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Commentary: Forget Santa, Hugh Grant is the face of Christmas

LONDON: I wonder if Hugh Grant imagined, tripping the boards as a flop-haired Oxford youth, that he would one day become the man to whom we turn in search of yuletide cheer?

Did the quivering young Grant, toiling for his Equity card while touring the London pub circuit with his sketch-comedy troupe The Jockeys of Norfolk, ever envisage that, when considering the festive season, his name would be summoned with the same anticipation as that of sleigh bells and Santy Claus?

Hugh Grant: He’s the face of Christmas past, present and peculiar. Look to any current television listings and one will quickly stumble on his oeuvre. There he is, despoiling the fruity singleton Bridget Jones as the devilish Daniel Cleaver, or perambulating London as the disaffected bachelor at the centre of About a Boy. For those for whom it would not be Christmas without bonnets, baskets and Jane Austen, you can see him as the delightfully awkward Edward Ferrars in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility.

Most will know him from the diabolically awful Love Actually, playing the groovy prime minister who falls for Nathalie, his heart o’gold assistant, in Richard Curtis’s cringe-inducing film. Grant’s story is just one piece in a jigsaw of appalling narratives that include casual sexism, fat-shaming, adultery and trying to get off with one’s best friend’s wife. But it’s the holidays, and it’s British Establishment Actors, and so we titter through the cavalcade each winter because Hugh Grant shakes his bum. 

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BAD-MANNERED, AND YET THE KING OF FESTIVE CEREMONY

More recently, Grant has reached his “freak show” period of acting, as he described it when promoting his recent outing as a tangoed Oompa-Loompa in Wonka, an origins story about the fabled chocolatier. This latest turn has been largely brought about by Paul King, that film’s director and co-writer, who first exploited Grant’s taste for more ostentatious performances by casting him as the villain in Paddington 2 and who has, with Wonka, allowed him to waltz off with every scene he’s in. At 63, Grant is now as ubiquitous a presence at Christmas as Macaulay Culkin or Jimmy Stewart: It’s one of the great cinematic coups.

The irony is that Grant has made a career out of being the most curmudgeonly of actors, constantly windbagging about his awkwardness and discomfort with the work. “It was like a crown of thorns, very uncomfortable,” he moaned theatrically of the motion-capture work he did on the Wonka film.

Grant’s brand is to despise everything about himself, the world and the very craft of acting. “I made a big fuss about it,” he told reporters. “I couldn’t have hated the whole thing more.”

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Grant is not only the face of Christmas, he’s something of its spirit, too. In the real-life retelling of A Christmas Carol, he would make a perfect Scrooge: A young man, steered by lusty appetites and privilege, finds success and global fame playing roles that corrode his artist’s heart. Cursed to a career playing effete and preening posh boys, he seeks respite in a life of ill repute.

Recast as roguish, grumpy, hair still floppy, his mid phase is as callous as his heart is coarse. He takes up causes, spurns the press and makes interviewers squirm. He has a “fleeting romance”, and two children, with the former restaurant hostess Tinglan Hong.

But then, a revelation: Grant falls in love with a Swedish TV producer, has more children, marries and settles down. Finally softened after so many years of caution, Grant throws down the emotional barricades. His reinvention is completed – à la Ebenezer – via a late-career revival in which he plays homosexual politicians, theatre queens and little orange men. 

Or something like that.

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