Smith bowls ‘Blackball’

The genteel English pastime of lawn bowling is set for the bigscreen treatment, courtesy of Mel Smith, director of “Bean” and “High Heels and Lowlifes.”

His new movie, “Blackball,” which starts shooting Oct. 14, is inspired by the true story of Griff Sanders, the self-styled “John McEnroe of lawn bowling.” A 25-year-old tearaway in a septuagenarian sport, Sanders so aggravated the bowling authorities in the sedate seaside town of Torquay that they slapped him with a 10-year nationwide ban for excessive swearing (it was subsequently overturned).

Tim Firth’s fictionalized screenplay cunningly renames its hero Cliff Sanders and recasts him as a comic version of Rocky, tracking his rise and fall as he gets led astray by an aggressive American sports agent. Sanders ultimately redeems himself by leading England to victory over the Australians.

Rising Brit comics Paul Kay and Johnny Vegas co-star in the $7 million pic, with Vince Vaughan set to play the agent. Alice Evans, Imelda Staunton and Bernard Cribbins fill out the supporting roles.

The project was originally developed under the first-look deal between Smith’s Midfield Films and Working Title, but Smith’s producing partner (and stepson) James Gay-Rees has now set it up independently with Icon Entertainment, Ingenious and the Isle of Man Film Commission.

Gay-Rees produced “Long Time Dead” for Working Title’s low-budget arm WT2. Midfield is developing several more projects with Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner’s outfit, including “Escape From Westminster,” written by comedy scribe Peter Baynham, about a British prime minister who loses it and does a runner. But when he comes to his senses after three days and tries to slip back unnoticed, he finds himself blocked by his evil spin doctor.

“Helen” survives tragic loss

The sudden death Sept. 8 of actress Katrin Cartlidge flung the producers of “Helen of Peckham” into turmoil. As well as being a friend of theirs, Cartlidge was due to play the title role, and shooting was only a week away. But after an emotional scramble, and a delay of just three weeks, pic now is ready to roll Oct. 13 with Russian actress Ingeborga Dapkuneita (“Burnt by the Sun,” “Mission: Impossible”) in the lead. Peter Mullan co-stars.

The $3 million pic is the feature debut of writer-director Emily Young, whose short “Second Hand” won the Cinefondation award at the Cannes fest in 1999. With tragic irony, given Cartlidge’s untimely death, it’s the story of a young mother, killed in a car accident, who watches from limbo as her children struggle with their grief, while her husband (Mullan) struggles to get home from a war-torn Eastern European country in time for her birthday, not knowing what has happened.

Because of Young’s previous Cannes prize, pic is a near cert for selection in next year’s Un Certain Regard sidebar. Producer is Gayle Griffiths of Wild Horses, with Cat Villiers and Chiara Menage exec producing. Coin comes from BBC Films, the Film Council’s New Cinema Fund and Baker Street Media, with French distrib Haut et Court co-producing.

EMI backs Robbie Inc.

In its press release to announce its new deal with Robbie Williams, EMI coyly says it will “benefit from some of (his) touring, publishing and merchandising activities.” What EMI means, but didn’t say, is that it is taking a 25% stake in a new company being set up by Williams to span all his commercial activities, as well as signing a worldwide deal for his next four albums, starting with the already recorded “Escapology,” due out Nov. 18. His records will remain the property of the new company. Total value of the equity investment, plus the advances for four albums, is more than $100 million, according to a source close to the negotiations, who describes the unique structure and value of the deal as “ground-breaking and record-breaking.”

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