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Film: Britcom targets the big screen

As 'Notting Hill' cleans up in America, Louise Jury reports on the stars of TV comedy who have their sights set higher
The best of British comedy is thinking big. Notting Hill became the first British movie to break the $100m barrier at the American box office, and now a clutch of British stars are aiming to emulate its big- screen success. Ben Elton, Caroline Aherne and Steve Coogan are among those developing movie scripts as the UK film industry finally wakes up to the potential in its home-grown comic talent.

"Once you get one British hit, people get aspirations," says David Thompson, head of BBC Film which now spends up to pounds 10m a year on co-productions. Following Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bean and The Full Monty, he believes Britain may be on the verge of triumph on the back of its humour. "This is more sustained," he says, when challenged whether this was a true trend or simply another flash in the British cinema pan. Certainly, the enthusiasm is there. Ten years ago comedians were happy to stay in television for the fame and fortune. Now they want a bigger creative challenge. "There is a major boom in British comic talent looking towards feature films," he says.

The BBC is working with Ben Elton on his first film script, Maybe Baby, starring Hugh Laurie as one half of a couple struggling for a child. Steve Coogan is working on The Probation Officer, with Notting Hill's producer Duncan Kenworthy, while Caroline Aherne is due to start work on her movie script for Granada Film in the autumn. In the film, with a working title of The Learner, Aherne plays the single mother of a Down's Syndrome child, a situation based on someone she knows. "The way she treats the boy is just brilliant," Aherne says. Her character is learning to drive, and Steve Coogan is mooted to be playing the driving instructor, with Paul Whitehouse as the love interest.

Meanwhile the Tiger Aspect production company starts filming next month on a movie spin-off of Harry Enfield's television show with Kathy Burke; and Phil McIntyre, the comedy impresario who has worked with the likes of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson since their early days in showbusiness, is now shooting his first movies with them.

For Thompson, the BBC's involvement is a natural consequence of having nurtured British comic talent over the last 20 or 30 years. "Richard Curtis [the writer of Notting Hill] began life with the BBC with Blackadder and Not The Nine O'Clock News. We've been the home of the sparkiest and edgiest comedy in Britain and we want to be working with that comic talent towards feature films. Historically, the BBC has been associated with heavier and darker films but now we're very consciously turning our development towards comedy."

Andy Harries, controller of comedy at Granada Television and executive producer of its film arm Granada Film, points to other factors. Crucial among them has been the enormous expansion in the number of cinema screens, giving British films a chance to compete against the Americans in the market place. There is also more money around - British, European, American - and more scripts. And the hard commercial fact is that comedies make money. "People want to go and see them," he says.

Whereas American talent, such as Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, has followed a well-worn path from television success with Saturday Night Live to Hollywood, the similar transfer of British TV stars to big screen has been rare. Yet 18- to 30-year-olds are a core cinema audience, Harries says, and they don't necessarily want to go and see an "art-house" movie. "If you really want to go out and enjoy yourself, why not go and see Caroline Aherne or Steve Coogan?"

Besides, the financial success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels made it clear that a British film could survive on domestic success alone. "The British market will sustain a comedy hit in its own right, if the film is good enough," he says. For pounds 3.5m or so you can make a movie with Coogan or Aherne - "and if it's a hit overseas, that's a big extra."

Not everyone is convinced by the star vehicle approach. Jimmy Mulville is managing director of Hat Trick Productions, which makes Have I Got News For You and is due to film its first feature, a romantic comedy called The Sleeping Dictionary, in January.

Written by Guy Jenkin of Drop the Dead Donkey fame, it is being developed, Mulville says, along the same painstaking lines as those adopted by Richard Curtis, who wrote 17 drafts of Notting Hill.

"We don't hang a script on a star," Mulville says. "It's not a vehicle for anybody." He goes on: "Using the television model, a big star will never make a bad script good. Having a fantastically good comic talent on screen delivering a great script is a fantastic combination. But sometimes I don't think we in Britain develop our scripts enough."

An alternative view is that the Americans kill humour with their over- development. "How many good comedies come out of Hollywood?" asks Peter Bennett-Jones , chairman of Tiger Aspect Productions, which took Mr Bean from the small to the big screen. He sees no reason why British comedies should not prove worldwide hits, but the talent needs to retain control. "If anything is going to kill something, it's probably too many film executives getting involved."

Bennett-Jones says the current flurry of film interest is "one of those little waves that happen". It happened with Monty Python long before Coogan and co. But David Thompson is still echoing the Oscar-winner Colin Welland's 1982 proclamation: "The British are coming."

"Hollywood studios are pouncing all over the comedy talent," he says. "They are all chasing the prize of the holy grail - the next British comedy hit."