Caine gives BBC one of the best

After 'In The Loop' and 'The Damned United', BBC Films hopes for more hit movies. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online

You could trust Sir Michael Caine to go into an old people's home in style - dragging a feature film crew behind him and, quite literally, working his magic. At 76, the grandest of British cinema actors has taken the role of an ageing conjuror in Is Anybody There?, a daring film project that will be out in cinemas next month.

And judging by the roll that BBC Films is on at the moment, it should do well. Last weekend, in case you didn't know, saw the launch of Armando Iannucci's political satire In The Loop, which followed in the wake of the Brian Clough biopic The Damned United, both made by the corporation's film arm.

After the extraordinary success of Channel 4's Film4 at this year's Academy Awards, where it scooped eight Oscars for Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire plus nominations for Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky and Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, BBC Films is putting together a formidable slate for next year's awards season.

Christine Langan, the commissioning editor, is especially excited about Is Anybody There? – which she describes as "a big fat film but a delicate sensitive, piece" – because it was written by newcomer Peter Harness.

The film centres on the relationship between Caine's character and a 10-year-old boy (played by Bill Milner, who starred in the recent Sky movie Skellig as well as Son Of Rambow), living in the retirement home run by his parents. The script is based on Harness's own childhood. "I know it will work brilliantly for a television audience and I hope it fares well in the cinema," says Langan, referring to the need for BBC Films to perform strongly in both environments.

The movie was made, largely because BBC Films managed to put the Harry Potter producer David Heyman in contact with a US company Big Beach, which provided the rest of the necessary funding. "It grows organically but we are there every step of the way, helping to nurture and make introductions," says Langan. "That's how a film comes together. It takes a long time and it's a bit like cooking."

Later this year, a very different BBC Films project will reach cinemas. Bright Star, directed by the New Zealander Jane Campion, is set in London in 1818 and follows the love affair between a 23-year-old John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) and girl next door Fanny Browne (Abbie Cornish). Whishaw starred in last year's BBC TV drama Criminal Justice and some will know him as Pingu in Chris Morris's comedy Nathan Barley. Langan describes his performance as Keats as "the most compelling bit of casting".

Due for release in October is An Education, written by Nick Hornby and directed by Lone Scherfig. A coming of age story about a teenage girl living in suburban London in the 1960s, it is based on a memoir by the journalist Lynn Barber. Another BBC Films project under way is Fish Tank, directed by Andrea Arnold and starring Michael Fassbender, who played the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's film Hunger.

Langan says there are strong similarities between BBC Films and Film4 but the two operations are defined by the TV audiences they serve, with the BBC having to cater for a "broader church". That is reflected in the great diversity of the BBC Films output. It has had Oscar success before, most notably with Stephen Daldry's 2000 film Billy Elliott, but its remit also includes finding new talent. With a budget of just £12m, it aims to make eight films a year. According to Jane Wright, the general manager and executive producer of BBC Films, the corporation is able to make ideas come to fruition because its reputation as a global broadcaster opens doors and brings access to international contacts. "The BBC is one of the world's few global media brands and is known for its quality and integrity," she says. The Damned United, about legendary football manager Brian Clough, was devised as a film project in the unlikely setting of the Venice Film Festival, where Langan was talking to the director Stephen Frears, who was reading the original David Peace book. "The utter Britishness of the dark years of the Seventies was very attractive amid the glamour of Venice," she recalls. The film, with Michael Sheen in the starring role, was eventually directed by Tom Hooper.

As for In The Loop, Iannucci says BBC Films was "absolutely critical" in enabling him to translate his television satire The Thick Of It to the big screen. "When I came to them they were instantly up for it. There was no, 'you've got to do it like this and there has to be a love interest'. They left me to do my thing," he says. "I've heard so many horror stories about what happens when you start making a film.

"Once you go above a certain budget that's when people start telling you who should be in it and how the ending should happen. But they trusted my ability and were canny in not taking on a US distributor before the film was made because we didn't want any editorial interference."