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Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh

Tony Whitehead
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Mike Leigh
    Book Description:

    Mike Leigh may well be Britain’s greatest living film director; his worldview has permeated our national consciousness. This book gives detailed readings of the nine feature films he has made for the cinema, as well as an overview of his work for television. Written with the co-operation of Leigh himself, this is the first study of his work to challenge the critical privileging of realism in histories of the British cinema, and place the emphasis instead on the importance of comedy and humour: of jokes and their functions, of laughter as a survival mechanism, and of characterisations and situations that disrupt our preconceptions of ‘realism’. Striving for the all-important quality of truth in everything he does, Leigh has consistently shown how ordinary lives are too complex to fit snugly into the conventions of narrative art. Developing characters and narratives through meticulous processes of improvisation in preparation and rehearsal, Leigh has led his collaborators in creating a body of work that is utterly distinctive. From the bittersweet observation of Life is Sweet or Secrets and Lies, to the blistering satire of Naked and the manifest compassion of Vera Drake, he has demonstrated a matchless ability to perceive life’s funny side as well as its tragedies, establishing a unique niche in the British cinema as both humorist and humanist.

    eISBN: 978-1-84779-198-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of plates
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Series editors’ foreword
    (pp. xi-xi)

    The aim of this series is to present in lively, authoritative volumes a guide to those film-makers who have made British cinema a rewarding but still under-researched branch of world cinema. The intention is to provide books which are up-to-date in terms of information and critical approach, but not bound to any one theoretical methodology. Though all books in the series will have certain elements in common – comprehensive filmographies, annotated bibliographies, appropriate illustration – the actual critical tools employed will be the responsibility of the individual authors.

    Nevertheless, an important recurring element will be a concern for how the oeuvre of...

  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xii-xii)
  6. Introduction: ‘You’ve gotta laugh’
    (pp. 1-10)

    Mike Leigh may well be Britain’s greatest living director. Without question, he has carved a unique niche for himself: describe a person or a situation as being like someone or something ‘out of a Mike Leigh film’, and few would fail to understand what you meant (which would probably be a small-scale domestic drama involving trapped, yet highly idiosyncratic, suburban characters).

    And yet, when his most recent filmVera Drakewas released in 2005, thirty-four years after his debut feature, Peter Bradshaw was able to claim in aGuardianprofile, with total justification, that its success was ‘seen as Leigh’s...

  7. 1 ‘Really wants to direct’: formative years
    (pp. 11-17)

    It comes as something of a surprise to discover that Leigh, a famously proud Salfordian, was actually born in Welwyn, Hertfordshire – because, as the old joke goes, his mother was there at the time. Phyllis Leigh was in fact staying with her parents in 1943 while his father, Abe, was serving abroad with the Royal Army Medical Corps. A matter of days after the birth, however, Phyllis returned with her new baby to Salford, where Abe had worked before the war, at Salford Royal Hospital. When Abe returned to Salford after the war, the family lived above his surgery in...

  8. 2 ‘A kind of language’: Bleak Moments
    (pp. 18-32)

    Having formed their company, Autumn Productions, Leigh and Blair set about raising the necessary finance for their first feature, sending letters to anyone whom they thought might be willing and able to support them. In the event, the BFI Production Board coughed up the minimum permissible amount of £100, but the vast majority of the funding came from Memorial Films, run, with Michael Medwin, by their fellow ex-Salford Grammar School pupil, Albert Finney. Memorial Films put up an initial £14,000, and then, when the production went over-budget, a further £3,000. Leigh was, finally, a film-maker.

    Bleak Momentslacks the robust...

  9. 3 ‘A long time in the womb’: the TV films
    (pp. 33-55)

    ‘Oh, it’s Beaujolais. Fantastic! Won’t be a sec, I’ll just pop it in the fridge’. Has any beverage in any work of art ever excited quite so much comment or controversy as that bottle of red wine in Leigh’s 1977 play – and its TV adaptation –Abigail’s Party?

    Abigail’s Partywas just one of the nine feature-length productions which Leigh ‘devised and directed’ (his preferred credit at the time) between 1973 and 1985. The success of these meant that, as Garry Watson observes, ‘most British viewers were aware of Leigh long before the arrival of High Hopes in 1988’,¹ even though...

  10. 4 ‘A different world’: High Hopes
    (pp. 56-74)

    By the time of Leigh’s long-awaited return to the big screen, in 1988, Margaret Thatcher had been the British Prime Minister for nearly ten years. She had won a third consecutive election victory in the 1987 general election, with a majority of 102 seats – a mere forty-two less than in her previous term of office, despite the deeply divisive year-long miners’ strike of 1984–85, and a bitter internal dispute over Westland Helicopters in 1986 that led to some high-profile cabinet resignations.High Hopesrepresented Leigh’s uncertainty about what anyone opposed to Thatcherism could practically do in the face of...

  11. 5 ‘So long as you’re happy’: Life Is Sweet
    (pp. 75-89)

    An important development in Leigh’s working life came in 1989 when he formed the production company Thin Man Films with Simon Channing-Williams, who had first worked with him onGrown-Upsas first assistant director and had co-producedHigh Hopes. For the company’s first production, Leigh has said that he committed himself ‘to making a comedy that would have a potentially larger audience appeal thanHigh Hopes’,¹ and this he achieved, as Graham Fuller notes: ‘Lighter and sunnier in mood thanHigh Hopes, but equally trenchant and moving in its depiction of ordinary people carrying on, doing what they can to...

  12. 6 ‘The future is now’: Naked
    (pp. 90-113)

    Nothing in the bittersweet tone or the precisely observed domesticity ofLife Is Sweetprepared audiences or critics for Leigh’s next feature film,Naked, which remains his bleakest and angriest work, as well as his most controversial. It also marked his breakthrough to international recognition, and a shift in his career whereby each of his subsequent films would be radically different, in style or subject matter or both, from the one that had gone before. Indeed, in Leigh’s own opinion, ‘all of my work up to and including, and concluding with,Life Is Sweetis in one category, and from...

  13. 7 ‘Welcome to the family’: Secrets and Lies
    (pp. 114-134)

    After the controversy ofNakedcame one of Leigh’s best loved and most highly acclaimed films. Applying the epic thematic and structural scale ofNakedto the intimate domestic environment of his earlier work,Secrets and Liesproved to be his most popular film up to that time, winning the Palme d’Or and the International Critics’ Prize at Cannes (as well as a Best Actress award for Brenda Blethyn) and receiving five Oscar nominations in the major categories of Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. In the event, however, it didn’t win in any...

  14. 8 ‘All these memories’: Career Girls
    (pp. 135-146)

    Still keeping us on our toes, Leigh followed the ensemble playing and emotional sweep ofSecrets and Lieswith a carefully crafted miniature.Career Girlsfocuses on just two young women, Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman), who used to be flatmates when they were students in the mid-80s and, having not seen each other for six years, spend a weekend together at Hannah’s London home. It turns out to be a weekend full of coincidences and unexpected blasts from the past.

    Leigh makes no attempt to obscure these coincidences, which the characters point out and discuss, as Stella...

  15. 9 ‘Laughter – tears – curtain’: Topsy-Turvy
    (pp. 147-161)

    Prior to 1999, Leigh described himself as ‘a closet Gilbert and Sullivan freak’.¹ WithTopsy-Turvyhe emerged from the closet, firmly declaring his long-standing delight in the comic operas of librettist William Schwenck Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, whose intermittently stormy collaboration began in 1871 and continued for two and a half decades, mostly under the management of Richard D’Oyly Carte at London’s Savoy Theatre. The emergence was a spectacular one, given both the film’s unusually (for Leigh) lavish production values and the highly positive reaction to it. It also marked a breakthrough for Leigh in that it was ‘the...

  16. 10 ‘Life’s too short’: All or Nothing
    (pp. 162-178)

    After the unfamiliar period setting and comparatively large budget ofTopsy-Turvy, Leigh returned to more recognisable territory for his next film,All or Nothing. Indeed, the opening shot almost looks like a parody of his style and mood – except that no parody could so succinctly convey the humanity and sense of mortality that pervade both this opening and the film as a whole.

    We see a long, sustained shot of what the screenplay describes as an ‘institutional corridor’,¹ over which Andrew Dickson’s melancholy music perfectly establishes the tone. A young woman is seen stoically mopping the floor; despite the wide-screen...

  17. 11 ‘Out of the kindness of her heart’: Vera Drake
    (pp. 179-195)

    Leigh’s second cinematic venture into period drama was in a sense closer to home thanTopsy-Turvy, being set within living memory for a substantial proportion of a 2004 audience; and dealing with a subject about which it is virtually impossible to remain neutral. In its way, it was clearly as personal a project as the earlier film, too: its dedication reads, ‘In loving memory of my parents, a doctor and a midwife’.

    The setting is London in 1950, when the Second World War still resonated in people’s memories, and the continuing privations of the post-war period created a black market...

  18. Conclusion: ‘The journey continues’
    (pp. 196-197)

    This book leaves Leigh on something like the crest of a wave. The success ofVera Drakewas almost immediately followed up by a triumphant return to the theatre, a medium in which he had not worked since 1993’sIt’s a Great Big Shame!Still, even after an absence of twelve years, it is hard to imagine him refusing an invitation from the Royal National Theatre – although it had taken him a few years to find the time, Nicholas Hytner having asked him every year since taking over as the National’s artistic director in 2001. Hytner gave him carte blanche...

  19. Filmography
    (pp. 198-208)
  20. Select bibliography
    (pp. 209-212)
  21. Index
    (pp. 213-217)