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Word has it that a Japanese travel book is due out soon, titled Bridget Jones's Guide to London,that will list all the haunts of the neurotic thirty-something "singleton" created by Helen Fielding.

Before long, hordes of tourists will be traipsing across London to see where the fictional character shops -- department store Harvey Nichols in ritzy Knightsbridge -- and the restaurants where she meets her friends to discuss the chronic emotional immaturity of the men in their lives.

As moviegoers on both sides of the Atlantic await the release on Friday of the movie version of Bridget Jones's Diary, (starring Renée Zellweger as Bridget and Hugh Grant and Colin Firth as the romantic interests), the publicity machine for this fictional character is in full gear.

Only the launch of the latest Harry Potter novel last summer rivals the Bridget Jones campaign for hype -- hype that has encompassed everything from soft drinks to politics.

Not that the satirical novel needs much help. Bridget Jones's Diary has become an international bestseller since it first appeared here five years ago, gaining millions of fans for the hapless media assistant as she chronicles her life of drinking too much, smoking too much, swearing too much and worrying too much about her weight and her roller-coaster love life.

If you buy a case of Diet Coke (Bridget is a famous calorie-counter) at your local British supermarket, you're promised an exclusive Bridget Jones story free among the pop cans as well as the chance to win a Bridget Jones weekend in London for four that includes two nights in a hotel, some spending money, dinner at Bar 192 (another Bridget favourite) and five cases of Diet Coke.

The phenomenon has even reached Millbank, headquarters of the governing Labour Party. When 200 staff members were offered an outing last week to boost morale after the May 3 election was postponed, they were given a choice between seeing Bridget Jones's Diary and Billy Elliot, the story of a boy from a coal-mining town who becomes a ballet dancer. Bridget Jones won hands down. It was no contest. Bridget, with her middle-class roots, London lifestyle and the social conscience of a gnat, is quintessentially New Labour. For today's Labour Party, a film on the dismal life of the working class in the boonies is simply too depressing.

In a now-infamous bid to get the $22-million (U.S.) movie to succeed in the American market, its producers, London company Working Title (also responsible for Four Weddings and A Funeral and Notting Hill),made a boldly controversial move last year, casting Texan Renée Zellweger, who came to fame as Tom Cruise's girlfriend in Jerry Maguire, as Bridget in preference to an English star. The British press sharpened their knives, reacting with predictable outrage. Why not Kate Winslet, or a similar English rose, they asked?

A Mail on Sunday article, published after the announcement last year, summed up the typical reaction at the time:

"The question, then, was not 'Renée who?' but 'Renée? Why?' " the paper said. "She is an all-American girl with a strong Texan drawl. 'Everyone was stunned when Renée was chosen,' said one British producer based in Los Angeles. 'It would be like choosing a British actor to play a quintessentially American role, such as Tom Sawyer'."

Barely 30, Zellweger was judged neither mature enough, nor indeed plain enough, to portray the desperate-to-wed, broody Bridget -- the exercise was "like remaking The Elephant Man with [handsome British leading man]Jude Law," the Evening Standard sniffed.

Yet, one year on, the knives have dulled considerably, and the Brits seem to love Zellweger as much as they love Bridget herself.

The Daily Mail's Christopher Tookey gave the film four stars: "Memo to diary: Have just seen romantic comedy that is going to be whopping great hit this spring. Those who predicted Renée Zellweger wouldn't be able to do English accent about to eat words."

"Though Texan, Miss Zellweger just as believable as Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, and even more adorable."

Writing in the Independent, Laura Tennant said that Zellweger's accent "is pretty much flawless and the script is extremely funny and often extremely rude."

They wouldn't be the legendarily savage London critics, though, if they didn't get in a few good jabs. Evening Standard columnist Shane Watson found Zellweger's accent much too posh. "There's something about the combination of pony-club vowels and pink hamster cheeks that gives Bridge an air of Nice but Dim that she never had in the Diary," Watson concluded. The Evening Standard's film critic Neil Norman was even less charitable, calling the Diary'sromantic plot predictable and castigating the movie for playing it safe and cosy: "It was like being smothered to death by puppies," Norman snarled.

But Norman and a few critics like him aside, local attitudes over all have softened. And that may have much to do with the way Zellweger has successfully "gone native" in the past year.

"I have fallen in love with Britain, I drink tea and have beans on toast every day for breakfast. In California last week, I asked someone the way to the loo and they didn't know what I was talking about," she told the press.

What Brit wouldn't want to hear that?

She went the extra mile to perfect her English accent, working with the same voice coach as Gwyneth Paltrow, whose English parts have included Shakespeare in Love as well as Sliding Doors.

Zellweger also spent three weeks incognito working as, you guessed it, a publicist at a London publishing house, just like Bridget. In fact, she did her work experience at Picador, publisher of the Bridget Jones novels, where she took on the unlikely name of Bridget Cavendish.

Camilla Elworthy, her boss at Picador and a woman who clearly knows where her bread is buttered, says Zellweger looked younger and prettier than she expected. "She wasn't what I anticipated -- scrubbed, unaffected and dressed in neat, casual clothes. She fitted in straight away."

She claims that Zellweger was the perfect employee, answering the phone, calling up literary editors at the newspapers and clipping papers for book-related stories. According to Elworthy, Zellweger was so good that Picador's deputy publisher suggested giving her a full-time job.

After her model employee decided to quit for some better-paid work, Elworthy said that Renée kindly invited her to the movie set "where she performed the most wonderful and generous act that one woman can for another: She introduced me to Colin Firth."

Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Zellweger made Hollywood's ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the movie. She started eating food and stopped spending 12 hours a day at the gym. She actually gained weight -- some say as much as 28 pounds. "I felt voluptuous for the first time in my life," Zellweger said. "Bridget likes the Chardonnay and she likes to smoke. I wanted her body to reflect her lifestyle."

Of course, being voluptuous didn't cut it in Hollywood, so she's now back at her regular shape -- a Size 2. Despite her ever-shrinking body, she insists she's a soul sister with Bridget Jones.

"I can totally relate to Bridget Jones, even though I'm an American," she said in an interview with Marie-Claire, on whose cover she appears as a pencil-thin Bridget Jones. "In L.A., there is pressure to be a certain size and look a certain way."

Again, just the kind of thing the British love to hear.

At least most of them. The author of Bridget Jones's Diary herself, Helen Fielding, having struck it very rich with her tale of the frowsy London "singleton," has chosen to quit smoking and move to fashionable West Hollywood -- in search of a healthy California lifestyle.