Cannes 2014: BBC leads with comedy as Mrs Brown's Boys take on the big screen

The BBC hopes to have the Croisette in stitches when it unleashes a wave of comedy films at Cannes designed to repeat the success of last year’s Alan Partridge movie.

Backed by Tony Hall, the BBC's director general, BBC Films is investing in a slate of films which capitalise on international demand for productions which demonstrate the best of British wit.

International distributors will be invited to a special screening at next week’s Cannes Film Festival of What We Did On Our Holiday, an ambitious film written and directed by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, the team behind the hit BBC1 family comedy Outnumbered.

Starring David Tennant and Rosamund Pike as a divorcing couple, the film includes improvised dialogue from the young actors who play the couple’s children - Harriet Turnbull, Bobby Smalldridge and Emilia Jones – emulating a technique successfully employed in Outnumbered.

Pride, a comedy-drama inspired by a true story set in the summer of 1984 about a group of gay and lesbian activists who decide to raise money to support the families of the striking miners, will be the closing-night film in the directors' fortnight section.

Directed by the Tony Award-winning theatre director Matthew Warchus (Matilda: The Musical) and featuring a large ensemble cast led by Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, the film, which details the initial reluctance of a traditional Welsh mining community to embrace support from the gay community, is being spoken of as a successor to Billy Elliott.

BBC Films hopes to drum up interest in Cannes for Bill, the story of hopeless lute-player William Shakespeare’s “lost years”, the first big-screen production from the Horrible Histories team, which will open in February 2015.

Writer Laurence Rickard said: “It’s an ‘origins’ film – How Bill Shakespeare became William. When we meet Bill he’s feckless and doesn’t know what direction to take in life. We were also able to weave in lines of dialogue from the plays across the story.”

Tony Hall, attending a pre-Cannes screening of the BBC offerings, backed the focus on comedy. “Comedy is very important to the BBC,” he told The Independent. “It helps communicate who we are as Britons to the wider world and at the BBC we’re very good at it. I’m excited by what I’ve seen.”

BBC Film’s most controversial comedy was not entered at Cannes. A spin-off from the hugely popular sitcom starring Brendan O'Carroll, Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie will be released on 27 June.

The film follows the chaos that ensues when market-trader Agnes Brown and her family embark on a campaign to save her market stall from an evil developer, aided by a motley troop of blind trainee Ninjas.

Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie may not be one for the critics,” acknowledged Christine Langhan, head of BBC Films. “But it’s a very warm and entertaining film. Millions of people love the series and it’s an important part of the BBC family so we’ve worked very hard with the team to make the transition to the big screen.”

She added: “Comedy is a very potent means of getting a message across. Pride is a funny and moving take on a period of great social strife in Britain. I want BBC Films to show that British stories with a unique British voice can succeed at the box office.”

Tony Hall said the £11 million invested in BBC Films last year attracted £65 million of co-production revenues and brought to screen a range of films which would otherwise never have been made. Last year BBC Films backed Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, which topped the UK box office and Steve Coogan’s Oscar-nominated drama Philomena.

BBC Films also announced that the team behind The History Boys will reunite to bring Alan Bennett’s play The Lady In The Van to the screen. Maggie Jones will star as the vagrant who parked her dormobile in the writer’s drive, staying for 15 years, with Nicholas Hytner directing the film.

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh go head to head for the coveted Palme d’Or as the two British representatives in the Cannes festival competition.

Loach presents Jimmy’s Hall, a Film4-backed period drama about an Irish political activist who builds a rural dancehall. Leigh’s Mr Turner portrays the life of celebrated landscape painter JMW Taylor.

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