‘I thought: “I’ve engineered the death of Hugh Grant!’’’ – the inside story of Four Weddings and a Funeral

<span>Composite: Guardian Design/Shutterstock/Alamy/Allstar Collection/Channel Four</span>
Composite: Guardian Design/Shutterstock/Alamy/Allstar Collection/Channel Four

It’s been 30 years since audiences first met Hugh Grant as a stuttering serial monogamist who falls hopelessly in love with a glamorous American (Andie MacDowell) in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The low-budget romcom, directed by Mike Newell and scripted by Richard Curtis, came out of nowhere to become a global hit when it was released in 1994.

Based on Curtis’s own experiences of being a guest at a seemingly endless merry-go-round of weddings, the film follows Grant’s sweary, bumbling Charles and his group of friends – which includes his deaf brother – as they navigate love, loss and grief. From the first “fuck” uttered by Grant as he wakes up late for a wedding in the opening scene, to Rowan Atkinson’s inept priest who is unable to get anyone’s name right, and Kristin Scott Thomas’s chain-smoking, aristocratic stoicism, it is a film that is at once hilarious and devastatingly sad.

The titular funeral made WH Auden’s poem Funeral Blues, with its haunting first line, “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,” so popular that a pamphlet of his poetry containing it sold more than 250,000 copies. Wet Wet Wet’s soundtrack cover of the Troggs’ Love Is All Around was No 1 in the UK for 15 consecutive weeks.

Four Weddings and a Funeral catapulted Grant to superstardom and was the launchpad from which Curtis went on to make a series of winning romcoms about the British upper-middle-class. Notting Hill – in which a hapless Grant again falls for a glamorous American, played by Julia Roberts, and Love Actually, with Grant as the prime minister, were also enormous successes. We look back with the cast and director of Four Weddings to find out how a cash-strapped production became such an enduring phenomenon.

It’s early 1992. Mike Newell, director of the films Bad Blood, Dance With a Stranger and Enchanted April, is about to meet his agent at the Independent Talent office in London. Richard Curtis, a comedy screenwriter and co-creator of the shows Blackadder and Mr Bean, has sent in a film script inspired by an 11-year period of his life during which he attended 65 weddings. It’s set in the upper middle class circles of London, a world that is all too familiar to Curtis having attended Harrow on a scholarship and then the University of Oxford. The script sits ignored on a desk, covered in coffee cup stains, until Newell finds it by accident.

Mike Newell (director): I was hanging around in my agent’s office, waiting to see him. I was nosing through the scripts on his secretary’s desk, who saw what I was doing and said: “That one’s really funny.” I read it and it was indeed extremely funny. Richard was very familiar with the poshness of the milieu.

James Fleet (Tom, Charles’s sweet, dim and frightfully posh friend): It’s like Jane Austen; rich people deciding who to get married to and having setbacks. The thing about Richard Curtis’s films is he does the same sort of plot for several of them. Four Weddings is like a reverse of Cinderella where the Prince Charming is a woman. Maybe that was his adolescent fantasy – he imagined a glamorous American film star was going come to school and ask him if he wanted to go for tea.

Casting began in early 1992, but the process was disrupted when funding for the film fell through a few months later.

Newell: I had seen every promising young actor in London. I had found one that I was very happy with and it was Hugh. He went off in the eight months that we were delayed to make another film, which then started to overrun. Everybody on the production side said: “Well, you’ve seen everybody else. Pick the next one down.” I said: “No, he can say these words like nobody else. In the end, I won the fight and I was right.”

To our incredible good fortune, MacDowell, whom I thought very fresh and not like the other actors who were around, was in London and she picked up on it.

Production began in summer 1993 on a budget of less than £3m, shooting in just 36 days in London and the home counties.

Simon Callow (Gareth, a larger than life Scot who was in a relationship with John Hannah’s Matthew): As we were filming, I kept thinking: “Well, Hugh is great and fantastically well-cast but I think he’s underplaying it.” That shows how little I know. Because the performance is an absolute masterclass in light comedy.

David Bower (Charles’s deaf brother, David): The idea was to have this comedic situation of deaf and hearing people miscommunicating. Richard had to work quite hard to convince people to have a real deaf person to play that role.

Sophie Thompson (Lydia, the bride at the second wedding, conducted by Atkinson’s bungling priest): The most memorable scene was us [her and on-screen husband David Haig] having a shag after our wedding, with Hugh in the cupboard. We had to do voicing for it afterwards and we went into a little booth. We felt like we were doing a porno film because we had to do all this heavy breathing.

Bower: Because of my disability, I can get very shy about communicating with people. So Simon [Callow] became my go-to guy to mediate between myself and the hearing world. I really felt as if I was at somebody’s wedding. That helped me a lot as an actor, to get into the role. We were all lined up in the pews. So in between takes, there was plenty of opportunity for actors to give advice to each other. It was very sociable.

The film’s low budget ended up being a great social opportunity.

Callow: There was no money for anything, least of all individual cars to take us to the locations. We used to travel around in a van. At the end of the day, you might have finished at three, but the bus wouldn’t be leaving until seven. I filled that time by writing a book in my trailer. But even I, after a certain point, couldn’t bear that any longer. So we’d gather at about six outside on the steps of Andie’s trailer and we’d crack open a few bottles of wine.

Thompson: It was a hot summer and I remember sitting on grass chatting. We did have a laugh.

Fleet: I just didn’t know quite how cool to be. Everybody was just terribly funny and kind. That all stemmed from Mike. If you did something half interesting, he’d be like: “Marvellous! Bloody fantastic!”

The film-makers were forced to innovate to keep costs down. Amber Rudd, who went on to become home secretary, was brought in as an “aristocracy coordinator” to find extras for the wedding scenes.

Newell: She was a friend of Duncan Kenworthy, the producer, who was very clever about saving money and said: “What we need to do is to get people who own the tails and the black ties so we don’t have to pay for them.”

Fleet: They wanted the extras, but they couldn’t afford the extras and the costumes. Lots of posh people came because they’d never been extras before.

Newell: We decided to dispense with a production designer, which is sort of unheard of, really. What we did need was flowers. We got a tremendous florist.

The opening scene, in which Charles and his best friend Scarlett are racing to the first wedding in a tiny red Mini, was dangerously close to life …

Newell: That scene on the motorway, for some reason, Hugh was actually driving. He shouldn’t have been but he was. They were within inches of backing at full speed into a truck that was coming at them. I suddenly saw the whole film collapsing in front of me, and what I had done was engineer the death of the leading man on the motorway.

The funeral scene, featuring a touching reading of WH Auden’s Funeral Blues by Matthew as he mourns the death of his partner, Gareth, was filmed in two days at St Clement’s Church in West Thurrock, Essex.

Callow: We were still in the time of Aids. I just thought: “Richard has written an amazing, life-enhancing gay man who dies of something other than Aids. That is very important.”

Thompson: It’s always a challenge to get into the mode of grief but that poem and everyone being there together made it very touching.

Callow: I’m frequently congratulated on my funeral, although I have to point out that I wasn’t there. It wasn’t me in that coffin.

Bower: The church is surrounded by oil refineries, factories and motorways. The industrial location gave the funeral particular poignancy because it added a kind of mournful atmosphere.

The closing scene, in which MacDowell says to Grant, “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed,” needed some extra manpower.

Newell: To make it rain on film, you have to get a fire brigade involved because normal rain is too fine to register. You need really heavy rain.

Newell screened some early footage of the film at Shepperton Studios in July 1993 to cast and crew – with mixed results.

Newell: I remember showing about 30 minutes of the film to an absolutely stony silence except for Andie in the front row, who simply roared with laughter from beginning to end.

But at the final viewing in a screening room in Soho, London, in late 1993, the film went down a storm.

Fleet: You could just tell by the vibration in the room and people catching your eye: this is going to be quite good.

Callow: I remember that I cried when my character died. Otherwise, everybody laughed at exactly the places you hoped they would.

The film opened in the US in March 1994. It was released in the UK two months later, with the premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square in London – Grant’s girlfriend, Liz Hurley, made global headlines wearing a black Versace dress held together with safety pins.

Thompson: I remember going to the premiere and I just happened to be right by Hugh and Liz Hurley, who was in that extraordinary frock that made such an impact. I said to my mate: “Crikey, that woman must be so chilly.”

The film was a huge success, going on to gross $245.7m at the global box office and garnered two Oscar nominations in 1995, including for best picture.

Fleet: I’m standing there with no money and no job talking to World at One about being No 1 at the US box office. It was completely surreal.

Callow: My agent packed me off to Hollywood after the film’s success – and everybody was incredibly courteous. What they loved about the film more than anything else was that it made a huge amount of money with a very small budget. Hugh was immediately elevated to superstar status, quite rightly so in terms of talent. The reason for its success is there’s a faith in human nature, a sense that given half a chance, life can be pretty damn good.

Four Weddings and a Funeral has been ranked as one of the best British films of all time in polls by Empire, the British Film Institute and Time Out.

Newell: It’s amazing to have this jewel on a golden chain hung around your neck. But there have been times when I’ve thought: “Is this actually an albatross? Have I got a dead stinking bird around my neck? What would life have been like without it?” Well, I’m a very old bloke now and I don’t care what life might have been like without it. I’ve lived my life with it. So I’m glad.

Fleet: You get stuck playing posh people – I’m not complaining about it. A lot of people say: “It must have been transformative in your career.” I mean I was doing all right, actually. But I’m glad I was in it.

Callow: People see Four Weddings over and over again. So for many, I’m a very familiar figure. On the whole, they’re very disappointed when they meet me because they expect me to be a kind of Dionysian figure, knocking back pints of whisky and doing Scottish dancing. But the thing about the film is it plays to a universal enthusiasm for the idea of a beautiful wedding and happily ever after. The optimism raises it above all the other films.