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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 17:16 GMT
Mike Leigh's class act
Mike Leigh's post-war drama about a backstreet abortionist, Vera Drake, is up for three Oscars, including best director.

Leigh's films may be unmistakably British, but the Salford-born director is preparing for his third trip to the Academy Awards thanks to his latest movie.

Mike Leigh
Leigh is set for his third trip to the Oscars
The director was nominated twice in 1997 for Secrets and Lies, and once again in 2000 for his musical tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy.

Now his tale has found favour in Hollywood - and Leigh finds himself up against Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese in the best director category, while his screenplay is also on the shortlist.

Imelda Staunton, who plays the title role, is nominated for best actress.

With the Oscars coming just after his 62nd birthday, the director who once said his films did not always get the UK recognition they deserved, he could well be in line for a stunning birthday present.

The son of a doctor and health visitor, Leigh dropped out of school to take up a scholarship at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Leigh's role model was Albert Finney - who went to the same grammar school as him.

Imelda Staunton
Imelda Staunton is shortlisted for her role in Vera Drake
It was there that Leigh was drawn to cinema, spending his time in the National Film Theatre, absorbing influences from all over the world.

'Scruffy minority'

Leigh found himself part of a "scruffy minority" at Rada - which in the 1960s was still considered a genteel, stuffy institution - and resolved to work in his own way, as a response to its old-fashioned methods.

To this day, actors in Leigh's film do not have an initial script to work with - instead, they work with the director to improvise and flesh out their characters together.

Leigh's career began to take off in the 1970s. His first film, Bleak Moments was released in 1971, having been financed by Albert Finney.

But he became better known for his television work, contributing to the BBC's Play For Today series.

Secrets and Lies
Secrets and Lies saw Leigh nominated for an Oscar
Nuts In May - about a couple's adventures camping in Dorset, was first shown in 1976. It starred his wife Alison Steadman, who he met while he was teaching at London's E15 drama school. They parted in 1995.

Steadman starred in the play which made Leigh's reputation - Abigail's Party, where she played the vulgar, man-hungry hostess of an ill-fated drinks party.

Hopes and dreams

The production premiered at Hampstead Theatre and Leigh still keeps two old cast-iron seats from the venue's former premises in his West End office.

It attracted 16 million viewers when BBC Two showed it in 1977 - a figure boosted because rival ITV was off the air because of a strike.

Leigh's TV work continued through the 1980s, until he returned to the cinema in 1988 with High Hopes, the often-uncomfortable story of an extended family in London.

It was typical of much of Leigh's work - dealing with the trials, hopes, and dreams of the British working class.

Nuts in May
Nuts in May was an early TV hit for Leigh
Life Is Sweet - equally funny and touching in turn - followed the theme, starring Steadman, along with fellow Leigh regulars Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall and Jane Horrocks.

Naked - starring David Thewlis as a rapist who flees Manchester for London - followed, while 1996's Secrets and Lies, about a mother who is found by the child she put up for adoption, picked up five Oscar nominations, and won two Baftas.

The recognition Leigh wanted started to arrive, and Topsy-Turvy won two Oscars for costume and make-up, even if Leigh did not win the main prize.

After Vera Drake's nominations were announced, he said of his previous visits: "The Academy Awards are a surreal experience. They're kind of scary but great fun.

"Secrets and Lies had five nominations and we walked away empty-handed. You kind of buy into it and you can't help but feel a bit disappointed to come away with nothing.

"But it's all good news for the film and, win or lose, to make the nominations is amazing."


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