The London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival has been the most successful ever, attracting 'straight' film fans alongside its core audience.
"WE ALWAYS have such a dismal Christmas," says Briony Hanson, co-programmer, along with Robin Baker, of the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. "We do most of the programming in two bedrooms over the holidays, wading through tapes and talking on the phone, which is hardly ideal. We find what we think are some real gems, but we've really no idea of how it's all going to look projected on a big screen in front of an audience."

They needn't have worried. This year's festival has been the busiest and most successful ever, characterised by sell-out screenings, punters being turned away, and three times more press coverage than last year. Even before the final take is tallied up, it's clear that last year's 25 per cent leap on previous was no fluke.

It's a vote of confidence for a potentially risky change in programming strategy. Mixed programming in the shorts selections has proved a successful and long overdue move, with many of the programmes offering queer treasures for boys, girls and everyone in between. Equally welcome has been this year's international emphasis, particularly in the boys' camp, with a Taiwanese retrospective and offerings from Guinea, China, the Philippines and India replacing the usual US-heavy fare. The Taiwanese programme, in particular, has had a "staggering" response, and triggered debate in the after-show discussions. "The boys have definitely had more of a challenge," says Hanson, "and they've lapped it up."

The highlights have been many. The Man In Her Life (Ang Lalaki Sa Buhay Ni Selya, Carlos Siguin-Renya, Philippines, 1997), a camp, sexy and Sirkian Filippino melodrama, is clearly destined for cult status. Love and Death on Long Island (Richard Kwietniowski, UK/ Canada 1997), adapted from Gilbert Adair's novel, was a last- minute addition to the programme and a big hit. Kwietniowski's first feature- length offering, a simple and beautifully-made story about an older man (John Hurt) infatuated by a younger starlet (Jason Priestley), I Think We Do (Brian Sloane, USA 1997), another last-minute addition, and Broadway Damage (Victor Mignatti, USA 1997), both independents, have also gone down well, featuring good stars and good scripts without too many challenges. And The Hanging Garden (Thom Fitzgerald, Canada 1997), the festival's opening night gala offering, happily managed to live up to its hype. A feel-good movie "for anyone who was ever young", it will almost certainly appeal to a straight mainstream as well as gay audience - which, let's face it, remains the marker of success in a still queer-hostile economic market.

What's been notable in the girls' department this time around is the sheer volume of lesbian dramas: 11 in total, of which only five are US imports. "There was a time," reflects Hanson, "when Desert Hearts, Clare of the Moon, and even Go Fish had to satisfy the whole lesbian audience.

"This year we've been able to jump around a lot more, from Slaves to the Underground (Kristine Peterson, USA 1996), a kind of grunge-riot fantasy, to the more predictable Entwined (Raquel Cecilia Harrington, USA 1997)." Entwined, though I hate to say it, is another movie probably destined for cult status, at least among devotees of glossy, schlocky, unnaturally-coiffed lesbian romance. Elsewhere, Spice Girls, a stylish, extremely popular collection of shorts, looks like providing a strong contender for the C4 TX Prize. And Regarde la Mer (Francois Ozon, France 1997), Hanson's own favourite featurette, has drawn strong reactions from audiences as what begins as a gentle, romantic holiday video builds to an eerie, disturbing climax.

Other dyke highlights have included lesbian-at-a-bus-stop movie Les Voleurs (Andre Techine, France 1996), featuring Catherine Deneuve in unrequited passion for a young philosophy student; and rockumentary-with-a-difference The Cream Will Rise (Gigi Gaston, USA 1997), which, after a predictable beginning, metamorphoses into a transfixing and moving confessional from "omnisexual" dykon Sophie B Hawkins. The husky-voiced one also made a live guest appearance at the festival, entirely unexpected by the awed audience.

The reception for kd lang's Live in Sydney (Caz Gorham and Frances Dickenson, UK 1997) preview made it clear that this dykon's days aren't over yet.

Hanson was nervous about how audiences would react to the closing night offering. This was The Sticky Fingers of Time (Hilary Brougher, USA 1997), a time-travel movie with a twist which focuses on the relationship between Fifties pulp fiction writer Tucker Harding and Nineties failed suicide Drew.

"Lesbians can be so literal" says Hanson. "But then, they've surprised me all the way through this festival. I've been kind of inspired."