I hadn’t seen Love Actually for ten years before this Christmas. My daughter Scarlett bought us tickets for what she described as a “special late-night screening” at a local cinema in New York – promising a packed, enthusiastic crowd and high jinks. She couldn’t have been more wrong – there was our family (five), two people kissing in the back row and two people dozing gently in the front row. Total nine – but it did mean I got to watch it in almost total silence and it set me thinking.
I’ve always been sure I wouldn’t do a sequel – but I had sometimes thought it would have been fun to see what some of the characters were up to. Fifteen years later you can be pretty sure that Bill Nighy’s Billy Mack would still be releasing dodgy records – and that Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister would still be doing a dodgy dance. And I did want one or two of the couples to have a kid or two – and see what happened to Liam Neeson’s son once he was all grown up.
And then I thought about the night of Comic Relief. Over the years I’ve done specials of Mr Bean and Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley and I suddenly thought I could do a little special of Love Actually set on Red Nose Day.
And it seemed like a good moment to make it, too – every year Red Nose Day strikes me as a demonstration of the basic generosity of the British public – the basic decency that sees other people’s lives are hard, and wants to do something to help. And at this particular time – when things feel strained, and complicated – it felt like an opportunity to think again whether love still is actually all around us.
And despite the deeply worrying issues that dominate every newspaper every day, it so obviously is. Not romantic love specifically, but the love that sees millions of people on Red Nose Day every year going out of their way to help their human neighbours, at home and abroad. Millions more people every year try to help people than try to harm them – there’s absolutely no comparison in the numbers.
But then of course there were suddenly all the practicalities of getting the job done. Can we get any of the cast in the country at the same time? Is Liam Neeson making Taken 4? Is Lucia Moniz in Portugal? Is Colin Firth too grand now he’s won an Oscar? Last time round, we built our own version of Downing Street. Can we find another house that looks like Downing Street with a staircase that Hugh Grant can dance down? Can Hugh Grant still dance? If he does, what can he dance to?
It’s been a frantic few weeks: it’s obviously very strange and sad that Alan Rickman can’t be with us, and that means Emma Thompson won’t be in it, either. I’ve also had to leave out some of the other stories or it would have started to creep up to a full-length feature, and nobody wanted that. My sons are particularly bitter that we don’t see what’s happened to Colin Frissell (Kris Marshall), who went to America and came back with Denise Richards. I’m assuming that he’s in prison now, but I hope I’m wrong.
As I write this we’ve already filmed with Liam Neeson – who impressively had kept the coat that we first filmed him in, and is wearing it again – and with Rowan Atkinson, who is still wrapping things very lavishly.
Many things have stayed the same, many things have changed. It’s been a particular delight to me how brilliantly the cast have done over the years. When we shot the film, I remember Keira Knightley saying that her next project was “some pirate thing – probably a disaster”. That turned out to be Pirates of the Caribbean, in which Bill Nighy was also later a be-tentacled Davy Jones. Andrew Lincoln had never come across, let alone killed, the Walking Dead. Chiwetel Ejiofor hadn’t been a slave for five minutes, let alone 12 years…
And yet they’re all turning up, and I’m so grateful – and I hope we can make something that leaps into the future with a few surprises and a few laughs. And an outrageous suit worn by Billy Mack. And a little speech by the Prime Minister. And someone standing outside someone’s door holding up some cards saying something, though right now I’m not quite sure what.
I know the film is very much not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve been surprised ever since it came out, and so grateful, that some people are really fond of it. So I hope that a lot of you will turn on to BBC1 on Red Nose Day to see the mini-sequel and maybe find it in your hearts to give a bit of cash to save and change a lot of lives, at home and abroad. What a strange and delightful outcome that would be for our little, old, slightly chaotic “All I Want for Christmas” Christmas film.