Frears stages Dench’s saucy show

In her 20 years as a grande dame among British producers, Norma Heyman has never had a project so hotly pursued by financiers as her latest, “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”

Given its fruity cocktail of elements, it isn’t hard to see why. Directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Martin Sherman, the film will star Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in the true story of how London’s Windmill Theater began staging nude shows in the 1930s, and became famous during the Blitz as the theater that never closed.

Hoskins brought the idea to Heyman, with whom he previously produced “The Secret Agent,” and they turned to former FilmFour topper David Aukin to share the producing chores. Pathe Pictures and BBC Films are in exclusive talks to bankroll the $15 million movie, although the Hollywood specialty arms are also banging at the door.

“It’s nice to be wanted for once, instead of having to beg like we usually do,” laughs Heyman.

Shooting is set for September. Dench will play Laura Henderson, the extraordinary old lady who bought the Windmill after her return home after years in imperial India. Her manager (Hoskins) spotted a loophole in Britain’s censorship laws that permitted stage nudity as long as the performers didn’t move. He added naked tableaux to the bill of conventional variety acts and transformed the theater into a scandalous success.

“It’s accessible, funny and moving,” says one of the few execs to have gotten a peek at Sherman’s closely guarded first draft. “It’s a celebration of the human spirit, and it’s got Judi Dench and Stephen Frears for a good price.” Contrary to one press report, however, Dench will not be baring all in the movie.

After finishing “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” Frears will go straight on to shoot “The Queen” in early 2005, a followup to his recent political telepic “The Deal.”

Where “The Deal” dramatized into the relationship between Brit prime minister Tony Blair and his chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, “The Queen” will delve into the reactions of Blair and the royal family to the death of Princess Diana. When the royals initially refused to make any ostentatious displays of grief, it was Blair who seized the public mood and forced them to open up.

As with “The Deal,” script is by Peter Morgan for Granada Prods. Channel 4 bankrolled “The Deal” and is likely to do so again with “The Queen.” It’s unclear at this stage whether the project will be made for TV or might have the prospect of a theatrical release.

“Man to Man” survives

It’s been a scary couple of months for the producers of Regis Wargnier’s “Man to Man.” But they finally learned last week that their project is safe.

This $28 million Anglo-French co-production, starring Joseph Fiennes and Kristin Scott-Thomas, started shooting Feb. 18, despite having lost 30% of its budget a week earlier when the British government abruptly closed a tax loophole that was being used to finance its production.

The producers — France’s Vertigo and the U.K.’s Skyline — pushed ahead regardless with the first leg in South Africa, in the hope that they could plug the gap before the money ran out.

Their plan was to combine a U.K. sale-and-leaseback deal with a bank loan against sales estimates. But crucially, this depended on getting the pic approved by the U.K.’s Dept. of Culture, Media & Sport as an official co-production.

The DCMS, which recently rejected a similar application from the Anglo-Canadian project “River King,” initially raised doubts about “Man to Man.” But the greenlight finally came through April 20, just in time for the pic to start the British leg of its production in Cornwall and Scotland.

“Man to Man” is an original screenplay by Brit novelist William Boyd, based on a idea by Wargnier, about a Victorian scientist who mistakenly believes a pygmy he discovers in Africa is the missing link between men and apes.

Perry ruled out

Contrary to a previous report, former British Screen topper Simon Perry is not a candidate for the chairmanship of the U.K. Film Council. He did put in an application — but missed the deadline by two days and was therefore disqualified.

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