CINEMA / The British are coming (again)

A year after `Four Weddings', another charming British comedy is a hit. Sue Summers meets the director of `Jack and Sarah'
THE SUCCESS of Four Weddings and a Funeral has cast a long shadow over the younger generation of British film-makers. Any new production with ambitions to show the British middle class at its most scatty is bound to be tagged Four Weddings and a Funeral II.

The director and writer Tim Sullivan was resigned well before its premiere to the idea that his engaging first feature film, Jack and Sarah, could well be nicknamed One Funeral, One Baby and A Wedding. There are inevitable comparisons to be made with Four Weddings in the antics of its middle- class thirtysomethings, who have effortlessly large incomes, and live in north-London terraced houses. And both films have the same backer, Polygram. Even the surname of the leading man is the same - not Hugh Grant in this case, but Richard E. So confident is MGM of the potency of this mixture that it has just announced an unprecedented money-back offer for cinema-goers who don't enjoy Jack and Sarah.

In fact, Sullivan's film - the biggest-grossing hit in Britain this week after Hollywood's Brady Bunch - has little in common with the Richard Curtis comedy which took the world by storm last year. Jack and Sarah is more of a comi-tragedy, about a man who loses his wife in childbirth and is left alone to bring up their baby daughter.

It took Sullivan four years to make Jack and Sarah, which germinated from an experience he had when working as a director at Granada TV. "A friend of mine's childcare arrangements broke down and his wife was away, so he brought his six-month-old baby into work," he says. "Until that day he had been just an ordinary bloke, but suddenly he was the centre of attention - particularly with the women. And of course, one of the first things they did was take the child off him, as though he couldn't cope.

"It just amused me - as did the fact that he immediately seemed to become more attractive to women. If you start from the basis that all men are inherently shits - which many women believe and I do myself - when you see one with a baby, he seems more vulnerable and almost like an exception to the rule. Which he isn't.

"By the end of the film my hero, Jack, is still as sexistly irresponsible as he was at the beginning. He is taking the nanny just as much for granted as he would a wife. There was no way I was going to let that character became a saint or a New Man. That would be real fantasy."

Sullivan, 37, is tall, dark and deadpan, with - though he hotly denies it - a striking resemblance to Richard E Grant. Yes, he lives in a north- London terraced house with wooden floors and a designer kitchen (which has marked similarities to the main set of his movie), and his baby daughter, Sophia, appears in the film. But unlike his hero, he has been happily married for the past six years. He doesn't claim to be a New Man: he says he is as much of a "shit" as the next man. But he is the one who works from home - within earshot of Sophia, now two, and Isabella, three - while his wife, Rachel Purnell, labours as joint head of programmes for the new cable channel, Live TV.

Born in Germany to a father in the RAF, Sullivan went to Clifton College and then to Cambridge - he read English and Law- just ahead of Emma Thompson. "In my last term, I worked on Chariots of Fire, providing extras for them, and I thought I was made," he says. "I spent my 21st birthday showing the film's director, Hugh Hudson, round Cambridge, thinking, `This is my introduction to the film industry'." Things weren't quite that easy. He had a spell on the dole before getting a summer job as chauffeur to Anthony Andrews, driving the actor to and from Granada's lavish production of Brideshead Revisited. "Its producer, Derek Granger, was intrigued, because I used to sit in the car all day, scribbling away. He learned that I was writing a script with Derek Jarman and encouraged me to go and see Granada."

Granada was then the ITV forcing-house for new talent. Sullivan was lucky enough to be taken on, and learnt his trade directing everything from farming programmes to Coronation Street. He made the drama-documentary Thatcher's Final Days with Sylvia Syms, and adapted both Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust and Where Angels Fear to Tread for the big screen, before Granada's feature-film division commissioned him to write Jack and Sarah.

Raising the film's pounds 2.5m budget was not easy. Potential backers disdainfully turned the project down on the grounds that it was too commercial - a judgement which only the British film and television industry would be capable of making. "I don't want to sound either arrogant or whingey - the twin traps for British film-makers - but there's no money from Channel 4, the BBC or any British television company in Jack and Sarah. Polygram made it happen and all I can say is, `Thank God for them.' It seems to me that they are doing as much, if not more, than anyone else in this country to push British film."

In retrospect, Sullivan is pleased that Jack and Sarah's original finance did fall through, because, had it been made when first planned, it would have been released in the same year as Four Weddings. "I wouldn't have liked that," he says. "Four Weddings was exceptional in every sense, really. It's hard to imagine a British film taking that much money ever again."

Nevertheless, he probably stands to benefit from the renewed belief in the commercial power of British films that is now being shown in America. Indeed he has already had approaches from Hollywood and was flown to the Cannes film festival for lunch by private jet. But can Jack and Sarah cash in on the Four Weddings fall-out? "That depends," Sullivan says, cautiously, "on whether the yardstick is going to be laid gently next to us, or used to beat us over the head."