It's been a year or so since Richard Curtis showed us his film The Boat That Rocked, about a 60s pirate radio station, a very eccentric and not terribly funny comedy — one which moreover bore worrying signs of meaning an enormous amount to him personally — and nobody quite knew where to look. Could it be that Richard Curtis was on the way out? Could it be the self-imposed burden of being a feature film director and globally important charitable dynamo had crushed the funny in Richard Curtis?
This was the romcom supremo who wrote such terrific and massively influential films as Four Weddings And A Funeral and the still underrated Notting Hill, films which hundreds of other films have tried unsuccessfully to rip off, by an unfashionable but very funny and clever comedy writer, who did a massive amount personally to restore our faith in the entire concept of a "British film industry".
But Richard Curtis is not down and out; this Saturday we discovered he is still up and in. Richard Curtis is back with a bullet, his mojo apparently restored by one of our great small-screen institutions, and if you haven't yet seen it, then settle down to his terrifically clever, funny, likeable wildly surreal episode of Doctor Who: Vincent And The Doctor. In it, the Doctor – played by Matt Smith – notices a strange creature tucked unobtrusively away in one of Van Gogh's paintings. Accompanied by his helpmeet Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), he travels back in time to meet the great artist, played by Tony Curran, and helps him battle this same scary monster. Curtis induces the soufflé to rise without apparent effort and makes it all look very easy. There are some very tasty Curtis moments. The Doctor exchanges badinage with Bill Nighy's art expert about bowties. And when he meets Van Gogh, the Doctor becomes very droll and floppy-haired in a way that somehow … reminds me of someone … ? There is instant comic chemistry between the dapper Time Lord and the shaggy, lairy, wild-haired artist who could almost be played by Rhys Ifans – although Curran is very good.
There is some unmistakeably Curtis dialogue. Amy suggests that Van Gogh paint some sunflowers. He replies thoughtfully: "They are a challenge … ". After a beautifully calibrated pause, the Doctor says: "And one I'm pretty sure you'll rise to ..." – and moves the subject on. Later, the Doctor tries to identify the monster, at first invisible, from one of Van Gogh's sketches. The result is inconclusive. "This is the problem with the impressionists — this would have never happened with Gainsborough," he mutters. It is the cue for some more famous-artist gags, including one about his meeting with Picasso ("Concentrate Pablo; it's one eye, either side of the face") which I think might be a bit of an hommage to Tony Hancock in The Rebel.
Anyway, it's all great stuff, topped off with an uproariously emotional ending of the sort only Richard Curtis could get away with. And it shows that Curtis is a force to be reckoned with. I would be tempted to call him The Master, but this has unfortunate connotations in a Doctor Who context. Curtis is still more than capable of writing great comedy. Perhaps he needs a male muse. If Hugh Grant is not available, and Matt Smith is thinking of making the leap to the big screen, well, what could be finer?