This 2007 made for TV movie aired on Boxing Day in Britain and will be aired on CBC in Canada - date yet to be determined. When I think of this book, I think of Meg Ryan in "You've Got Mail"...one of my favourite scenes is where she discusses this book and her obvious love for literature.
Posy (LUCY BOYNTON),
Petrova (YASMIN PAIGE)
and Pauline (EMMA WATSON).
Gum (RICHARD GRIFFITHS)
and Nana (VICTORIA WOOD).
I don't know that I would have recognized her!)
It was fun seeing them together after playing mother-in-law
and daughter-in-law in Sense and Sensibility.
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Set in Thirties London, Ballet Shoes, a one-off film for BBC One, tells the exhilarating tale of orphans Pauline (Emma Watson), Petrova (Yasmin Paige) and Posy Fossil (Lucy Boynton) who are adopted by an eccentric explorer, Great Uncle Matthew (Richard Griffiths), and raised as sisters by his selfless niece, Sylvia (Emilia Fox), under the guidance of Nana (Victoria Wood). The film also stars Dame Eileen Atkins as ballet teacher Madame Fidolia.
The timeless and uplifting story revolves around each girl's struggle to fulfil her dreams: Pauline longs to be an actress, Petrova yearns to be an aviator and Posy seems born to be a ballerina.
When Great Uncle Matthew, "Gum", disappears, the money runs out and the girls have a fight on their hands. Their struggle to balance personal ambition with the need to survive physically, emotionally and financially, proves moving and comic by turns.
Ballet Shoes boasts an all-star cast, featuring Emma Watson, Emilia Fox, Victoria Wood, Richard Griffiths, Harriet Walter, Gemma Jones, Peter Bowles, Adrian Lester, Lucy Cohu and Marc Warren.
Victoria Wood, who plays Nana, remarks: "Ballet Shoes is one of my favourite books ever – if you looked at my copy now you would see chocolate cake crumbs in amongst the pages. It was a perfect book to lose yourself in – it was so long I would sometimes get to the end and just start reading all over again."
Writer Heidi Thomas (Cranford) also cites Ballet Shoes as her most-loved book of all time. "It is a novel with the power to inspire like no other. As a child, I slept with a copy underneath my pillow. As an adult, I return to it time and again when life gets tough." Her explanation for its enduring power is simple: "Ballet Shoes tells you everything will be all right."
Producer Piers Wenger comments: "There is a strong rites-of-passage story at the heart of Ballet Shoes. It's about three girls who, in their own separate ways, feel a calling. Following their passions forces them to discover who they really are. Pauline, Petrova and Posy each have individual stories, but at their heart is one common theme – an exploration of the trials of growing up."
Victoria comments: "The book is almost a fairy tale – three orphans in a huge old house in London being brought up by kind Sylvia and down-to-Earth Nana – but the screenplay roots the story in a more realistic world, and looks at the dilemma of Sylvia, herself an orphan, being landed with three babies before she's really had a chance to grow up herself."
Emilia Fox, star of Silent Witness, plays Sylvia, the guardian of the girls. Emilia's mother, actress Joanna David, appeared in a TV serialisation of the book more than 30 years ago.
"I feel the new film will open up the book to a whole new generation of readers," Emilia declares. "There is a lot of nostalgia about Ballet Shoes, but so much of it is relevant to the present day. For example, I think the way the Fossils deal with poverty makes the film feel very modern. They pull together and survive against all odds." She acknowledges, however, that the girls are not perfect. "They have their flaws, and that's what makes them interesting."
Director Sandra Goldbacher shares this view. "Our three young actors brought such passion, spontaneity and realism to their characters. They were not afraid to let them have tantrums or narcissistic outbursts. I think they'll feel very believable to an audience today, and not like rarefied creatures with posh accents and perfect complexions. They are three young teenagers who squabble in their bedroom, but who happen to have extraordinary talents and dreams."
Petrova, miserable and frustrated in her enforced career on the stage, undergoes a complex journey in the course of the film. "It's a part that requires real maturity, but Yasmin has several years of acting experience, and it shows. This girl is the real deal – she moved us to tears on several occasions."
Yasmin comments: "I liked the fact the sisters had different roots and they come together in this adopted family. I am very close to my own brothers and mother, and I really identified with the protectiveness Petrova feels for the people she loves."
Yasmin looked perfect for the part – only giving her a tomboy-ish haircut proved troublesome. "Her hair is jet-black but quite flyaway and impossible to cut," observes Heidi Thomas. "We wanted her to have a fringe, as in the original illustrations for the book, so wig mistress Sue Wyburgh painstakingly stitched a false piece into position."
Lucy Boynton, cast next as feisty, ballet-mad Posy, also spent time in the hairdresser's chair. Her own hair is dark blonde, but, says Heidi: "In auditions she was brilliant – loveable, but also hilariously funny – and we realised her delicate complexion would make her convincing as a redhead. So out came the scissors, the curlers and the dye."
Lucy, who played the young Beatrix Potter in the hit film Miss Potter with Renée Zellweger, was understandably nervous about the transformation, and the colour was added over several sessions "so that she didn't take fright", says Heidi. The producers found an ally in Adriaane Pielou, Lucy's journalist mother: "I persuaded her she had to suffer for her art."
Lucy, overjoyed to be playing Posy, also had to brush up on her ballet moves, and took daily classes with the film's choreographer, Sammy Murray-Brown. She loved her visits to the Pineapple Dance Studio: "I used to peep through the doors and watch professional dancers taking class. I was fascinated by the way they moved." She confesses to falling in love with ballet all over again during the shoot, and hopes to take more classes in the future.
Casting Pauline proved toughest of all. Heidi reveals: "We saw every blonde actress in London, and not one of them was right." In desperation, Wenger and Goldbacher arranged an open casting session. More than a hundred girls turned up – and none of them fitted the bill. "It was like a nightmare," says Heidi. "There were women in their twenties turning up in ankle socks."
When Emma Watson expressed an interest in the role, Wenger, Heidi and Goldbacher were delighted. Emma arranged to meet Sandra Goldbacher over a cup of tea, and there was an instant chemistry between them.
"Emma was perfect for Pauline," reports Goldbacher. "She has a piercing, delicate aura that makes you want to gaze and gaze at her." Emma was intrigued by the part; Pauline's experience as a child actress who becomes a movie star had some parallels with her own.
Emma comments: "I was all set to go back to school after finishing Harry Potter but couldn't resist Ballet Shoes. I really loved it; it felt so funny and real. It was also beautifully written." She adds that a scene that had most resonance for her takes place the night before the première of Pauline's first film. Pauline weeps: "Tomorrow night, my face is going to be blown up as big as a house, and everyone will find me out!"
According to Heidi, Emma need not fear. "Emma's performance in Ballet Shoes is a revelation," she comments. "She is maturing rapidly as a young woman and as an actress – her work is sensitive, subtle and intelligent."
Heidi adds: "She is also incredibly hardworking. Our schedule was murderous, and she never once complained, even when she was white with exhaustion." Insiders also noticed a refreshing lack of vanity – Emma agreed to play one scene with her hair in bright blue curlers. "She looked a complete sight but she just got on with it," laughs Heidi.
Nevertheless, Pauline grows into a beautiful teenager in the course of the story, and, when Emma came on set to film her final scenes, she was wearing her first-ever coating of rich, red lipstick. "There were gasps," says Heidi. "We suddenly got a sense of the great beauty Emma is likely to become – and it was breathtaking."
Victoria Wood is sanguine about the challenges of acting with multiple juveniles.
"Working with Emma, Yasmin and Lucy was easy, but doing scenes with the little babies was slightly more problematic. We had a six-month-old who was as happy as Larry in her trailer, then went puce when put into a cotton nightie and clutched to Nana's bosom.
"We had a toddler who held her hand over her face the minute the camera was turning – like a celebrity arriving at court for a divorce hearing. That particular child was supposed to throw a dolly out of a pushchair, well, she wouldn't throw it, wouldn't hold it; I think we should have got a bigger pushchair and phoned Janette Krankie."
In contrast, Victoria enjoyed working with Emilia Fox, and adds: "It was a big thrill to do a scene with Dame Eileen Atkins – we didn't share any dialogue, but she nodded in my direction and I did a sort of curtsey, so it was as good as... I feel Heidi missed a trick in not giving Nana a sing-song round the piano with Madame Fidolia."
Heidi Thomas and Dame Eileen Atkins collaborate for the third time on Ballet Shoes – previous work together includes Heidi's version of Madame Bovary for the BBC, and this autumn's epic, Cranford.
Dame Eileen plays Posy's mentor and ballet teacher, Madame Fidolia, and she has a particularly strong bond with the world of Ballet Shoes.
"As a child in the Thirties, I danced on the professional stage," she explains. "My dancing teacher was an extraordinary woman called Kathleen Smith who styled herself Madame Kavos Yandie and pretended to be Spanish. We had her initials emblazoned on our costumes – 'K.Y.' on everything. We were constantly mocked!" She adds: "When we were hired as a troupe, we'd be tapping away whilst she stood in the wings screaming: 'Smile! Smile! Smile!'"
Madame Fidolia enjoyed genuine success as a ballerina in her native Russia, but Eileen's teacher was inventive with the truth. "She used to put 13 letters after her name – a string of false qualifications – but she was found out after the War and had to apologise in the Dancing Times."
Like the Fossil sisters, Eileen was from a humble background, and needed the money her talent brought home. Throughout her childhood she danced in East End working men's clubs: "I earned 15 bob a night, which was quite a good wage." Her reputation grew and, at one point, she shared the bill with Anna Neagle and Randolph Scott. "I sang Yankee Doodle Dandy whilst toe-tapping on an upturned drum."
Marc Warren plays Mr Simpson, the kind, melancholy lodger who moves into the Fossils' home as a paying guest. He says: "My character is a really nice, posh bloke, which is quite against type for me. He's recently returned from Kuala Lumpur and has had a tragic life, having lost his wife and son.
"He takes Petrova under his wing and they bond through their interest in cars – but he has feelings for Sylvia which he's too shy to admit to." He adds: "It's a wonderful script, really lovely, and the original book is delightful. I don't think Ballet Shoes is just for girls, however – it will appeal to the whole family, as the sisters take on such a range of responsibilities. Working with Yasmin, Emma and Lucy was fantastic."
Piers Wenger sums up: "There are numerous reasons why it made sense to produce Ballet Shoes now. The cult of the TV talent shows demonstrates just how titillated we all are by the pleasure and pain of performance. But I think Ballet Shoes is also a great antidote to the notion of fame for fame's sake; the story is about discovering what really matters in life, something which we hope would also strike a chord with modern audiences."