In high spirits and in the buff - the British are coming of a certain age

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The Independent Culture

From Helen Mirren to Ewan McGregor, the British were out in force, in high spirits and, to a startling extent, in the buff at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday.

Beaches and the Esplanade hotels thronged with UK actors, directors, writers and even politicians. While the number of visitors from Asia is down this year by 50 per cent, due to the Sars outbreak, the UK presence is much increased. For the first time, there are more than 1,000 British delegates, according to the trade magazine Screen International, and 262 British films are registered, compared to 170 last year.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, dropped in to open the new UK Film Centre in the tented "international village'' on the waterfront, the brainchild of the UK Film Council. But Ms Jowell ran into a spot of trouble. Her ribbon-cutting speech – which covered the loveliness of the weather and the importance of British movies – failed to mention Peter Greenaway, the smouldering independent avant-gardiste who carries Britain's only hope of winning this year's Palme d'Or. Helpfully, a white-haired Northern Irish man came over to explain her lapse, before giving the Secretary of State a lecture about the iniquities of throwing away lottery money on bad films. Ms Jowell listened, politely but unheedingly, and tried to scrutinise the stranger's laminated press pass to see who he was. On being told it was Alexander Walker, veteran critic of the London Evening Standard and a leading scourge of misapplied government subsidy, she melted. "Oh Alex, of course,'' she said girlishly, "you must come and see me.''

By 4.15 yesterday the hottest ticket in town was the Calendar Girls tea party at the Noga Hilton. Helen Mirren and Julie Walters were joint hostesses. They appeared beside their real-life counterparts, Tricia Stewart and Angela Baker, two of the members of the Rylstone Women's Institute who became world-famous five years ago for appearing naked on a charity calendar, their blushes spared by the carefully arranged paraphernalia of jam making, apple pressing and knitting. It's been hard to move without seeing the publicity photograph of the ladies d'un certain age posing with nothing on but hats and hymn sheets.

"Since Calendar Girls is being screened at the same time as my film, we are thinking of rechristening it the Cannes Cellulite Festival,'' said Hanif Kureishi, strolling on the Croisette and looking relaxed for a man about to expose his controversial new film to public gaze for the first time. It's called The Mother and concerns a sixty-something woman who falls in love with her daughter's boyfriend.

"Showing it to a Cannes audience is quite unlike showing it in Stoke on a Saturday night, they're far more knowing here. Some are film makers who will sit there thinking, 'I wouldn't have done that shot', and some are distributors who are wondering if it will play in Wisconsin.'' The inspiration for the film came from his own mother, he said. "She and I were in a restaurant with a young Indian waiter. After he had gone away, my mother said, 'He's got lovely hands', and I thought, 'What will it be like when no one wants to touch you ever again?'''

The producers auditioned "about 10 grannies for the part", and predictably had trouble finding backers. "It was hard to persuade financiers that you didn't have to have Charlotte Rampling in the role, that it was better with an ordinary person whom you wouldn't normally expect to be having sex," Kureishi said.

Ewan McGregor and Peter Mullan are in town to plug David Mackenzie's Young Adam, a chiller set on a barge plying between Glasgow and Edinburgh, on which a young drifter (McGregor) joins the married bargees and they discover a woman's corpse floating in the water.

There's the first "market screening'' of Wondrous Oblivion, about a cricket-loving English schoolboy in the 1960s, the Jamaican family who move in next door and a casual outbreak of neighbourhood racism. Tomorrow the cast of HBO's biography of Peter Sellers flies in for a photo shoot. Geoffrey Rush will play Sellers and Charlize Theron will play Britt Ekland. The producers have faithfully recreated the sets of Dr Strangelove and The Pink Panther, but have allegedly incurred the wrath of Michael Sellers, the comedian's son, for using as source material a biography by Roger Lewis, who portrayed Sellers as a depressive close to insanity.

Whether naked, ageing, homicidal, racist or deranged, the British spirit is much in the ascendant at Cannes this year.