Mike Leigh at the BBC Review

Mike Leigh at the BBC is a six-disc box set covering all – well, almost all – of his work for the Corporation. Leigh's first ten cinema features (up to and including Vera Drake) have been released by Spirit Entertainment in another boxset: my review here has been updated.

Mike Leigh was born in Salford in 1943, the son of a doctor. The family lived above the surgery, in a very working-class area. Growing up middle-class in such an area gave Leigh an early insight into class differences which has marked his work ever since. In 1960 he went to RADA and had some early acting work, but he knew early on that he wanted to be a director, and achieved that at first on stage. A TV documentary on Peter Brook's legendary production of Peter Weiss's The Marat/Sade was inspirational: the actors playing asylum inmates improvised their roles from observation of real mentally ill people. What would happen, Leigh wondered, if you could make a whole play from scratch that way? And so Leigh's distinctive method was born.

All these BBC films and plays carry the credit “Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh” instead of the usual “written and directed”. That's not to say that Leigh is not in control: he is still very much the author, or rather controller, of the play. He develops the characters with the actors by means of workshops, but Leigh is the only person aware of the overall shape and structure of the piece. None of the characters know anything their character wouldn't, and certain plot twists came as much as a surprise to the cast as they do to the audience. Often, the films build up to what is not a conventional plot resolution, but a catharsis: pent-up emotions are brought to the surface, secrets are revealed, pain is vented, boils are lanced. This is a positive thing, not normally a bleak one: with their hurts being let out, there is hope for the characters' future.

Leigh honed his method on the stage, and one of his one-act plays became his first cinema feature, Bleak Moments, in 1971. Once he had made one feature film, the urge was there to make another. However, the British film industry had all but collapsed and Leigh was not the only director to be unable to resume a cinema career until the middle of the next decade. Leigh, like Stephen Frears, Ken Loach and others, worked for the BBC between whiles. Producer Tony Garnett approached Leigh to make a film for television, and the result was Hard Labour.

Leigh's television work (all but one of the features shot on 16mm) are clearly of a piece with his later cinema work. There's a detectable increase in fluency and visual sophistication, although Leigh's visual style to this day is largely self-effacing. Leigh is clearly refining the techniques and and themes that he would continue to explore from High Hopes onwards. However, Leigh's working methods (in particular the initial lack of a script) have meant that his big-screen work has been made on relatively low budgets and for those reasons his feature films have been based in Greater London, which makes Leigh's image as a “London” filmmaker simplistic. His BBC work was also low-budget, but the regional structure of the BBC allowed him to use a greater variety of locations. Hard Labour is set in Leigh's native Salford, Nuts in May in the Dorset countryside, The Kiss of Death in Oldham, Grown-Ups in Canterbury, Home Sweet Home in Hitchin and Four Days In July in Belfast. Some of these regional settings are all but incidental, but others are vital, and it's a pity that Leigh has not been able to make films in so many different locales since. On the other hand, towards the end of this box set, you can sense Leigh itching to be free of the constraints of television production, to make films on a (relatively) larger scale for the big screen – and in particular to be freed of the BBC’s restrictions on realistic - that is, strong - language. (The BBC did not allow “fuck” to be uttered in a scripted drama until 1980, and even by 1984 were only allowing isolated examples through. ITV had been a little more liberal, but it was the arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 which was the turning point for television profanity. Leigh’s first official F-word occurs in his 1983 Film on Four Meantime. Or maybe not - see the discussion of the soundtrack and subtitles below.)

Hard Labour (70:17)
Leigh's first film for the BBC was made in 1973. Set in Salford, it is the story of the Thornley family. Mrs Thornley (Liz Smith) – if we learn her first name, I missed it - is a charlady. Her husband Jim (Clifford Kershaw) is a night security guard and they have a daughter, Ann (Polly Hemingway).

Like most of the films in this set, Hard Labour was broadcast as part of the Play for Today strand. This was a weekly slot for a single play, broadcast on Tuesdays on BBC1 after the Nine O'Clock News. As producer Margaret Matheson says, her task was to surprise the audience every week. Play for Today, which was a development of the Wednesday Play of the 1960s, continued into the early 80s. It has a reputation for some over-worthy issues-based stuff, but a wide variety of work was made, and it brought new work from a great number of new writers and directors to a large audience.

Leigh fans will of course want to see this early piece, and it has its rewards, not least early performances from Liz Smith and Ben Kingsley (as an Indian taxi driver who goes out with Ann). However, it's a little static and visually somewhat plain, and gives quite a bit of ammunition to those who find Leigh's films bleak excursions into his characters' miserable lives.

After Hard Labour, Leigh made a short film for BBC Schools Television, A Mug's Game, a study of the effects of gambling. (This is not included in the box set, which is a pity for completeness’s sake, assuming it still exists of course.) He was then approached by producer Tara Prem to make something for the BBC's “Second City Firsts” strand, a series of half-hour studio plays made at Pebble Mill Studios in Birmingham (hence the series title). Leigh made two plays this way, though he was never comfortable in a studio with its multi-camera set-up. The Permissive Society (29:05) was the first of these. It's a three-hander, with Les (Bob Mason) bringing his girlfriend Carol (Veronica Roberts) back to his family's flat before a night out. Also there, and preparing to go out herself, is Les's sister Yvonne (Rachel Davies). The play is a small snapshot of these people's lives, and of a time when sexual freedom had apparently arrived, but was clearly still intimidating for many and hovering in the background of this short play. Leigh made a second half-hour play for “Second City Firsts”, Knock for Knock, in 1976. Anthony O'Donnell plays Mr Purvis, who has been convicted for driving over the limit, and who desperately tries to arrange car insurance with a deranged broker, Mr Bowes (Sam Kelly). Time Out described it as “the funniest thing on the box for months” and considered that Kelly gave the performance of the decade. I haven't seen it and sadly you can't either as the BBC wiped it. 1976 is a little early for much home video recording, but hopefully someone out there may have a copy of this. If you have, please contact the BBC.

Even shorter are the five “Five Minute Films”. Leigh's conception was to make a whole series of these short pieces, each five minutes long, which could turn up at random over the schedule, with walk-on characters in one film becoming major ones in another. In the end only five were made as a try-out, in 1975, and they were not broadcast until 1982, when BBC2 showed a restrospective of Leigh's work to date. (That retrospective was the first time I saw many of the films here.) The films use a variety of narrative methods: a series of brief vignettes in “The Birth of the Goalie of the 2001 FA Cup Final” (5:25), or single scenes in “Old Chums” (5:21), “Probation” (5:10) and “Afternoon” (5:25), and two intercut in “A Brief Snack” (5:19). “Probation” is a little ordinary, but the others manage to say quite a lot in a short space of time, and it's a pity more were not made.

Nuts in May (80:58)
Nuts in May (1975) is one of Leigh's funniest comedies, and is the only film in this set apart from Abigail's Party to have had a previous video and DVD release in the UK. The Pratts (okay, not a subtle character name), Keith (Roger Sloman) and Candice-Marie (Alison Steadman), are a London couple on a camping holiday in Dorset. Leigh has a lot of fun at the expense of Keith’s tight-arsed control freakery and Candice-Marie’s pixilated hippiedom, at two urban creatures entirely at a loss in the countryside. However, there’s a darker side to them and to this film, and it’s brought to the fore by some noisy neighbours, Ray (Anthony O'Donnell), who lies around smoking and playing his radio loud, and by the arrival of Finger (Stephen Bill) and Honky (Sheila Kelley). The frustration this engenders in Keith especially drives him into a confrontation, which results in the first major cathartic ending in Leigh’s TV work.

Nuts in May should be dated – it springs from the same 70s concerns as the sitcom The Good Life, which began the same year. Yet, Keith and Candice-Marie’s vegetarianism and concerns about organic methods of food production, unusual to the point of being eccentric at the time, are now far more widespread. Sloman and Steadman give pitch-perfect performances – the latter had by then begun a relationship with Leigh which turned into a marriage. The play isn’t as lightweight as it first appears, but it’s the first real example of mixing comedy with pathos in Leigh’s work, after its rather bleak predecessors.

The Kiss of Death (71:58)
Oldham. Trevor (David Threlfall) works as an undertaker’s assistant. In the evenings he goes out with his friend Ronnie (John Wheatley), Ronnie's girlfriend Sandra (Angela Curran) and her friend Linda (Kay Adshead) who takes an immediate shine to Trevor…

The Kiss of Death, a Play for Today from 1976, is a personal favourite of Leigh’s. It’s also the first of his films to have a music score, provided here by Carl Davis. Trevor is a forerunner of David Thewlis’s character Johnny is Naked, though less ferociously articulate. At first he simply seems odd: barely speaking, and sometimes coming out with a strange goofy laugh. He’s dismayed by the superficiality of the lives of those around him and of all the dating rituals – and he can be because his job puts him in touch with real tragedy. In a disturbing scene he has to help remove a dead baby. In another, he has to help a frail old woman who has fainted. In these sequences we see a different side to him, and his sensitivity. Yet the film has many funny lines and sharp observation of its characters. At times Leigh simply delights in letting his characters talk, in particular a late scene between Trevor and an eight-year-old bridesmaid.

Abigail’s Party (102:10)
Abigail’s Party began as a stage play, performed at the Hampstead Theatre in 1977. Margaret Matheson saw it and commissioned it for Play for Today. It had good viewing figures on its first and second showings, but the reason the play is so much in the English national consciousness is its second repeat in 1979. There were only three channels then, and one of them – ITV – was on strike. There was a highbrow arts programme on BBC2, so sixteen million people tuned in to Abigail’s Party on BBC1.

I have written at some length about the previous DVD release of Abigail’s Party so won’t repeat myself here. It’s Leigh’s longest television work, and the only full-length piece shot on video in a studio (multiple-camera style) rather than on 16mm film. Leigh says that he can’t watch the result, which has all manner of technical imperfections due to its method of production. Alison Steadman’s performance is definitive, so much so that future stage Beverlys are very much in her shadow. Abigail’s Party began on stage, and has a continuing life in that medium, with an original-cast platform performance selling out the National Theatre’s huge Olivier auditorium. It may not be Leigh’s best work, but it’s certainly his best known work and is likely to remain that way for many years to come.

Who’s Who (73:13)
This 1978 Play for Today has its share of funny scenes, but has to be counted one of Leigh’s lesser, more unfocused films. It has a multi-plot structure, with two main threads. One follows Alan Dixon (Richard Kane), who has a desk job at a city stockbroking firm. His wife April (Joolia Cappleman) is a cat breeder. Meanwhile, Nigel (Simon Chandler) invites some of his upper-class friends along to a dinner party...

Leigh is often accused of creating caricatures rather than characters. Along with High Hopes, Who’s Who is the strongest evidence for the prosecution’s case. As with the Booth-Braynes in the later film, the people on display here may be accurately portrayed, but they are seen with considerably less sympathy than Leigh’s other characters. On the other hand, as with Abigail’s Party, Leigh is prescient in pinpointing the mood of a certain section of the population. If Beverly and her husband epitomise the people who would vote for Thatcher in 1979, so does Who's Who. Alan is obsequious to those above him, but he clearly aspires to be among them and reveals himself to be a cast-iron snob. As for Thatcher, he has a picture of her in his house, along with ones of the royal family. But Who’s Who also features those who would be made rich, or kept rich, by her. But it’s clear where Leigh’s sympathies lie. In satirical mode there’s far less empathy to be had, and the film leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Grown-Ups (92:42)
By contrast, Grown-Ups (1980) is perhaps Leigh’s greatest achievement on the small screen. It was made as a BBC2 Play of the Month, with money left over when an expensive BBC co-production fell through. Set in Canterbury, it was shot quickly with a credited cast of six. At the beginning, Dick (Philip Davis) and Mandy (Lesley Manville) move into a council house. Their first and all but permanent visitor is Mandy's sister Gloria (Brenda Blethyn). By chance, the couple find themselves living next door to their old teacher Ralph (Sam Kelly) and his wife Christine (Lindsay Duncan). Soon, Gloria begins to wear out her welcome.

Grown-Ups was the first of three collaborations with DP Remi Adefarasin, and another important name is in the credits as an assistant director: the late Simon Channing-Williams, who would go on to produce all Leigh’s feature films from High Hopes to Happy-Go-Lucky. The film has a two-part structure: an hour of build-up to one of Leigh’s great cathartic climaxes, a quarter-hour sequence, playing out in real time, that is quite devastating. The only thing that takes away from it, if only in retrospect, is that Brenda Blethyn’s characterisation of Gloria, especially the voice she uses, is very reminiscent of her later, Oscar-nominated role as Cynthia in Secrets & Lies. But otherwise this is a remarkably controlled piece of filmmaking. Grown-Ups was the first television production to be shown at the London Film Festival, and served notice that Leigh’s ambitions were on a larger scale than could be contained by the small screen.

Home Sweet Home (88:25)
Set in Hitchin, Home Sweet Home is the story of three men who work as postmen. On his round, Stan (Eric Richard) is invited in for a cup of tea by Hazel (Kay Stonham), the flirtatious wife of his colleague Gordon (Timothy Spall, his Leigh debut). Stan's wife left him for another man, and their fourteen-year-old daughter Tina (Lorraine Brunning) is in a care home.

As with much of Leigh’s work, his characters are emotionally inarticulate as well as often verbally inarticulate. Harold (Tim Barker) tells some very corny jokes, but you can see it’s a defence mechanism against any real emotion, something which frustrates his wife (Su Elliott) more than anyone. Leigh is clear-sighted about the damage this does to them and to others, but far from heartless. Late in the film he plays an argument by having the voices offscreen; what we watch is a long-held shot of the painfully shy Tina who sits there, all but impassive. (This foreshadows a similar scene featuring Edna Doré’s Mrs Bender in High Hopes.) The end credits play over a shot of Tina outside: the silent victim of the dysfunctional adults around her.

In 1982, the year that Home Sweet Home was first shown, Channel 4 started broadcasting. It quickly enlivened a moribund British film industry by investing in feature-length films with a view to a cinema release as well as a TV showing. Leigh’s first Film on Four was Meantime in 1983, which was shown in festivals but did not have a commercial cinema release before it was shown on Channel 4. However, when Leigh began to make cinema features again, later in the decade, Film Four was one of his major investors.

However, he made one last film for the BBC.

Four Days in July (95:54)
Four Days in July (1984) finds himself outside Great Britain for the first and so far only time, in the city of Belfast. The film takes place between 10 and 13 July, the weekend of the annual Orangeman’s Day parade on the 12th. Leigh’s films are always character-led and this one is especially so. It centres on two families on either side of the sectarian divide, and in particular two expectant mothers. Catholic Colette (Brid Brennan) lives with her husband Eugene (Des McAleer), who is disabled – we later find out how this happened. Meanwhile, Lorraine (Paula Hamilton) lives with her husband Billy (Charles Lawson), who is in the Ulster Defence Regiment. Not a lot actually happens on the surface: Colette and Eugene are visited by friends who tell stories about their time in Long Kesh (Maze Prison). Billy and his UDR mates complain that they could sort out the situation if they were allowed to go into Catholic areas, as the regular soldiers (from elsewhere in the UK) can do. A little schematically, Leigh has the two women give birth at the same time and a little too overtly makes the point that the babies are blank canvases – it’s the environment they grow up in that creates hatred between people.

The subject matter of Four Days in July caused questions to be raised in Parliament about such a film being broadcast by the BBC (who showed it once and have yet to repeat it). But Leigh is entirely even-handed, and emphasises that people on either side of the conflict are still people with hopes and with emotions they may or may not find easy to express. After all, as Leigh says in his commentary, this may be the only film set in contemporary Northern Ireland where no-one gets shot.

The DVDs
Mike Leigh at the BBC is a box set of six DVD-9 discs, encoded for Regions 2 and 4. Disc One contains Hard Labour, The Permissive Society and the Five Minute Films. Disc Two has Nuts in May and The Kiss of Death. Disc Three is given over to Abigail's Party. Who's Who and Grown-Ups are on Disc Four, while Disc Five comprises Home Sweet Home and Four Days in July. Disc Six has extras.

All the seven feature-length films here (apart from Abigail’s Party) were released along with Bleak Moments and Meantime in the USA by Water Bearer, either as nine single discs or three collections of three. I haven’t seen these DVDs, though have heard complaints about their visual quality. In some ways that’s inevitable: they were low-budget films shot in 16mm (except Bleak Moments, shot in 35mm) with mono sound and are hardly likely to be reference quality. Even so, I suspect no restoration work was done. The fact that 2 Entertain’s transfers have been restored, let alone the presence of subtitles and extras, makes their set definitive. The aspect ratio is 4:3 throughout, as you would expect for television material of this era.

The soundtracks are the original mono, and display the professionalism of the BBC’s sound department. Dialogue is clear, if sometimes strongly accented, and well balanced with the sound effects and music (where appropriate). The tracks stand up very well considering that even if you listen via television speakers, they will be of better quality than those of the majority of television sets these films were originally watched on – the dynamic range of Four Days in July in particular is surprisingly wide for 80s TV. Maybe the soundtracks are too good now. The subtitles of Nuts in May pick up a (very muffled) “fucking” which has clearly escaped the notice of the BBFC (who rated it PG), not least the BBC commissioners of the time. Hard-of-hearing English subtitles are available for all the films plus all the extras except the commentaries, and will be particularly useful for those liable to have problems with some of the strong regional accents heard in the films.

Leigh provides commentaries for Nuts in May, The Kiss of Death, Grown-Ups and Four Days in July. Leigh is an engaging speaker, and not afraid to be proud of his work. He does manage to stay this side of the line from being too pleased with himself. He does leave some gaps, notably during the climactic scene of Grown-Ups. His commentary on Four Days in July is particularly useful, as it fills in details of the political background in Belfast at the time of the film, which may not be apparent to viewers now. He also explains some Irish slang, though much of it is clear enough from context.

Apart from the commentaries, and not counting the short films on Disc One, the remaining extras are on Discs Three and Six. Disc Three has the recent BBC Four documentary All About Abigail’s Party (58:28), which in just under an hour does a thorough job on its subject, from its inception on stage through its TV production to its continuing life on stage, including the original-cast platform performance referred to above. (Thelma Whitely was the original Susan, replaced by Harriet Reynolds for its first stage revival and the TV version. Harriet Reynolds died of cancer in 1982.) Interviews are made with Leigh, the four surviving television cast members and others. The documentary also gives space to Leigh’s acknowledgement of the television version’s technical shortcomings, and also to those who hated the play, notably Kenneth Williams and Dennis Potter. Also on this disc are items from BBC Four's Abigail's Party tribute night: “Welcome and Intros” (4:58) and “Party Nibbles and Goodbye” (3:29).

Disc Six is given over to a documentary and two interviews. Mike Leigh – Making Plays (80:44), made for the Arena strand, was the centrepiece of BBC2’s Leigh retrospective in 1982. Along with an account of Leigh’s early life and career, the documentary has extracts from Bleak Moments and all of Leigh’s full-length television films to date. Leigh is given much interview space, and we see him developing a fictitious play with Alison Steadman, David Threlfall and Sam Kelly, put on as Leigh has always refused to allow his genuine workshops to be filmed. In addition, we get a glimpse of Leigh as an actor, playing a mute boy in a 1963 episode of Maigret, plus an extract from his only radio play, Too Much of a Good Thing. This was commissioned by Radio 3 in 1979, with Phil Davis and Lesley Manville in the leads, but it ran into objections (possibly due to its sexual content) from the new controller and was not broadcast until 1992. It might have been good to include the whole play as an extra.

The first interview is with Will Self, as part of a BBC series called The Conversation (38:54) from 2000. After a short overview of Leigh's work by Self, he and Leigh sit in a Soho café and chat. Their talk ranges over the deeper themes in Leigh's work, including a discussion of the sexual politics in Naked, complete with extracts replete with bleeped-out swearwords.

Grief (19:29) dates from 1995, and features Leigh talking movingly to Bel Mooney about the death of his father. A scratched-up clip from The Kiss of Death is a testament to the restoration work done for these DVDs. This and Making Plays are presented in 4:3, the other extras in 16:9 anamorphic. The box set includes a booklet, not available for review, by Amy Raphael.

Since only two of these films had been released on British DVDs before, without access to the BBC archives, the others have not been easy to see. (Hard Labour turned up on BBC4 earlier this year as part of a tribute to Liz Smith.) However, the restorations alone make the American Water Bearer discs redundant (unless the region coding and PAL format are issues for you), with the extras even more so. Some minor quibbles aside, this box set is absolutely essential.

Note: In preparing and writing this review, I have made particular use of Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, edited by Amy Raphael (Faber and Faber).

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