Maximum exposure: How pictures of Helen Mirren in a bikini became the entertainment splash of the year

They have been the most widely published snaps of the summer: Helen Mirren, bikini-clad and looking stunning at 63. How did it happen? Ian Burrell reports

It's not often that you see British royalty on the beach in a swimsuit, which is why this month's stunning pictures of Helen Mirren in a red bikini preparing for a dip in the Adriatic became the entertainment splash of the year.

But how did a spot of sunbathing by the Oscar-winning star of The Queen lead to a picture story that went global? Only Mario Brenna, who took the pictures, and Jason Fraser, the famous London-based photographer and media syndicator, have the inside story.

The pictures, which caused a sensation when they hit the British popular press on 16 July, were carefully planned by Brenna, who recently learned that Dame Helen and her husband – film director Taylor Hackford – had acquired a dilapidated castle in Puglia. In glorious weather, Brenna headed to the coast near the village of Tiggiano, south of Lecce and visited some local beaches. Within a couple of hours he had his shots.

Fraser was in his offices in Kensington when the pictures came through and immediately realised their potential appeal to the media, popular and upmarket, print and television, national and international. From Brenna's 23 shots, he selected the six which he believed showed Mirren in the fairest light.

Sitting in Morton's, an exclusive private club in London's Berkeley Square used by cabinet ministers and chairmen of banks, Fraser talks guardedly about the scoop. "I couldn't see the point in syndicating a photo of a woman sat down on a beach, leaning forward and putting sun cream on," he says, suggesting that not all the shots were as flattering as those released.

He says he has never spoken to the actress. Did Mirren have any idea that she was about to be photographed? "Absolutely not," he says. "If these shots had been set up, their charisma would have been diminished. Anyway, Helen Mirren is stunning enough to not need to prepare herself for a planned photo."

In spite of the ecstatic response of women columnists, from The Sun's Jane Moore to Janet Street-Porter in The Independent, Fraser argues that these are "uplifting and bright" pictures, not works of art. "At the end of the day it's hardly a Matisse," he says, pointing to some works by the French master on the wall behind him. "But I suspect they are images which will be remembered for a long time."

He says the value of the images was increased by a shortage of celebrity pictures at the start of the summer, and because Mirren was wearing a red bikini rather than a black one.

The pictures appeared first in the British tabloids, the prime audience for such material. Fraser was sensitive to not alienating editors by negotiating an exclusive with a single title. A day later, a separate, less lucrative deal was negotiated with the broadsheets, while Hello! paid to be the first magazine to show the pictures.

Then the story went international, hitting the five million-selling People entertainment magazine in America, Us Weekly magazine, five major American television networks and the New York Daily News. In Australia, the rights were bought by the huge-selling Woman's Day magazine. Deals were struck in Croatia, Dubai, Norway, Finland, Thailand and South Africa and Brenna cut an exclusive with Italian Vanity Fair. The story has appeared on more than 100 blogs, though it rankles with Fraser that many websites appear to have lifted images from British newspaper websites for free.

Fraser won't comment on the value of the pictures, but industry sources estimate they are worth up to £100,000.

Brenna and Fraser have a long-standing partnership. The Italian famously snapped Princess Diana on a yacht kissing Dodi Fayed to reveal their relationship in 1997.

In recent weeks, Brenna's pictures have dominated the British press, with exclusive shots of footballer Ronaldo with his girlfriend in Sardinia, a set of portraits of Silvio Berlusconi and family, and photos of Kate Moss in Portofino and snaps of Wayne Rooney ahead of his wedding in the same resort.

With photographer friends Marco Savoia (who has recently pictured Roman Abramovich, Eva Longoria and Jennifer Lopez on their Italian travels) and the Venetian Michele Crossera, Fraser and Brenna have shifted the focus of summer celebrity pictures this year from the Cote d'Azur to Italy.

Fraser admits that he and Brenna have "done well" from the Mirren pictures but he argues that the Puglia tourist board, newspaper circulations and sales of Mirren DVDs have also been boosted from their publication. "Media organisations around the world have paid glowing tributes to this iconic actress and the fact that she's British makes it even better," he says.