Giggling beneath the waves: the uncosy world of Mike Leigh

For Mike Leigh’s 80th birthday, we publish our 1982/1983 Winter article examining his already formidable career.

Nuts in May (1976)
This feature first appeared in the Winter 1982/83 issue of Sight and Sound

It is curious that Mike Leigh, just about the most complete and consistent film creator we have, claims to be the least. An auteur without, to all appearances, being an author, he has disappeared during the decade since Bleak Moments into the virtual anonymity of BBC Television. True, gigantic audiences may have seen his most successful television work, but few of them seem actually to read the credits to the end or notice the last, ‘Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh’, let alone wonder what exactly it means. It is no doubt significant that when BBC2 recently got round to a week-long Mike Leigh festival, it was only after he had achieved a second reputation elsewhere, from the success in the theatre of his plays Abigail’s Party and more especially Goose Pimples, which moved in from the Fringe to the West End and won various awards.

Still, that seems to be the way he wants it. Despite the instant recognisability of his world, the unmistakable style of the dialogue in his films and plays, he stoutly denies any but the ultimate responsibility. He devises the basic situations, and puts the end result on film or stage, but in between he just supervises a group improvisation, leaving the actors to create their characters and dialogue. No doubt this accurately mirrors the outward appearance of the process. In the documentary Mike Leigh Making Plays, which prefaced the season, we saw some of it happening, through a specially staged improvisation about two actors, one of them very conservative and traditionally trained, trying to work with an advanced but muddle-headed director. What we were shown was mainly the earlier stages: the finding of names, the defining of backgrounds, the careful manoeuvring of the group on to a collision course. The later stage — how, exactly, this body of material would be shaped into a film or play — was passed rather hurriedly over, though we did get a brief glimpse of Mike Leigh saying briskly, if not brusquely: no, he did not think she would say this, she would say that.

And the mystery remained intact. Necessarily, no doubt, since in all probability no one concerned could say afterwards exactly how this line or that turn of events came about. One does get the feeling, however, that part of Leigh’s skill with actors is to ask the right leading questions and get them somehow to come to the conclusions he has always wanted them to. He more or less admits this with, for example, the vital turn in the intrigue of his masterpiece, Grown-Ups (1980). The two adjacent households in suburban Canterbury, one in private housing of precarious refinement, the other in council housing for the (perhaps) upwardly mobile, stubbornly kept themselves to themselves throughout the preparatory stages and the actual shooting. Leigh knew that they had somehow to come together in the same house for the climax, but how to do it without pushing the actors to falsify? Finally, when he was getting desperate, Brenda Blethyn, who was playing the unwanted, semi-idiot sister of the younger family, very hesitantly put to him the idea that when she was shut out of one house she might, mightn’t she, run into the house next door.

Grown-Ups (1980)

If such anecdotes give the impression that Leigh works by a combination of ventriloquism and telepathy, that is probably not far from the mark. He knows what must happen, and how the characters are going to interact in order to make it happen, but life is kept in the process by letting the actors find out for themselves. There is no doubt, however, who is ultimately in the driving seat. And distinctions are clearly to be made between the way he works for the stage and the way he works for film. Six of the seven full-length television shows he has done, as well as five 5-minute pieces made in 1973 (that leaves out of account only two half-hour tapes subsequently wiped and a schools broadcast) are very definitely films. Abigail’s Party is the odd one out, being clearly a taped version of the pre-existing stage production. And the pacing is quite different: though the films sometimes have long, sustained sequences in them, the rhythm is created cinematically, by the way sequences and individual shots are edited together, rather than by recording something which has its own internal rhythms already set. When you have a long-held static shot, as in the beginning of the awful dinner party in Who’s Who (1979), observed from a cool distance as the two girls and three young men change places and change again, the framing and the exact length of the shot create an effect which the same action would never have on stage.

If Leigh is chary of taking an unequivocal writing credit, this may have something to do with an apprehended danger that he would be considered exclusively as a writer. Even as things are, the temptation is strong. It is easy, for instance, to build up a philosophy of life, a view of social dynamics, which develop from piece to piece. Certainly there are clear points of consistency in the view the films and plays put forward of married life, of the relations between the sexes, of relations between the classes. Leigh’s work — and so, for the sake of argument, let us say Leigh himself — seems to be saying that women are more socially and sexually dynamic, and more acquisitive, than their menfolk. This may be a matter of class and/or generation. The first of the television films, Hard Labour (1973), hints at both possibilities: in the older working-class couple the husband is domineering, orders his wife about as a matter of course, and makes sexual demands to which she wearily yields. But from what we see of the slightly higher classes — the Jewish couple the older woman cleans for, the children climbing into middle-class respectability — the roles are instantly reversed: the wives whip in unwilling husbands, refine them, and drive them onwards and upwards. They also complain, as we elsewhere discover, that the men are not interested in sex, and have to be forced to satisfy them.

Much of Leigh’s drama depends on the nicest of social gradations. This is presumably why he is so often pegged as a satirist – though he might reasonably reply that he satirises nothing and no one, but shows things the way they are. The comparison with Ayckbourn, frequently made of his stage work, is really beside the point, in that Ayckbourn does not seem to be interested in the workings of the class system in England at all: his characters belong to the same suburban middle-class, and such slight differences in social status as may exist among them, which would be Leigh’s meat and drink, are carefully smoothed over or ignored. No one is going to mistake Ayckbourn for a satirist; if anything he is an apologist. Leigh, on the other hand, is clearly critical of his characters; critical, probably, of the whole human race.

Hard Labour (1973)

Yet there is compassion. Leigh seems to find even his most generally awful characters, like the destructive hostess Beverley in Abigail’s Party, sad as well as dreadful. Though we do not necessarily approve of where Leigh’s characters are driven, at least we always understand what drives them, and their panic fury when someone seems likely to get in the way. Indeed, finally Leigh seems to feel that everybody is a bit sad, and everybody a bit funny: the only character in the whole oeuvre without a redeeming feature is probably the old man in Hard Labour, which is anyway the most schematic of them all — perhaps one is not wrong to suspect here some influence from the producer, Tony Garnett, since in many respects it resembles his other work almost as much as it does Leigh’s.

To explain just how and why the films work as films, as apart from the strength of their human materials, it is necessary to look further afield for comparison: to the Czech films of Miloš Forman, or to the collected works of Ermanno Olmi. As with these films, Leigh’s are built up of innumerable tiny little notations of the ordinary, and seem to aim first and foremost at the unfashionable target of catching the flavour of life as it is rather than as the movies usually depict it. Of course, as we well know, that takes a great deal of art and conscious control. It can be particularly jarring when a character in a Leigh film is allowed to slip noticeably towards caricature: one worries about whether the walk assumed by the undertaker’s assistant in The Kiss of Death (1977) is not just a mite too shambling to be believable, or whether the last social worker to call on the divorced postman in Home Sweet Home (1982) is not – though one knows the over-indoctrinated type perfectly well – allowed to turn his long final speech into just that, a tour de force which destructively draws attention to itself.

On the other hand, one should not give the impression that Leigh’s films are all deliberately flat and played down in the best neo-realist tradition. His characters have lived, palpably, beyond the confines of the particular context in which we see them. In Who’s Who the hapless Miss Hunt, who has wandered into what must seem to her a madhouse in search of a kitten after being let down by Harrods, is a character who is completely created with few words, mainly by her reactions and non-reactions to what is going on around her. One knows exactly who she is and where she comes from. The character of the visiting husband Tony in Abigail’s Party is a more spectacular example: hardly saying more than ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘ta’, he yet makes us aware of a miserable three years’ married history with the plain, unquenchable Angie through an infinite variation on tones of resignation, suppressed anger and sheer grinding boredom.

It is in areas like this that Leigh comes closest to Olmi, whose most singular skill has always been to create a believable range of lives around and scarcely impinging on those of his central characters: the waiter who is irritable not because of the customer he is being short with, but because of something we can only guess at which just happened in the kitchen. Another respect in which there seems to be a clear link between Leigh and Olmi is in their ability to summon up intense and terrible climaxes out of little or nothing. Again, because of its stage reputation, Abigail’s Party provides the best-known example, where as a result of a succession of small disagreements (about what records should be played, for instance), Beverley’s husband Laurence finally has his much-threatened heart attack and dies there in the middle of the floor. But in many more instances, Leigh’s art is quite importantly the art of knowing how far one can go too far.

Abigail's Party (1977)

Even when something physically excessive does not happen (for after all, people do from time to time just up and die), there is a lot of Hedda Gabler’s ‘People don’t do things like that’ about Leigh’s films. People do not, we suppose, usually bring their bubbling resentments to the boil as they do in Home Sweet Home, where the scene which begins when the divorced postman is surprised kissing the wife of one of his colleagues in the kitchen by the wife of the other, with whom he has been having an affair, erupts into the street to include both husbands and various interested onlookers. Still less do they let things get to the state at the climax of Grown-Ups, when the unwanted sister is finally locked out of the house, runs into the neighbouring teacher’s, and has to be extracted by an all-out, all-inclusive scrimmage on the stairs. Or do they? Leigh’s incidental message is that such things happen more often than we think; that the English are not, after all, so prim and stiff-upper-lipped.

But Leigh’s probing goes farther. If he is going to have a love scene, or a sex scene, or an attempt at either, he wants to show it really the way it would be. How would the daft undertaker’s assistant in The Kiss of Death actually go about kissing the girl who, oddly, makes a dead set at him? Very incompetently, we may be sure, even if specifically invited to do so — and the sustained scene between the two, full of giggles, uncertainties and chances missed, is one of the most astonishingly, rivetingly believable that even Leigh has managed. We feel — and surely we are meant to feel — like voyeurs. Elsewhere in the same film, the total inability of the more sensible boy to get his Betty-Boop girlfriend even to the point where she might be called on to say no is part of a history which anyone who has ever been a shy teenager (and who has not?) will certainly recognise, even though one cannot recall it being put so precisely on screen before.

Most of Leigh’s films are constructed antiphonally: there is seldom a single, consistent line of development, and we never quite know who are the principal characters, let alone decide on who might be heroes and who villains. Who’s Who is one of the most obviously cunning pieces of construction, often approaching a sort of mosaic technique in which the situations of three groups of characters are played against each other in a way which, one realises only long after the event, makes nonsense of any conventional time scheme, switching forward and back at random, but with divine inevitability. In one part of the film the two boorish young upper-class men who share a flat are preparing and staging an unfortunate dinner party which subtly sours relations all round. In another part the ineffably snobbish Alan, who works in the same office and whose hobby is writing to celebrities in hope of an answer or even a refusal on paper with the right heading, gets through an evening with his cat-breeding wife and a disgruntled photographer who is trapped into examining his collection for hours on end. And elsewhere a lord with money troubles is talking them out with a senior member of the firm of stockbrokers they all work for.

All these elements are held in balance with a conjuror’s skill as each section moves casually but inevitably towards its climax/anticlimax. Along the way there are some of Leigh’s most ingenious framing devices, like the departures from the dinner party, with everyone revolving drunk and decapitated while the camera holds on the still centre, the worn-out cook who has created the whole thing and seen his plans for a gracious, sophisticated evening subtly eroded as the occasion wore itself down. Even this is not, any more than the previously mentioned shot of the settling at table, obtrusive. Leigh’s forte is to make everything look so casual and accidental that only on reseeing it do you observe the precise calculation, that it is no accident the camera just happens to be in absolutely the right place at the right time.

Mike Leigh behind the camera of Naked (1993)

This seamless quality makes the best of Leigh’s work remarkably difficult to discuss sensibly. It is easier with the looser, more definedly comic films like Nuts in May (1976), in which a wilfully trendy couple go camping in Devon and receive a few hard knocks to their human tolerance and ecological concern. They could easily be total figures of fun, as they sing their silly pseudo-folksongs and tramp the uplands in mountaineering boots, but they are not. Even here the crisis, with the peaceable Keith finding himself in the middle of a literal fight over an open fire in the camping site and then bursting into tears at his own unguarded will to win, executes with unshakeable confidence one of Leigh’s dizzying and exhilarating right-turns out of broad comedy into something much more disturbing and unpredictable. All the same, it remains a lightweight, easy to take apart and find out what makes it tick, largely because what ticks is an alarm clock rather than a time bomb.

To get Leigh into proper proportion it is useful to look back to Bleak Moments, his first and up to now his only film for the cinema (not that, technically, that makes any notable difference). The procedures are, naturally enough in a first film, more consciously elaborated, or at least elaborated in such a way that we are more conscious of them. The framing shots of drab suburban scenes are used with a formality which sometimes suggests Ozu, and the alternation of very brief scenes which cast enlivening sidelights on the lonely life of the heroine with sustained scenes building slowly on the performances of the principals is also more obtrusive than in the later films, though employed basically in much the same way. The development of the plot, such as it is, is decidedly more linear, concentrating on the woman quietly determined to extract something out of life, despite the dampening presence in the house of her mentally retarded sister. Her relations with the hippy in the garage (sisterly) and with the very quiet, conservative man who seems to offer the chance of something more lasting are given space to develop — especially in the long central scene where the two possible lovers have almost as much trouble actually bringing themselves to the point of kissing as the two much simpler, much sillier young people do in The Kiss of Death.

But even Bleak Moments, though offering us our first tour round a corner of Leigh’s world, does not provide any easy answers about the nature of the spell his films manage to cast. Indeed, more perhaps than any of the others, it forces us back on the telepathic theory of film communication: there is no apparent reason why we should be interested in these bleak moments of drab lives except that the quality of Leigh’s interest conveys itself to us with total conviction. He manages from the start to enforce unquestioning belief in these people, even when they do what seem to be wildly uncharacteristic things (like the heroine suddenly over-enlivening a conversation by suggesting that her potential boyfriend take his trousers off).This ability to summon up purely human interest has been oddly disregarded as a source of cinematic strength in the last few years, and yet in the hands of Renoir or Ford — to pick a couple of unlikely names out of the hat — it frequently turns out to be the sine qua non.

Anne Raitt stands in front of bottles in Bleak Moments (1971)
Bleak Moments (1971)

It may seem strange to suggest that Bleak Moments or Grown-Ups is the same sort of film as The Sun Shines Bright or Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, yet finally they all belong to a sort of poetic cinema which depends in the last analysis on the sensibility of its creator rather than signs and signals and evident structural devices. All of them defy genre analysis because they create their own genres; and if that is a problem these days for Ford and Renoir in terms of fashionable critical attitudes, it certainly must be for Mike Leigh. There is no critical clout in being a neo-neo-realist, and even if there were, he tends to lose the possible good marks for social responsibility by picking the wrong classes (middle to lower-middle) and leaving his (and so our) attitudes to them thoroughly ambiguous.

He also confounds sentimental over-simplifications by using something approaching a stock company, but eschewing the advantages of instant recognition this usually entails. His actors really are unrecognisable from role to role. Who, for example, would even recognise the statuesque Beverley in Abigail’s Party and the wan, wispy Candice Marie in Nuts in May as the same person, Alison Steadman (Mrs Mike Leigh in private life)? Or not be amazed, having seen Marion Bailey as the pathetically sluttish croupiere in Goose Pimples, to encounter in Mike Leigh Making Plays a completely different person called Marion Bailey, crisp, well-scrubbed, relaxedly upper crust?

And then, of course, there is his ineradicable habit of ‘going too far’. There is, often, a neck-or-nothing quality about his work which has no parallel in the British cinema apart from the controlled frenzy of Lindsay Anderson (and indeed, in Britannia Hospital especially, there are passages where they come within easy hailing distance of one another). There are not even many other creators in other genres (David Storey? Emily Brontë?) who capture so precisely the characteristically English combination of frivolity and hysteria: Leigh’s characters would undoubtedly be among those who, in the immortal words of an indignant letter writer to The Times, would be ready at the time of Britain’s final decline and fall to ‘sink giggling beneath the waves’. Nor should we forget that often a giggle is the readiest response to pain…

Whatever else it may be, Leigh’s world is not a comfortable one. Its qualities might be summed up in one brief sequence of Home Sweet Home, an interlude without consequence in the sex life of the divorced postman. A single shot from the outside of a launderette establishes that he is there, paying faint attention to the only other occupant, a frowsty woman of uncertain age. Another shot, inside a pub, shows the two of them glumly sitting, after a drink or two, while she pathetically chatters on about only drinking beer and having her doubts whether she would like anything else. Cut to his bedroom, afterwards. As she gracelessly dresses, she runs on about how she doesn’t really use launderettes, only goes there for the company, while he, patently restive, waits for her to go. And finally, a shot out through his front door, as she shambles off down the path, hoping vaguely — and with little likelihood — that they will run into each other again. With maximum economy, everything is there: the whole life of the woman is spread before us in perhaps two minutes at most; we get a different insight into him; and the encounter is funny as well as sad. Nobody is criticised, nobody is patronised, nobody is made fun of. Like Everest, they have to be tackled because they are there. And like Everest, they are so completely, undeniably there that whatever we happen to feel about them could hardly matter less.


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