Richard Curtis on the Music of Pirate Radio
Nick Dawson sits down with Pirate Radio’s writer-director to discuss what he describes as his “first love.”
Music is the heart and soul of Focus Features’ current release Pirate Radio, the new film from writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually), a comedy about a rebellious group of 60s DJs in the middle of the North Sea broadcasting illegally to the rock ‘n’ roll obsessed youth of Britain. So when Curtis was in New York recently to do press for the movie, FilmInFocus sat down with him to talk about his passion for music – which he describes as his “first love” – from listening to his dad playing The Sound of Music and Mantovani and being mocked by Swedish pop stars as a boy all the way through to writing songs himself and, with Pirate Radio, creating an entire movie around the euphoric pop songs of his childhood.
You grew up in the 60s, so what are your memories of listening to music as a young boy?
My dad had exactly the record collection that I think all the non-American fathers had. He had two copies of The Sound of Music, the stage show and movie, The Unforgettable Nat King Cole (one of those albums where there’s talking in between: “Then in 1952, he met Nelson Riddle…”), Louis Armstrong’s Hello Dolly!, Mantovani’s Songs Hits From Theatreland. We had eight albums. I had older sisters, which was great, and then babysitters started coming in with their little boxes of singles. My parents would go out and they’d take off Frank Sinatra and put on the Honeycombs and the Beatles, and it was just so fantastic. It was wonderful, ecstatic, joyous music, so I really started to love pop music. I was living in Sweden and I couldn’t get enough of it. Excitement was in the air.
And then at eight, I was sent off to boarding school and realized that the only friends I had were the DJs on at 9 o’clock at night, after the lights had been turned off. I had a tiny transistor radio. It was so like a drug then, because now if you hear a song you can satisfy your urge, you can buy it online. But then I was a little boy and I didn’t have any money at school, obviously, so if you heard “Love is All Around” by the Troggs, the only way [to hear it again was on the radio]. The experience was like being a drug addict, because the next day you were hoping that the person would play it again and you would stay awake and awake and awake, hoping to hear that fantastic song again.
I’ve also always been very interested in charts. Chapel was at 6 o’clock and “Fluff” Freeman’s chart show was between 5 and 7, so sometimes I used to hide in the music rehearsal rooms and miss chapel. I remember thinking to myself, “I made the right decision because it turned out God doesn’t exist and the Beatles definitely did!”
I was very obsessed and I’ve never lost interest in it. All the way through my teens I loved Dylan, all the way through my twenties I loved the Waterboys, and now I’m very keen on Bon Iver, Sigur Ros and Elbow and Taylor Swift. It’s almost been my major interest.
Looking at your bio, you spent portions of your childhood in the Philippines and New Zealand as well as Sweden, so did you ever get a taste of those countries’ pop scenes also during the Sixties?
Of the Philippines pop scene? Nothing. I only know “Maligayang Pasko,” the Easter Song. I do remember, strangely, that I have records by the Hootenanny Singers and the Hep Stars. In the Hootenanny Singers there was a guy called Björn and in the Hep Stars there was a guy called Benny, and they both left and formed ABBA. There was a band called Ola and the Janglers, and I remember seeing them on a live TV show called Op Op Oppa. Because my sisters were spending all the family money on fashionable clothes because they were sexy teenagers, I used to wear my school uniform during the school holidays and I remember Ola taking the piss out of me and bringing me up on stage to laugh at me.