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Friday, 18 October, 2002, 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK
Mike Leigh: Britain's Bergman
Clive James's assessment of one of the UK's most influential film directors hits the bull's-eye.
Mike Leigh's acutely-observed vignettes on British life - usually featuring the poor, the dispossessed and the downright odd - have captured the essence of their times, whether they be the aspirational 70s, the socially-divisive 80s or the neurotic 90s.
With a body of work behind him of which most directors could only dream, he is back on the silver screen with a new film, All or Nothing.
Mike Leigh's last film, an uncharacteristically colourful look at the creative relationship between WS Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, was entitled Topsy-Turvy. The same could be said of its director's own life and creative process.
Mike Leigh was born in Salford, Lancashire in 1943. The son of a successful Jewish couple - his father was a GP - he attended Salford Grammar School.
His lack of academic ability resulted in Leigh's headmaster dismissing one term's work with the unequivocally cutting phrase: "This is a sorry business."
In 1960, Mike Leigh was accepted at the UK's most prestigious theatre school, Rada, despite gaining only three O-levels. His father was displeased at what he saw as "the moonings of a stage-struck girlie".
Seen as "impertinent" by some of his tutors, Leigh abandoned his aspirations to become an actor and turned his attention to producing and directing.
After periods at art school, film school, directing youth theatre and, finally, as an assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mike Leigh branched out on his own.
His first film, Bleak Moments - financed by another Salford boy, Albert Finney - premiered in 1971 to great critical acclaim. He did not direct another film for 17 years, choosing to hone his skills on television instead.
Independence and autonomy have always been Leigh's watchwords. He does not directs other people's scripts, chooses his own actors and retains total control over his productions.
Audience of 16 million
This uncompromising attitude has often set him against authority. He has, on occasion, cancelled theatre and television productions after complaining that he has not been given enough rehearsal time.
But this same stubborn streak has also been the bedrock of some of the funniest and most challenging works to grace the recent stage and screen.
In 1977, thanks in part to a strike on ITV and a nation-wide storm, 16 million BBC2 viewers tuned in to Abigail's Party, a grotesque and forensic dissection of lower middle-class aspiration.
The lead role of the man-hungry make-up artist, Beverly, was played, with an almost witless vulgarity, by Leigh's wife and sometime muse, Alison Steadman.
The couple - who split up in 1996 after 20 years of marriage - remain friends.
Life Is Sweet, his 1990 film dealing with the trials of family life, featured Timothy Spall as Aubrey, a paunchy sous-chef whose singular menu - tripe soufflé, king prawns with jam and grilled pigs' trotters on eggs over easy - leads to personal and professional calamity.
More recently, in 1996's Secrets And Lies, Brenda Blethyn, as Cynthia, is found by the child she gave up for adoption. Blethyn's performance, combining an outward chirpiness with an inner turmoil, brought her an Oscar nomination.
Rather than working with stars, Mike Leigh tends to create them. Besides Steadman, Spall and Blethyn, Mike Leigh regulars include Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent, Liz Smith and David Thewlis.
Leigh's approach to his films is very much his own. Starting without a script, he spends vast amounts of time with his casts, using their experiences as the basis for improvisation, bypassing the writer altogether and creating plot and characterisation as he goes.
Authenticity and strength of plot are everything. "One sees film sequences that fall apart at the seams because the material at the centre is so flimsy," Leigh has said.
Leigh's domain is the seedy bed-sit, the run-down council estate, where stilted conversation, casual violence and loveless sex are the norm.
As Timothy Spall puts it, "his area is the glory of everyday nothingness which he elevates to great drama. The minutiae of people's lives becomes of the utmost importance".
Although the recipient of an OBE, the Palme d'Or, numerous Bafta awards and plaudits from around the world, Mike Leigh is still very much an outsider in his own country. His most recent films have been financed in France.
Even so, they continue to challenge and inform the UK audience. Mike Leigh's work remains as relevant to Britain today as it was in 1977 when Beverly famously put the Beaujolais in the fridge.
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