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The man who presided over the deadly clash between Glenn Close and John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons, tackles a clash between Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, in Mrs Henderson Presents; the worse a character behaves, the more the audience adores them, Stephen Frears tells Nick Roddick in London.

Rumpled is the word that springs to mind when looking at British director Stephen Frears - rumpled, and slightly quizzical. He has a way of looking at you as though you’ve just said something and he’s not sure he agrees. When you haven’t said anything yet, this can be quite disconcerting. But the reputation that proceeds Frears of being grumpy - of not wanting to talk about films once he’s made them - couldn’t be further from the truth.

Today, at any rate, as he cheerfully bats away any suggestion that his new film, Mrs Henderson Presents, might have serious undertones.

"It was good fun"

“It was good fun,” he chuckles. “What more do you want in life? It was the opportunity not to be serious that was so nice. It was so frivolous and silly - except, of course, that it’s set in the war and the war gets in the way.

When Brits say ‘the war’, they invariably mean World War II; and indeed, Mrs Henderson is set between the late thirties and the height of the Blitz. But the conflict, insists Frears, is not the context. “It was a sort of mistake,” he says, affable as ever. “Had you said to me ‘Do you want to make a film about the war’?, I would have said ‘No’. And it was only quite late on that I suddenly thought, ‘Oh Christ, I’ve got to make another bloody war film!’”

The real subject of the film is a particularly British institution called the Windmill Theatre, which still stands on Great Windmill Street on the south-eastern fringe of Soho. Today, typically, it is a lap-dancing club. In the period during which the film is set, however, it was a live theatre, putting on continuous vaudeville shows (or ‘Revuedeville’, as the Windmill management christened them).

Two things made the place an institution. One, it put on the first nude show in London, circumventing the Lord Chancellor (Britain’s censor, who would preserve the London stage from sedition and smut for another 30 years) by having them pose motionless in ‘artistic’ tableaux. Two, because, as the Windmill was boasting well into the sixties ‘We never closed’, even in the darkest nights of the Blitz.

“I knew the place existed,” says Frears, “and I knew it showed naked girls, but I’d never been there. It was a sort of joke, a sort of lovable institution. It was like the Queen Mother: it was very nice, very British and very daft. I’m sorry to be so frivolous, but that’s what is so nice about it: it’s so silly.”

The film tells the story of how Laura Henderson, a 69-year-old widow in search of a ‘hobby’, buys a derelict theatre; hires a mercurial but temporarily out-of-work manager called Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins); and creates an institution which becomes especially popular during the War with soldiers on leave or just about to return to the front.

"The relationship between the two characters is love and hate... what more is there in life"

For Frears, it goes against the grain of his recent work by being a ‘period’ film. But, although the Windmill’s dance routines are wonderfully recreated (by Eleanor Fazan and Debbie Astell) and ace production designer Hugo Luczyz-Wyhowski never sets a foot wrong. The film, for Frears, was more about the relationship between Mrs Henderson and Van Damm, who fought like cats and dogs but maintained, beneath the hostilities, a genuine affection and mutual respect. “The relationship between the two characters is love and hate,” says the 64-year-old director. “What more is there in life?”

Typically, Frears lets his fellow professionals do the period research, coming up with an iconic shot of Piccadilly Circus before traffic-calming measures and neon signs for Japanese technology destroyed its character, which is then brought wonderfully to life by the magic of computers.

“I did absolutely nothing, so it has all my approval,” says Frears. “It was all done electronically.” Same for the rooftop scenes where, at the end, Mrs Henderson and Mr Van Damm survey the backdrop of London burning before taking one last waltz together. Even here, though, Frears - unlike his contemporary, Mike Newell on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - doesn’t seem to have fallen head over heels for CGI.
“The skyline is entirely electronically created,” he says matter-of-factly. “Clearly, we wanted a romantic image at the end, and at one point, the sky was very red and I remember thinking, ‘Well, I can see all this electronic imagery has produced this image but, actually, they did the same in Gone With the Wind’ with a paintbrush and lights. That’s the first time I used computer-generated imagery on that scale.

“The real creation of the Blitz was the idea - which came very late - of using documentary material, and using it absolutely plainly, not trying to pretend. Most of it came from Humphrey Jennings who, as we all know, was the great master of wartime documentary.

“The only other film I looked at in terms of the period was one called Evergreen by Victor Saville, a wonderful film. You look at it and it tells you everything: it’s about the upper classes and about showbusiness and singing and dancing. It had everything in it.

“I guess that’s what happened: this rich woman bought the theatre and all these people appeared, and then the war came which, of course, forced everybody into a sort of democratic life.”

"Mrs Henderson Presents is not a musical"

Frears is insistent that Mrs Henderson Presents is not a musical. “We made a decision that the songs would never, ever go out of the theatre,” he says. “It’s not as though Judi and Bob suddenly burst into song which would drive you mad!” The backstage world of the theatre, on the other hand, is lovingly recreated (the entire Windmill was rebuilt at Shepperton Studios) and does much to recreate the sense of community which is the film’s main theme. But there is more than a little nostalgia in the recreation of the world of pre-war London theatre, which had vanished by the time Frears himself began his career.

“It wasn’t anything like that, so I don’t automatically associate it with the theatre I worked in,” he says. “It was so violent and emotionally on edge. When I came down from university, I wanted to work in the theatre and I started working at the Royal Court. I really drifted into films by mistake because Karel Reisz invited me to come and work on his film. But I’ve been around actors all my life.”

Hoskins has described the film’s Mrs Henderson as “three things: charming, cheeky and an absolute cow,” adding: “Only Judi could really get away with that.” Dench herself repays the compliment. What clinched the decision to take the part of a cantankerous elderly woman (who is actually, when the film starts, two years younger than Dench herself), “was Stephen. I love working with him; he never gives up until he’s satisfied. He nags you in a nice way; he pretends he doesn’t, but he does all the time. He also pretends he doesn’t know quite what’s happening or what he’s doing, but he’s not mystified at all. He’s got a beguiling way of working. I just trust him.”

Frears is, as usual, a little more reticent, restricting himself to commenting on the character who, he says, “is actually very lovable. I always knew when I was making Liaisons Dangereuses (1988) that the worse the character behaved, the more the audience would adore them”. But when, at the end of our conversation, I ask him whether he actually enjoys the process of promoting the film, he replies, “Well, luckily that isn’t my job. If you’ve got Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, you’re already blessed.”

"And what, finally about the nudity - which is discreet, tasteful but undeniably full-frontal?"

And what, finally about the nudity - which is discreet, tasteful but undeniably full-frontal? Dench is the only one not to strip off (and then probably only because the part didn’t call for her to do so). But was it difficult to convince the other actors to do those scenes? “Well, it didn’t seem to me to be very difficult,” chuckles Frears. “They didn’t need any persuasion because that was the job. I didn’t even have to persuade Bob Hoskins to get naked; I never said a word. He’d never done it before but it was in the script and that was the end of it. I read about somebody making a fuss about all the other technicians taking their clothes off and about me having to do it, too! They kept threatening to do that. But luckily, they lost their nerve!”

Published December 26, 2005

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