Veteran film director Mike Leigh likes to keep it real

Vera Drake
Mike Leigh (Director)

Vera Drake Mike Leigh (Director)

Nick Cottam catches up with him at the Riverside Cinema in Woodbridge

Actress Imelda Staunton and director Mike Leigh with their awards during the closi

AFP, AP & EPA OUT Actress Imelda Staunton and director Mike Leigh with their awards during the closing ceremony at Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy, during the 61st annual Venice Film Festival Saturday 11 September 2004. Britain was tonight celebrating a double triumph at the Venice Film Festival. Vera Drake, a controversial new movie about abortion from British director Mike Leigh, unexpectedly won the Golden Lion prize for best film. Imelda Staunton, who plays the title character, was named best actress on a night of elation for all involved in the low budget British production. PA Photo: Myung Jung Kim. EADT 13 09 04 - Credit: PA

When film buff Neil Mcglone bumped into Mike Leigh at Lapland’s Midnight Sun Film Festival last June, Suffolk was the winner. Leigh, who had top billing at the festival, was persuaded to kick off a series of film and discussion nights at the Riverside Cinema, Woodbridge,where Mcglone lives, introducing a screening of his morally ambiguous drama Vera Drake before joining Mcglone on stage to answer well over an hour of questions.

“We just hit it off,” says Mcglone, an adviser to several film festivals. “He was always top of the list of people I wanted to get along.” With a fascinating insight into his roots, his politics and the brand of gritty social realism which informs his film making, Mike Leigh did not disappoint a full house at the Riverside. Neither did his film Vera Drake, in which the eponymous heroine helps out girls in trouble (for all the right reasons) and eventually gets into big trouble herself.

“Culturally and socially it’s very important for us to make films that come out of our own world,” says Leigh, referring to Vera Drake, which depicts working class London prior to the 1967 Abortion Act, and his wider genre of films portraying real people dealing with real life situations, however bleak. As you might expect from the subject matter, Mike Leigh is a pretty down to earth character. At 73 he has a body of work which spans over 40 years, from the emotional intensity of Bleak Moments in 1971 through a whole raft of acclaimed BBC productions – who can forget Alison Steadman in Abigail’s Party? – to more recent films such as Happy-go-Lucky, Vera Drake and Another Year.

“My passion and commitment,” he told the Riverside audience, “is to celebrate British cinema. There is Hollywood and the rest of the world, and there is a constant battle to persuade people that cinema doesn’t mean Hollywood.” Even more difficult, perhaps, just after the Oscars, but Mike Leigh gives us indigenous social commentary and the characters to go with it – Imelda Staunton as the diminutive but stoic Vera, and Sally Hawkins, who brought energy and verve to the more uplifting Happy go Lucky.

“It’s important that the actors I work with don’t just play themselves but are versatile and able to play real people in a real way.” The Mike Leigh approach is to start without a script and, using lots of improvisation let his original idea shape the characters and the plot from there on. Leigh himself went to drama school before launching his career as a director, after escaping from his native Salford to London at the tender age of 17.

“In broad terms I don’t write a script in the conventional way. I will evolve the story by spending a long time working out the characters. I will then spend time with the different actors going out on location and building a film, often only discovering how it ends when we get there.”

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This of course is a real test of the actor’s craft. How can they work with Leigh to evolve and develop their role? This is no Tom Cruise Top Gun performance that’s required but more the bleak subtlety of Pinter and Beckett. In Vera Drake, he says, none of the actors knew any more about any other character than their character would. Thus there is the pivotal scene in the film where the police arrive to arrest Vera and interrupt a family party. Not only are the actors playing Vera’s family unaware that there will be other actors in the film playing the police, they are also ignorant of the fact that Imelda Staunton is playing an abortionist. The result, he hopes, is added realism and added drama – the impact of a first take that can then be honed as necessary to reflect the different nuances of behaviour.

“In the end a film is made in the cutting room when you stick it all together. Everything you shoot before that is simply raw material, however precise it may be.”

The politics of this Salford grammar school boy appear to be rooted in social conscience and class, whether we are looking at unemployment in the early years of Thatcher or the social climbing aspirations of Beverly in the brilliant Abigail’s Party. When the latter, an adapted stage play, was repeated for the second time on BBC One it pulled in an audience of 16 million viewers, unthinkable today, just as the freedom Leigh was given making films for the BBC during the 1970s and 1980s would not happen now, he says.

Why? Almost certainly too much political correctness and bureaucracy these days. He eventually got back into feature films as the British film industry regained its confidence in the late 1980s.

“Mostly the film industry over here was just a facility for Hollywood. British films were alive and well but they had been hiding on television.”

His next project, he admits is also based around politics, a film about the Peterloo massacre, which caused the death of 18 people in 1819 who were taking part in a peaceful pro-democracy protest in Leigh’s own backyard of Manchester. Was the film a response to things happening today? Certainly those that are anti-democratic, he suggests.

The lighter side of Mike Leigh has been his foray into opera and the world of Gilbert & Sullivan. He is a big fan and while his film Topsy Turvy, starring Jim Broadbent, “was about real people doing a job of work and going to hell and back to do it, it’s also a celebration of that world and those operas”. With Snape and Aldeburgh only just up the A12 the great man was striking a Suffolk note at last.

For further details of Neil Mcglone’s film and conversation programme see

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