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Richard Curtis talks twins, tinsel and tough love

The award-winning writer and director has turned his talents to creating a picture book about stockings, actually


Posted: 21 December 2012
by Catherine O'Dolan

An illustration from The Empty Stocking

SILVER-GREY HAIR, twinkling azure eyes and a penchant for red coats? Mmmm, there’s something vaguely reminiscent of a certain festive fellow in the amiable demeanour of award-winning writer, director and father-of-four, Richard Curtis. Not that he’d ever wear a red coat, of course. No, he’s strictly a black or grey type of jacket-wearer, but he does have a bit of a thing about crimson coats. And Christmas.

Curtis has already earned a reputation for a nice line in feelgood festive fables. As the scriptwriter of well-loved sitcoms Blackadder and The Vicar Of Dibley, of which he has penned “more Christmas specials than I’ve had hot dinners,” he is also responsible for memorable moments from Bridget Jones’s Diary with Mark Darcy in his dodgy reindeer jumper and the seasonal shenanigans of Love Actually.

“Love Actually wasn’t originally set at Christmas,” admits Curtis. “Then it occurred to me that Christmas is a time when you long for emotional or romantic intensity. As a young man, I always wanted to buy a girl a red coat, so even if I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, I’d buy someone a red coat. That’s why Martine McCutcheon wears a big red coat in the movie.”

Curtis is a prodigious talent. As well as being a founder of Comic Relief and Red Nose Day, his recent work includes the screenplay for Spielberg’s War Horse, and the memorable Vincent Van Gogh episode of Dr Who. So why write a children’s book? “When I started, I wrote to make my friends laugh,” says Curtis, recalling his days of writing skits for Not The Nine O’Clock News. “Now my children are such a huge thing in my life that writing to please them is logical.”

The result, guaranteed to send shockwaves to the legions of children hoping to receive oodles of Christmas presents, is entitled The Empty Stocking. The central protagonists are twin sisters, Sam and Charlie, identical in looks (though Sam always wears plaits, and Charlie has a Potter-esque fork-shaped scar on her cheek) but with polar personalities: Sam is a proper goody-two-shoes, while Charlie is “Very naughty. Not interested in being obedient. Not very fond of telling the complete truth. But very fond of eating sweets.” (Note, she doesn’t always pay for them, either – a discretion Curtis regards not as wanton pilfering, but more as a redistribution of wealth). Considering her misdemeanours, the big question is: will Santa be bringing Charlie any presents this year?

“I love that line from Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, ‘So be good for goodness sake,’” says Curtis. “It’s hilarious, but I think we’re past the generation where that actually had leverage for good behaviour.”
Curtis’s Santa is no push-over: he employs tough love, so Charlie’s stocking – shock, horror! – is left empty. But there is a twist: Santa has confused the twins and it is Sam’s stocking that is left bereft. When Charlie awakes in the night, she discovers what has happened and redemption follows as she selflessly shares out her own presents, before the rest of the family awake.

This kind act sets Santa’s GoodBadOmeter flashing and, with no good deed going unrecognised, there’s a special extra gift in store for Charlie on Christmas morning.A self-confessed “goody-goody” as a young boy, how much did Curtis relish depicting a more rascally child? “Generally in a story, there has to be a problem to start with,” he says. “The fact that Charlie is in danger of not getting her stocking, and that she’s the one who gets in a lot of trouble, makes her attractive.” 

The warmth of Curtis’s story-telling is matched by Rebecca Cobb’s charming illustrations. “I’ve never been very good at visualising things,” admits Curtis. “I hadn’t decided what I wanted, so it was a pleasure when I saw Rebecca’s drawings. It was like handing in the ingredients and back comes this gorgeous cake.” And what would Curtis like for Christmas? Well, he’d be very happy if The Empty Stocking became a Christmas tradition. “Yes, that would be great,” he says. And will he be buying red coats this year? “I haven’t bought one for a long time, now I’m a father,” he says. “But perhaps I’ll soon be buying my daughter a red coat for Christmas…”.

The Empty Stocking by Richard Curtis and Rebecca Cobb is published by Puffin, £6.99.


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