Welcome back nostalgia aficionados! This week in our #90sMC/Lurvefest ’21 crossover Paul Childs sets his alarm, collects his best suit from the dry cleaners and prepares his speech about one of British cinema’s biggest and most important hits of the decade.
From 1994, it’s Four Weddings & A Funeral.
Beware – I feel it in my fingers and in my toes that a rather large dollop of unavoidable spoilers will follow.
“They’re writing songs of love, but not for me,” croons Elton John in his cover of the Gerswhin number But Not For Me as Richard Curtis’ sophomore cinematic outing opens. That track becomes a recurring theme throughout the film – not just as a leitmotif in Richard Rodney Bennett’s score, but also in the story of the unlucky-in-love bachelor Charles (an extremely young-looking Hugh Grant) as he attends a series of life events with his tight-knit group of mostly posh chums.
Prior to 1994, I might have said that song was also a recurring theme for me too. If you’ve been following many of our other 80s and 90s Movie Challenge you’ll by now be familiar with my failed romantic exploits, laid bare for your entertainment, film by film. But not this time! For the first time in any of these pieces, I am pleased to report that, unlike Ghost, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and last year’s The Lost Boys, I asked a girl to go to see Four Weddings & A Funeral with me and it didn’t go horribly wrong.
So successful was the date in fact, that there’s not really a lot to report on. No tales of humorously doomed attempts at teenage romance. I wasn’t stood up. There wasn’t a hilarious misunderstanding. We had a nice time, went for some food after and both went home having had a thoroughly lovely time. When Four Weddings come out I had been dating the woman I took to see this for a few months (I’m reluctant to use the phrase ‘girl’ because at this point I was 19 and she was 22). She’s now my wife of 25 years. As this is my last piece in our LurveFest ’21/#90sMC crossover, that’s probably quite fitting.
But since folk love a spot of schadenfreude, that’s enough of my love life for now (thank the Lord for small mercies, Ed.). Let’s delve straight in and look at some of the things that went wrong with, as well as some other behind the scenes facts from the making of this most iconic and important of British rom-coms:
The very nature of the film’s basic premise – that we follow a group of friends through the course of one year as they attend a series of weddings and a funeral – meant that the already restricted budget would be stretched to its limit. All those wedding/funeral guest – hundreds of them – had to be paid for their work. In the end, all non-speaking extras were instructed to bring their own event-appropriate clothes to the set on filming days as the budget just wouldn’t stretch to the wardrobe.
Andie MacDowell’s paycheck almost took a whopping 10% of the entire budget – £250,000. Initially, her agents had argued for her usual asking price of £1 million, but sensing a hit, she agreed to a 75% reduction of her upfront fee and a 1% cut of the profits. A shrewd move on her part as it earned her over double what she would normally have asked. By comparison, Hugh Grant’s demand of £40,000 seems like peanuts. However, following Four Weddings‘ success, Grant began to receive million-dollar offers, so he didn’t do too badly out of it. Every other major cast member received £17,500 for their work.
Screenwriter Richard Curtis was, in 1994, best known for his television work such as Blackadder, Mr Bean, Not The Nine O’Clock News and the rather splendid Christmas TV movie, Bernard & The Genie. His only dalliance with cinema at this point had been 1989’s The Tall Guy. Four Weddings was based partially on his own experiences attending sixty-five weddings in an eleven year period but never being the groom himself. He was actually proposed to at one such wedding but turned the offer down – something he says he has always regretted. In the 1980s Curtis had been dating the aspiring politician Anne Strutt. They split up and Strutt then dated and eventually married Curtis’ friend Bernard Jenkin (who would also go on to become an MP). As a tribute to his friend, Curtis always includes a character called Bernard in everything he writes. David Haig’s character bears this honour in Four Weddings.
The opening wedding at which we get to meet everyone was said to be based on the wedding of Strutt and Jenkin. Amber Rudd, now best known as a Conservative MP, was hired as an Aristocracy Advisor and in that capacity, she was tasked with recruiting several members of the upper class to appear as uncredited extras throughout the film.
Enough about weddings though. Let’s talk about the titular funeral – and this, chums, is where the aforementioned spoilers begin so if you’ve not seen it yet, you might want to avoid all this next bit of text in red…
Ah, poor Gareth. In a post last year for Stylist magazine, digital editor Kayleigh Dray recorded her thoughts as she watched Four Weddings for the first time. Throughout the piece, she wondered whose funeral it was going to be. Of Simon Callow’s, flamboyant, brash Gareth she said:
Gareth is literally the best wedding guest ever, isn’t he? I’d definitely want to be on his table – he’s a bloody legend.
Of course, as I read her article, I knew exactly what was coming, and how she’d feel. Let’s be honest, if you’ve seen it, then Gareth is probably your favourite character (or Scarlett, but that’s a tragedy all of its own that I’ll come to in a bit). Dray goes on to say, of Carrie’s (MacDowell) ill-fated Scottish wedding:
There’s a weird vibe in the air at this wedding – kind of like there was at Joffrey and Margaery’s do in Game of Thrones, and we all know how THAT turned out.
I’ve seen Four Weddings quite a few times but what I’ve never noticed before is the very heavy-handed foreshadowing that Newell and Callow present us with. It’s signposted in almost every scene Gareth is in. The first time we meet him, he’s sharing breakfast with his partner Matthew (John Hannah). Matthew is eating a bowl of “Healthy Start” cereal. Gareth serves up a plate of full English breakfast fried in what looks like a pint of oil. The next time we see him, Gareth is drinking heavily. On face value we take this as jollity and celebration, but he drinks so much more than everyone else. Then there’s the smoking. There’s barely a scene where a cigarette or cigar isn’t hanging out of his mouth. And as if that isn’t enough, there’s the way he then tries to act. He takes to the dance floor more than any other character in the film, and when he does, he’s whirling around like a fool – putting his body through paces it cannot possibly keep up with.
When his demise ultimately comes, we’re still shocked, because we liked him. He was the life and soul of the party. But sadly, not the heart.
Watching it this time, Gareth’s funeral is no less tear-jerking than before – possibly more so. After the service, Charles and Tom (James Fleet) reminisce about their gay friends and realise that the two of them were the closest any of their group of pals ever came to getting married. What’s so utterly heartbreaking about it is that since the last time I saw Four Weddings same-sex marriage in the UK has become legal.
Four Weddings presents the viewer with one of the most realistic, non-sensationalised same-sex couples we had ever seen on screen up to that point. Watching it today, it seems quite tame but in 1994 it was absolutely revolutionary to show such a relationship and present it as what it was – normal, comfortable, sometimes dull and astoundingly ordinary, but at the same time incredibly loving. Of all the romances we see in the film, theirs is the stable one. The one we all want, no matter our orientation. The one that the rest of the film’s characters aspire to. Which is what makes Gareth’s demise all the more tragic.
John Hannah’s delivery of WH Auden’s Funeral Blues is magnificent. You can see him go through all the “stages of grief” as he recites it over his lover’s coffin. That he won no awards for that scene alone is a crime. Hannah was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA (as was Callow) but both were beaten by Samuel L Jackson for Pulp Fiction at the 1995 ceremony.
Also nominated for a supporting acting role was Charlotte Coleman, who plays Charles’s quirky flatmate Scarlett. It’s bittersweet watching Four Weddings today because, while all the rest of the main cast are still with us (at the time of writing), one person (as well as the funereal exception mentioned above) didn’t return for the Comic Relief follow-up in 2019. After a successful childhood acting career (playing main characters in both Worzel Gummidge and various Marmalade Atkins serials) Four Weddings should have been a launching point to stardom for her as it was for Grant, Hannah, Kristin Scott Thomas and James Fleet (who would go on to play Hugo Horton, essentially the same character, in Curtis’ sitcom The Vicar of Dibley later that same year). However, in November 2021 it will be twenty years since Coleman was taken from us, aged just thirty-three, by an asthma attack. It’s such a great shame – she is absolutely the highlight of every scene she is in, and I can’t help wonder what she would have done in the twenty-first century.
As we all know, Four Weddings went on to massive success and is credited with revitalising the British film industry. However, unusually the decision was made to open the film in the United States before the UK. This was intended as a gauge to see how successful it would be. Director Mike Newell said, “It stopped people thinking that this was just a small, worthless English film.” The first screening in America was in Salt Lake City, Utah, with Hugh Grant in attendance. He recalls being aghast at the mass walkout during the opening scene (in which Charles, upon waking late for the wedding at which he is best man utters “Fuck!” in a large variety of humorous ways) and thinking that this didn’t bode well for the film’s (and by extension, his career’s) chances. Before Four Weddings he had been considering quitting acting altogether.
American financiers were also nervous about the excessive use of the word “Fuck”. They actually persuaded Newell and Grant to reshoot the entire first scene with the word “Bugger” replacing it, for US TV broadcasts. They also insisted that there be no oral sex, thrusting or screaming orgasms (I wonder how they reacted to the scene in the hotel room between Bernard and Lydia, Ed.).
For the British premiere at Leicester Square Curtis asked many of the guests and stars to attend the event dressed in wedding clothes. The publicity stunt, however, was completely overshadowed when the press went nuts for the dress worn by Hugh Grant’s then-girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley. You might remember it:
In 1994 Four Weddings & A Funeral was the most successful British film of all time at the UK box office and remained so for fifteen years until being overtaken in 2009 by Slumdog Millionaire. If you discount “UK Qualifying films” – those big-budget, joint productions with the USA which get a “British Film” sticker slapped on them because they were partially filmed over here (James Bond, Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc) – then it still remains, to this day, the fifth most successful British film of all time.
Given that in my previous 90s Movie Challenges I spoke at length about the power ballads that accompanied them, it would be remiss of me not to mention Wet Wet Wet’s cover version of The Troggs’ Love Is All Around. The band were offered the choice of three songs for the end credits music. The other two were Barry Manilow’s Can’t Smile Without You and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. Singer Marti Pellow felt Love Is All Around was the one the band could do the most with to make it their own,
It spent fifteen weeks at number one in the UK, overtaking Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You from The Bodyguard (ten weeks). It looked set to remain so, and therefore was on track to claim the title of longest UK number one from Bryan Adams, whose power ballad Everything I Do (I Do It For You) from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves held onto the top spot for sixteen weeks. However, fearing a backlash by the public (some radio stations had begun to ban it from their playlists) they had the single deleted and sales dropped off immediately. It does, however, still remain the second longest-serving number one of all time (only being equalled by Drake’s One Dance). It was replaced at number one by Whigfield’s Saturday Night. Love Is All Around, Everything I Do and I Will Always Love You remain the three biggest selling (in that order) love songs of all time in the UK.
Reg Presley of The Troggs made quite a fortune from royalties and sunk them all into research and investigation into the causes of crop circles!
The film’s legacy cannot be denied. For starters, it laid down the groundwork for Richard Curtis rom-coms over many years, including Notting Hill, the Bridget Jones series, Yesterday and Love Actually. It also popularised appearances of American actors in British films (see all the previously listed films, as well as Shakespeare In Love and Sliding Doors which featured Jeanne Tripplehorn who was originally cast as Carrie in Four Weddings before dropping out due to bereavement).
Has it aged well? I would say, yes. Very well. Weddings are still weddings and, sadly, funerals are still funerals, people still fall in love and people we like still die. Aside from a few historical things, like the lack of mobile phones and smoking indoors, Four Weddings & A Funeral still feels like a contemporary comedy-drama with timeless themes. I think I enjoyed this week’s viewing more than previous times, and it’s a rare film that gets better each time you see it.
Join us on Friday for one more week of LurveFest ’21 as Jane Roberts looks at one of her namesake Julia’s earliest hits. But did she like it better than Pirates of Penzance? Come back next week to find out! From 1990, it’s Pretty Woman!