In January, the Criterion Channel released a series of TV films directed by Mike Leigh, better known for his works from the 1990s onward, including Naked, Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, and Happy-Go-Lucky. Leigh’s work method stands out on its own with his improvisational skills with his actors in exploring each character and building it around his story, nailing every detail down before a final script is made. Leigh was a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, or RADA, where many great actors trained and even became President; including John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, Peter O’Toole, Alan Rickman, and Albert Finney. But Leigh would instead switch over to being behind the camera and has directed several of his fellow RADA alumni in his films.
Between his first theatrical film Bleak Moments (1971) and his follow-up High Hopes (1988), Leigh would make several TV films playing mainly on the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC. He was hired by Tony Garnett, a producer known for his collaboration with Ken Loach, who was then brought in to help run the anthology drama series Play For Today where other TV films were made and broadcast from 1970-1984. Leigh would make several films for the series, including Knock For Knock, Kiss Of Death, and Four Days In July, receiving critical acclaim, and later getting his opportunity to stay with full-length movies outside of TV. Getting the opportunity to watch these movies for the very first time, here are three of my favorite movies by a master of social realism.
Hard Labour (1973)
His first movie for the BBC was this grounded piece of domestic life amongst the working class with a family that lives in a housing estate. The mother (Liz Smith) is a cleaning lady for a middle-class couple who minds her own business while her son (Bernard Hill) is a car mechanic trying to make ends meet with his wife. Despite her hard work, the cleaning lady eventually realizes that her employer does not value her. Leigh would continue making stories set within the working classes and their point of view, unable to attain the wealth to raise their status in society. Similar themes would come up in theatrical releases Meantime, Life Is Sweet, and All Or Nothing.
Nuts In May (1976)
One of the more acclaimed films in Mike Leigh’s work in this series is this comedy about a couple (Alison Steadman and Roger Sloman) who spend a weekend camping and find themselves constantly interrupted by other campers. The peace and quiet become a challenge in their own relationship as to how much they can tolerate the intrusions from their routine, descending into a farce. Nuts In May was shot on location entirely in Dorset at real-life tourist locations, giving an almost neo-realist feel, except for the use of professional actors. It’s a comical story of a generational gap of values among various personalities reflecting the movie’s time.
Abigail’s Party (1977)
Adapting his own stage play for television, Leigh directed this satire of manners amongst two middle-class couples in one evening. After inviting their new neighbors, Beverly and Lawrence find themselves diving into alcohol and begin dishing out their complaints against each other. The conversations go into various topics and lifestyles amongst their class, speaking with distinct accents that identify where they are from. As the chaos increases with irritating neuroticism and tempers exposing their insecurities, an unexpected event cuts the discourse in half. The teleplay remains one of the most acclaimed TV shows in the history of British television and has been revived continuously for the stage.
Leigh himself has recognized the popularity of his film. He looked back in retrospect and stated in an interview, “Of course, I recognize the enduring popularity of Abigail’s Party. It still hits a nerve about the way we live. It’s real even though it’s apparently a heightened and comic play. It’s a reflection of the realities of how we live on several different levels. It’s about aspirationalism and materialism, love and relationships.”
Follow me on Twitter: @brian_cine (Cine-A-Man)