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Author: Tony Whitehead

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, it challenges the critical privileging of realism in histories of British cinema, placing 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. 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.

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‘You’ve gotta laugh’
Tony Whitehead

This chapter opens with a general discussion on Mike Leigh, who is considered to be Britain's greatest film director and who has carved a unique niche in the film making industry. Among his recent films, Vera Drake was released thirty-four years since his debut feature. Since his return to the cinema, he has consistently written and directed a film every two or three years, with occasional returns to the theatre, the medium in which he began his career. He was not, therefore, an obscure talent who has been waiting to be discovered. Even now more awards have come his way from abroad than at home and much of the critical response to his work in the UK has been ambivalent. The ‘breakthrough’ of Vera Drake was certainly preceded by a turning point in his reputation—and his success at the box office—with the release of Secrets and Lies in 1996, but even that came a quarter of century after Bleak Moments. He worked painstakingly with his actors to create fully rounded characters whose lives and personalities are too complex to be shoehorned into the tidy conventions of realistic drama derived from the theatrical concepts of the well-made play.

in Mike Leigh
Formative years
Tony Whitehead

This chapter begins with the discussion about Mike Leigh's parents and explains how he inculcated a desire to direct films. As a child, Leigh was a keen cinemagoer, experiencing a traditional diet of British and Hollywood features, newsreels, cartoons, serials and slapstick shorts. Leigh describes himself as unmotivated at secondary school and a natural rebel. He participated in a number of plays at Salford Grammar School and at the same time he was writing, directing and performing in revues for Habonim, the Zionist socialist youth movement, which provided him with most of his social life. He was also developing his skills as a cartoonist; an interesting talent in the light of his later reputation as a caricaturist. Eventually, looking at the advertisements in Plays and Players turned his thoughts to drama school.

in Mike Leigh
Bleak Moments
Tony Whitehead

This chapter looks at Mike Leigh's first feature, where he, with his partner Blair in Autumn Productions, funded their first project with the help of the British Film Institute Production Board and Memorial Films. The film Bleak Moments lacked the robust comedy of his later works. It also did not have the strong narrative structure of his subsequent work. Leigh himself once called it the slowest film ever made. It contained few jokes, but still it firmly established him as a superb, meticulous chronicler of suburban anxiety and repression. Bleak Moments was successful in delicately evoking that world of stifled cries and whispers; a world in which emotions are sublimated into food and drink, into music, into lists of artifacts, but never actually expressed. Its slow pace and the patchy sound quality were not withstanding, but it was a great calling card, revealing much promise for Leigh's future career.

in Mike Leigh
The TV films
Tony Whitehead

This chapter draws attention to Leigh's 1977 play—and its TV adaptation—Abigail's Party. Abigail's Party was just one of the nine feature-length productions which Leigh devised and directed between 1973 and 1985. The success of these plays meant that most British viewers were made aware of Leigh's work, long before the arrival of High Hopes in 1988, even though few of them would have had the chance to see Bleak Moments during its limited London run. Leigh recalls of those heady days of British television drama that one could get eight or nine million viewers in one evening. When Leigh describes his TV years as “a long time in the womb,” the comment is double-edged; he acknowledges that he was protected by the BBC as well as waiting to be fully born as a filmmaker. Public awareness and appreciation of Leigh's work were high by the mid-1980s, then, but his ambition was still to make another feature film for the cinema.

in Mike Leigh
High Hopes
Tony Whitehead

This chapter deals with Mike Leigh's film, High Hopes. Mike's need to create a stronger bond with his mother, after his father's death, informs one of the key character relationships in High Hopes. The caricatured characters in High Hopes were the ones who were inelastic, locked into behaviour patterns designed to keep up the images they have of themselves and which they wish to project to the world. Thus, the film had a marked emphasis of dramatic ‘realism’, using a comic strategy. This chapter throws light on each of the characters in the film, who make important decisions and undergo significant events, but do not experience artificial transformations or have their lives miraculously changed. The film ends on a warm, quietly optimistic note, suggesting high hopes for the future through a newly discovered continuity between the generations.

in Mike Leigh
Life Is Sweet
Tony Whitehead

This chapter illustrates Mike Leigh's feature film Life Is Sweet, an important development in Leigh's working life that came in 1989 when he formed the production company, Thin Man Films, with Simon Channing-Williams. For the company's first production, Leigh committed himself to making a comedy that would have a potentially larger audience appeal than his earlier film, High Hopes. Life Is Sweet consolidated Leigh's international reputation as a man of cinema and as a great director of actors. The domestic setting and breezy tone initially gave it the impression of feature-length pilot for, or spin-off from, a situation comedy. With this film, Leigh succeeded in his aim of making a comedy with considerable popular appeal. True, some of the old charges of caricaturing and patronizing his characters were still there, but such criticisms seemed to represent the minority viewpoint.

in Mike Leigh
Naked
Tony Whitehead

This chapter focuses on Leigh's 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 were different, in style or subject matter or both. This chapter emphasizes that in any event anyone who thought they had Leigh safely compartmentalized as a shrewd commentator on lower-middle-class suburban repressions and preoccupations would have been particularly taken aback by Naked. Naked's themes arise credibly from the characters' lives and attitudes, which are treated with a complexity and ambiguity consistent with Leigh's other work and with the ways in which one reacts to people in life outside the movies. It was the kind of film that leaves one feeling drained as much on its leading actor's behalf as by the verbal battering he is given. For its admirers, though, it was exhilarating as well as exhausting.

in Mike Leigh
Secrets and Lies
Tony Whitehead

This chapter draws attention to Mike Leigh's feature film, Secrets and Lies that proved to be his most popular film, winning the Palme d'Or and the International Critics' Prize at Cannes and receiving five Oscar nominations. This chapter draws attention to the fact that this film received a wider UK release than any of his previous work and made huge profit at the box office. The film had also marked a turning point in that it moved Thin Man Films into the European co-production market, funding from the French company CiBY 2000 affording Leigh around twice the budget he had had for his earlier films. Secrets and Lies deals with big issues—among them are love, death, marriage, race, adoption, estrangement and the inability to conceive children.

in Mike Leigh
Career Girls
Tony Whitehead

This chapter draws attention to Mike Leigh's film, Career Girls, that focused on just two young women, Hannah and Annie, who used to be flat-mates when they were students in the mid-1980s and, having not seen each other for six years, spend a weekend together at Hannah's London home, which turns out to be a weekend full of coincidences and unexpected blasts from the past. Leigh made no attempt to obscure these coincidences, which the characters point out and discuss, as Stella Bruzzi noted in her review of the film in Sight and Sound: ‘Career Girls flaunts its own artifice, deliberately announcing itself as a deeply implausible tale. Similarly unrealistic is the use for the first time in Leigh's films of flashbacks, a familiar enough cinematic device, but an overtly non-naturalistic one, deployed extensively here to make explicit contrasts. The film shows, through the warmth of their characterisation and the acute observation of those around them, how Hannah and Annie have developed as people while staying true to themselves and to each other.

in Mike Leigh