Mike Leigh in Conversation

As we celebrate the extensive career of Mike Leigh this month, here’s a unique chance for you to hear the director reflect upon his body of work for film and television, the ensemble teams he employed both in front of and behind the camera, and his thoughts for the future as he plans his next film.

This event will be hosted by Amy Raphael, author of Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh (Faber – new, revised edition now available in the BFI shop).

It is proof of making your mark as an artist that people know exactly what you mean when your name is invoked. ‘Like a Mike Leigh film, or play’ has become shorthand for a certain kind of grungey domestic scenario, with pop-up toasters and cups of tea, fake-fur coats and rugs, pink bobble carpet slippers, bad haircuts, domestic arguments on leatherette sofas, and adolescent anxieties. Welcome to the slump, the outer London anomie, the china animals, the flying geese on brown wallpaper, the smoky pub, the cold light of dawn and the cheerless laundrette. But Leigh’s pictures of ordinary life are given extraordinary resonance by the thoroughness of their presentation, the brilliance of the acting, the sureness of the atmospheres and the classical structure to which most of his work aspires, often successfully. Imagine Così fan tutte, said Clive James, without the music, and without the words, plus cheap furniture: you have a Mike Leigh film.

Quite a lot of Leigh’s creations are fumbling for words, struggling to express inexpressible feelings and catching at phrases like drowning men looking for rafts. Clive James, reviewing Home Sweet Home, averred that Leigh was ‘conducting the most daring raid on the inarticulate yet. Harold Pinter is Christopher Fry beside him.’ The art of evasion and failure in communication certainly comes from Pinter, whom Leigh acknowledges as an important influence. He especially admires Pinter’s earliest work, and directed The Caretaker while still at RADA. Ben Jonson’s comedy of humours lies behind the fact that Leigh’s characters are wound up and unleashed on the world; they don’t change or develop all that much, but the situation around them does, farcically and sometimes catastrophically. Alan Ayckbourn’s increasingly dark and wry middle-class chronicles of social unease and embarrassment are comparable to Leigh’s rougher, noisier essays in snobbery and violence and misguided social aspiration. But the world of Mike Leigh reaches even deeper into the contemporary cultural consciousness for two reasons: he makes films, and so takes those theatrical elements of class comedy and speech patterns into the popular mainstream; and those films, for an audience now extending way beyond the enclosures of cineastes and critical trend-setters, define, in a peculiar and disturbing manner, the way we live today.

Mike Leigh was born in 1943. He went to Salford Grammar School, whose alumni include the actor Albert Finney and the director Les Blair, Leigh’s friend and immediate contemporary, who produced Leigh’s first feature film, Bleak Moments, in 1971. Leigh astonished and alarmed his family by devising an escape route to London in 1960, aged 17: he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. After RADA, he took further courses in stage design and film technique, in life drawing on a foundation course at art college, and then served an apprenticeship in the theatre simply because it was easier to break into than the cinema. Leigh is a brilliant, naturally gifted, satirical cartoonist, and could easily have made his living by the broad-nibbed pen, or brush; he is an unreconstructed northerner who came south to ‘make it’ in London, slightly chippy, fiercely proud (and critical) of his roots and his Jewish background, an instinctive maverick and non-joiner; and he is a child of the 1960s, the decade of the first British teenagers, of the Beatles and student unrest, and of the explosion of interest in the European cinema and the possibilities of television.

In his formative young-adult years (1965-70), Leigh worked in drama schools, in an arts centre in Birmingham and a youth theatre in Manchester. During this time he gradually evolved a rigorous and scientific method of working and writing with actors in rehearsals which is unique, unprecedented and frequently misunderstood as a form of random, or casual, ‘improvisation’. He also worked as a small-part actor in films and on the stage, and as an assistant director to both Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Between 1971, when he made Bleak Moments, and 1988, when he made his second feature film, High Hopes, Leigh’s career oscillated between the theatre (the Royal Shakespeare Company, the London fringe, Hampstead Theatre, the West End) and BBC Television. His films for the BBC, taken together with such memorable stage plays as Babies Grow Old (1974), Abigail’s Party (1977), Ecstasy (1979) and Goose-pimples (1981), comprise a distinctive, homogeneous body of work which stands comparison with anyone’s in the British theatre and cinema over the same period.

He does not work with stars. He tends, rather, to help create them. In addition, the roster of actors who have worked with him over the years comprises an impressive, almost representative, nucleus of outstanding British acting talent. The price of Leigh’s artistic integrity has been high. Like one of his heroes, Robert Altman, he has never sought Hollywood’s approval, so has never minded not going there. He works on his own terms, and no one else’s. Every project, on stage or film, is a blank page until he starts casting and piecing together his ideas with what the actors bring him. He rehearses all day and night for two or three months. He does not have an outline, or a script, to show any producers or potential backers. He makes life very hard – interesting, exhausting, demanding, but hard – for almost everyone who works with him. But he makes it hardest of all for himself.

After a lifetime of dedication and struggle, he is now recognised as one of the world’s great directors. And he only makes films about life in little old Britain. No battles. No big studios. He’s a genuine auteur in a sea of mediocrity.
His process of improvisation with actors is always rooted in objective critical appraisal and his own manipulative instincts. Leigh knows more than his actors about what might happen. But their ‘empowerment’ as creative colleagues means that they always do so much more than actors recycling lines on a page. By the time Leigh shoots, the script is fixed. It then involves the collaboration of such notable Leigh regulars as cinematographer Dick Pope, designers Alison Chitty and Eve Stewart, make-up artist Chris Blundell and many other expert technicians. For what Leigh really does, in a pure sense, is go out and ‘make up a film’. I think I now see his artistry, aside from his technical prowess, as a means of liberating actors to the ends of celebrating their own human nature. It is, and continues to be, a most remarkable campaign.
Michael Coveney

Born 20 February 1943, Salford, Lancashire

As Director
1971 Bleak Moments (UK) + scenario
1972 A Mug’s Game (BBC Schools Television)
1973 Hard Labour: Play for Today (TV play; tx BBC 12.3.73) + devised by
1975 The Permissive Society: Second City Firsts (TV play recorded live in studio; tx 10.4.75) + devised by
1976 Nuts in May: Play for Today (TV play; tx BBC 13.1.76) + devised by
Knock for Knock: Second City Firsts (TV play recorded live in studio; tx BBC 21.11.76) + devised by
Plays for Britain [title sequence] (TV series, tx 6.4.76)
1977 The Kiss of Death: Play for Today (TV play; tx BBC 11.1.77) + devised by
Abigail’s Party: Play for Today (TV play recorded live in studio; tx BBC 1.11.77) + devised by
1979 Who’s Who: Play for Today (TV play; tx BBC 5.2.79) + devised by
1980 Grown-Ups: Playhouse (TV play; tx BBC 28.11.80) + devised by
1982 Home Sweet Home: Play for Today (TV play; tx BBC 16.3.82) + devised by
The Birth of the Goalie of the 2001 F.A. Cup Final/Old Chums/Probation/ A Light Snack/Afternoon (shorts collectively known as ‘The Five Minute Films’, made in 1975, shown on BBC on consecutive nights 5-9.9.82) + devised by
1983 Meantime (TV play; tx Channel 4 1.12.83) + devised by
1985 Four Days in July (TV play; tx BBC 29.1.85) + devised by
1987 The Short & Curlies (GB; short) + devised by
1988 High Hopes (UK) + script
1990 Life Is Sweet (UK) + screenplay
1991 35th London Film Festival (UK; trailer) + script
1992 A Sense of History (TV, tx Channel 4 26.4.92)
1993 Naked (UK) + written by
1996 Secrets & Lies (UK) + writer
1997 Career Girls (UK) + screenplay
1999 Topsy-Turvy (UK/US) + screenplay
2002 All or Nothing (UK/France) + written by
2004 Vera Drake (UK/France) + written by
2007 Happy-Go-Lucky (UK/US) + written by
2010 Another Year (UK) + written by
2010 A Running Jump (UK short) + written by
2014 Mr. Turner (UK/France/Germany) + written by
2018 Peterloo (USA/UK) + written by

Please note that Mike Leigh and Amy Raphael will be signing copies of their new, revised edition of Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh (Faber) at 5:30pm on Saturday 6 November at the BFI shop. This signing is only available to customers purchasing books from the shop on the day.

Bleak Moments
Mon 18 Oct 20:40; Thu 28 Oct 18:00
Nuts in May
Wed 20 Oct 18:00; Sun 31 Oct 11:20 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Alison Steadman, Roger Sloman, Anthony O’Donnell, Stephen Bill and Sheila Kelley)
The Kiss of Death + The Permissive Society
Sat 23 Oct 12:50
Hard Labour
Sat 23 Oct 15:10
Sun 24 Oct 14:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman and Kate O’Flynn); Mon 15 Nov 20:40
Sun 24 Oct 18:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Marion Bailey and Phil Daniels); Thu 11 Nov 20:45
Secrets & Lies
Mon 25 Oct 14:30; Sat 6 Nov 19:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh); Sat 27 Nov 15:00
Abigail’s Party
Tue 26 Oct 20:50; Sun 14 Nov 12:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh)
High Hopes
Thu 28 Oct 14:30; Tue 2 Nov 18:45 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Ruth Sheen and Phil Davis); Thu 11 Nov 18:00; Sat 20 Nov 20:30
Life Is Sweet
Tue 28 Oct 17:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh); Thu 4 Nov 18:15; Tue 23 Nov 20:50
Grown-Ups + The Short and Curlies
Sat 30 Oct 17:15 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh); Tue 30 Nov 14:15
Home Sweet Home
Mon 1 Nov 17:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh); Sat 6 Nov 11:45
All or Nothing
Wed 3 Nov 20:30; Wed 10 Nov 20:30; Sun 21 Nov 17:10 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Lesley Manville and Marion Bailey)
Career Girls
Fri 5 Nov 20:50; Fri 12 Nov 18:15; Tue 23 Nov 18:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh)
Vera Drake
Fri 12 Nov 20:40; Fri 26 Nov 17:40 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis)
Sun 14 Nov 17:30 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh and Jim Broadbent); Sun 28 Nov 17:40
Another Year
Fri 19 Nov 17:30 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville); Mon 29 Nov 20:30
Four Days in July
Sat 20 Nov 11:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh and Bríd Brennan); Wed 24 Nov 14:15
Sat 20 Nov 16:20 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh); Mon 29 Nov 17:40
Mr. Turner
Sun 21 Nov 13:10 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Marion Bailey and Dorothy Atkinson); Sat 27 Nov 17:30
Who’s Who + A Sense of History + A Running Jump
Sat 30 Nov 14:00

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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