘Don’t you fret about me mum,’” Daniela recalls.

On 16 March Daniela received a call from Lee’s employer informing her he’d caught a fever. “They said not to worry as they were evacuating him by helicopter to the nearest hospital, but my blood ran cold,” she says. “Call it mother’s instinct, but I knew something was terribly wrong. I lay awake all night.”

In fact, Lee was not evacuated until much later that evening, and then not by helicopter but by boat to the Republic of Djibouti, where he was transferred by car to a French military hospital. “By then he was in organ failure. He had two heart attacks on arrival at the hospital,” says Daniela. Lee died the following day, his death recorded as organ failure due to malaria.

“Lee complained of feeling unwell on 10 March when he boarded the ship in Sri Lanka,” she says. “He had a temperature, wasn’t passing urine and was covered with mosquito bites, but all he was given was paracetamol and cold and flu remedies because no one was able to diagnose him.” If he had been treated with anti-malarial drugs then he would almost certainly have survived.

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That knowledge is extraordinarily painful for Daniela, who has launched an online petition calling for more rigorous medical training for those working in the maritime industry. “It’s about knowing the symptoms and identifying them early. Lee would still be here if proper action had been taken. Malaria needn’t be a killer.” Kathryn Knight