Coming in from the cold

Selling a gay film is hard enough. But when they're on skates? David Benedict on Thin Ice
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The Independent Culture
what do you do when three weeks before shooting begins on your first feature, one of your two lead actresses disappears? Panic. Young actresses are queuing up for leading roles, but few of them are happy about playing a lesbian. Fewer still can ice-skate. Fortunately, the actor Eamon Geoghegan remembered Charlotte Avery, who he had worked with on the roller-skating spectacle Starlight Express. She auditioned and was cast almost on the spot, and from there it was a breeze. All she had to do was learn the lines, create the character, brush up her ice-skating and build a routine good enough to enter the 1994 Gay Games, an international event held every four years attracting more athletes than the Olympics.

Thin Ice is the first feature by Fiona Cunningham-Reid, whose career runs from focus-pulling on My Beautiful Laundrette to directing the hugely atmospheric documentary on the Sydney Mardi Gras, Feed Them to the Cannibals. This light-hearted comedy-drama has already won the audience prize at the Turin Film Festival, against strong opposition from Postcards from America, and more surprisingly, has won nationwide distribution through MGM with a 12 certificate. Not bad considering the three central characters are a lesbian couple and a gay man.

The fact that the film will be seen by such a wide audience pleases Cunningham- Reid enormously, yet at the same time she seems slightly abashed by its runaway success. "It started out as a much darker film about the British middle-classes but it turned into a romantic comedy for the Nineties. People really seem to like it. I think they see it as a breath of fresh air."

In 1993, Channel 4 gave her £5,000 to video a Gay Games fundraiser in New York as preparation for a documentary. Having discovered the same- sex ice-skating competition, she returned with the proposition that she make a drama instead and film it at the actual event. The channel declined, but seven months later, with the Games about to begin, she had a script by Geraldine Sherman, a supporting cast including Clare Higgins, Ian McKellen and James Dreyfus and, most importantly, the money. With a five-week shoot, the entire film came in at an astonishing £170,000, about six per cent of the budget for Four Weddings and a Funeral. That accounts for everything from paying actors £80 a day to blowing up the 16mm negative to 35mm, a problem that went unnoticed by a packed house at the Odeon Leicester Square during the London Film Festival.

Apart from the love story at the heart of the film, there is also extensive documentary footage of the opening ceremony of the games and the 25th anniversary Stonewall march attended by one million people who streamed into Manhattan last June.

For all its richly-deserved success in breaking into the mainstream, there is, however, a great untold behind-the-scenes tragedy, concerning a startling performance by a journalist, filmed in conversation with Dreyfus outside the Lyceum Theatre on 44th Street. Alas, this Bafta-contending performance languishes on the cutting room floor. The (ex)-actor in question? Yours truly.

`Thin Ice' opens today at MGMs Chelsea and Tottenham Court Road. See cinema listings on page 8 for details

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