Mike Leigh: Reasons to be cheerful

With a clutch of awards in the bag for his latest film, is the director Mike Leigh finally happy with the recognition he's receiving? Christina Patterson finds out
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"The only thing worse than being photographed is being interviewed," says Mike Leigh. We're standing on a dingy staircase over a sex shop in Soho and he is fumbling for the keys to his office. A few steps up to our left, there's a scrawled sign saying "French models this way". A flurry of angry French voices from the next landing confirms that it's no joke. "Lucky you didn't go there!" says Leigh with an enigmatic smile. Well, yes, I think so. At the moment, to be honest, I'm not sure.

"The only thing worse than being photographed is being interviewed," says Mike Leigh. We're standing on a dingy staircase over a sex shop in Soho and he is fumbling for the keys to his office. A few steps up to our left, there's a scrawled sign saying "French models this way". A flurry of angry French voices from the next landing confirms that it's no joke. "Lucky you didn't go there!" says Leigh with an enigmatic smile. Well, yes, I think so. At the moment, to be honest, I'm not sure.

"Mike Leigh does not suffer fools gladly," is the general tenor of most of the interviews I've read. But the figure who opens the door for me and who even, when I fuss about sound levels, fetches his green director's stool and places my tape recorder on it, seems kind. When I start coughing a little later, he gets up and brings me some water. Could this, I wonder, be a sheep in wolf's clothing? He is, after all, wearing a brown fleece.

The fact is that Leigh has reason to be cheerful. The director who for years complained that his films didn't win awards has just won a cluster for his new one, Vera Drake. "It's great to get the Golden Lion and the Best Actress," says Leigh, "but it wasn't exactly a raft of prizes." Well, I say a little nervously, what about the British independent film prizes? "Yes, that's true, there were six," replies Leigh matter-of-factly. "It's starting to be a raft, you're right. OK," he adds drily, "I have to concede rafthood."

If we don't know exactly how many prizes make up a raft, it does, at least, seem safe to say that Vera Drake is well on its way to being a critical success. Set in gloomy post-war London in 1950, the film tells the tale of a cleaner who has a secret life as a back-street abortionist. A kind of urban saint, Vera Drake hums cheerily as she scrubs floors, carts shopping upstairs and - a ubiquitous Leigh motif - makes cups of tea. When she's not cleaning other people's houses, she visits her ancient mother, cooks meals for her family and for a bachelor in the next block, and on Friday afternoons, for no financial gain, "helps" girls in trouble. Poor but happy is the general flavour, particularly when romance blossoms between Ray, the nervous bachelor, and Vera's dowdy daughter. But this is Mike Leigh, not Steven Spielberg, and so, of course, disaster strikes. One of the "girls" she has "helped" is rushed to hospital and the doctor contacts the police. The knock on the door during the Drakes' Christmas dinner signals the beginning of the end. Only Ray, in an archetypally black Leigh moment, remarks that, "This is the best Christmas I've had in a long time. Smashing!"

Imelda Staunton gives the performance of a lifetime. It's hard to forget the anguish on her face as she is told to remove all her clothing at the police station, including, for the first time ever, her wedding ring. Or the horror as it dawns on her that she will have to tell her husband and family what she has been doing. Like many of Leigh's working-class characters, she is profoundly inarticulate. "I'm ever so sorry," she finally tells them, but in the courtroom she is virtually silent. The best she can hope for, her lawyer tells her, is 18 months. She gets two and a half years.

The film, I tell Leigh, gave me terrible nightmares about abortions - an indication, you could say, of its power. How, rafts of prizes apart, does he judge the success of his films? "There are two separate answers to that," he replies after a pause. "Sitting in an audience or knowing that an audience is reacting is ultimately what it's all about. But the other thing is that actually a picture forms to pick up reactions and it filters through. Of course, at the end of the day what's important is that people go and see the damn thing. I have my own sense of what I'm doing, and a collective sense of what we've all done. And I think about Vera Drake, that it's an amazing thing."

No false modesty there, but he's right. When I ask how Vera Drake compares with his other films, Leigh gives numbered responses, as before. "First of all, everybody's saying it's the best. Secondly, it is the last one I've made and we did feel very good about it - so there is a case for saying it's as good as any have been. But," he adds with scrupulous honesty, "I don't think that's probably true."

Vera Drake is Leigh's second major period piece. The first was Topsy-Turvy, his surprising foray into Victorian England and the world of Gilbert and Sullivan. After years of films set on almost parodically grim council estates, this riot of colour and song was a bit of a shock. It was also a brilliant glimpse into the world of creative collaboration and of London in a period of technological change. Characters gasp over new-fangled inventions such as the fountain pen, and shout down the phone as if it were cocoa tins and string. The whole thing clearly involved a formidable degree of research. Was the process similar for Vera Drake?

"Totally similar," replies Leigh. "But it always is, you see. All my other films, which are contemporary films, have always involved massive research into whatever needs to be researched. Anybody that plays a character that does a job researches it." He has, he says, "done three-and-a-half period pieces over all". The others (for those doing PhD theses) are Career Girls, which takes place in the Eighties and Nineties and a play called A Great Big Shame!, set between 1893 and 1993. There was a dedicated full-time researcher on Vera Drake, in addition to the intensive efforts of the actors and designers. "You get to the point," he says "where you get it into the bloodstream and you're breathing it."

Watching Vera Drake, with its gloomy interiors, ration cards and flowery pinnies, it does feel like history. But it's history that's recent enough for many to remember - including Mike Leigh, who was seven at the time it's set. Did he, I ask, learn any more about his parents and their world in the process of making it? "That's a very interesting question," says Leigh, and I nearly blush with pleasure, as though my apple for the teacher has provoked a regal smile. "On the whole," he adds, "the answer is no, but you sometimes put things together that you ought to have spotted years ago. And in this case it's this: the central family have been through the trauma of war and they're putting the world back together again... I am of a generation that grew up as a teenager in the Fifties, in that repressive, respectable, squeaky-clean, boring and, in many of our cases, provincial, suburban world. We screamed and screamed and couldn't get out quick enough."

Leigh grew up in Salford, the son of a health visitor and a GP. Both children of* *Jewish émigrés, his parents craved security, respectability and the full trappings of the professional middle classes. When their son dropped out of school and set off for London and a scholarship at Rada, they were not amused. It was, says Leigh, "disappointing" for them. "The good news," he adds, more cheerfully, "is you learn how to be a parent by your experiences. Certainly the kind of endless, not very subtle pressure on me not to do the things I wanted to do has made me a pretty supportive, tolerant parent." One of his sons, he tells me with visible pride, is "a very successful illustrator - he's had stuff in The Independent!", and the other is a film-maker.

Their mother is Alison Steadman, a key figure in Leigh's work, whose portrayal of a neurotic suburban housewife in Abigail's Party has entered the mythology of television - and even inspired a new range of M&S party snacks. They met in 1970 at the E15 Acting School, where she was studying and he was teaching. They married in 1973, but parted in 1995 when Steadman left him for the actor Michael Elwyn. Leigh now lives with a costume designer called Charlotte. Relations between Leigh and his ex-wife are, apparently, "amicable".

It was memories of his own childhood that sowed the seeds of Vera Drake. "I remember a couple of women when I was a kid," he explains. "You knew they'd been to prison and later you found out what it was." But fertility issues of various kinds have been a constant thread throughout Leigh's work. One of the many bitter secrets that emerges in Secrets and Lies is the fact that Maurice (a put-upon husband played by Timothy Spall) and his wife Monica cannot have children. In Topsy-Turvy, Sullivan's mistress has several abortions while Gilbert's wife, Kitty, longs for a child. In Vera Drake, there's a sub-plot of a poor little rich girl who is raped by her boyfriend and creeps away to a private clinic to have the problem solved. Although she has a legal escape route that is not available to her working-class sisters, her suffering is evident. This is clearly an issue that goes beyond class, and one worth noting by those who have implied that the poor in Leigh's work have a monopoly on pain.

"I think it's rubbish," says Leigh, momentarily departing from the measured coolness of his numbered points. "I mean, in a way, some people say that I caricature working-class people, but sometimes I caricature middle-class people. There are all these things floating around which I think are crap. The truth is that to some degree I think the work's been beaten with the stick of High Hopes, which does have a slight satirical edge to it. Certainly nothing since Naked has." Well, yes and no. If the characters in Career Girls don't have some kind of "satirical edge" then Leigh's friends and neighbours must be practically psychotic. High Hopes, his 1988 film about an elderly council tenant in King's Cross, includes a yuppie couple verging on self-parody, while Naked features a sadistic yuppie landlord. In Vera Drake the parents of the raped Susan are, once again, both icy and posh. Isn't there a case for arguing that, in Leigh's work, upper class equals heartless?

"It's very easy to read it like that if you want to," he replies, "but the fact is that this is a girl who has got a very egocentric and unloving mother, and that's the way it is. If anyone chooses to decode that and make it into a statement that all upper-middle-class people are heartless, that's fine - but I didn't say that." Within the context of this particular story, he is right. Warm and loving parents would have scuppered the plot. But across the oeuvre it's pretty hard to identify more than a minor sprinkling of posh people whose hearts are not made of stone. The truth, I think, is that upper-middle class people just don't interest him.

"You start off doing things for certain reasons," he confesses. "And later those reasons, like scaffolding around a building, get lost. There was a time, it's true, when I felt a definite compulsion to make films about working-class people because I felt that it ought to happen. In a way it was a reaction not only to stories that weren't about working-class people, but also to some kinds of work that was going on that was about working-class people. I would at times be criticised, particularly in the Seventies by the hard left, for making films that didn't make working-class heroes, that didn't put articulate, class arguments into the mouths of my characters."

Among the signifiers of working-class life that crop up in Vera Drake is the cup of tea, which features in almost every scene - even, in an almost darkly comic spin, in the abortion scenes, where kettles are boiled for other reasons. Would he like to comment on this? It seems not. "I personally don't see any of this at all," says Leigh, with just an edge of impatience in his voice. "If I'm totally honest, all the kind of totemic, symbolic connections never occurred to me... They have tea. There's no symbolism in it." Well, OK, but isn't there something there about comfort? About the response of the inarticulate to trauma? "In the context of Vera," he concedes, "it's obviously part of her armoury of comforting. That's what she knows. But that's what it is. I don't know what else to say about it. Except," he adds with something like a twinkle, "that you're making me want a cup of tea."

I'm beginning to get a glimpse of what it might be like to work with Mike Leigh. Scary, but interesting is how I'd sum it up. Famously, his films are works of extraordinary multi-layered collaboration and only those behind the camera have some sense of the full concept at the start. Actors work individually with Leigh and learn key aspects of the plot as they are shot. Of those working on Vera Drake, only Imelda Staunton knew Vera's secret. But even she didn't know when the police would come. "Most people get off on it," says Leigh. "The point about the traumas involved and the rigours and those things, is that ultimately, for the serious, proper, creative artist and actor, it's good news. You don't phone it in... Families form, off-stage families, and it's incredibly enclosing and comforting and stimulating. Apart from anything else, we do all have a laugh."

There are times, when watching the films, when laughter seems quite far away. In Bleak Moments, his aptly titled first film, a miserable typist asks a guitar-playing drop-out, "Why don't you play something we can all join in, something happy?". It's a question that many critics have echoed. Johnny in Naked sums up his world view as follows: "You can't make an omelette without cracking a few eggs, and humanity is just the egg - and the omelette stinks." Phil, the defeated minicab driver in All or Nothing says, "You're born, you die, that's it."

"Life is simultaneously comic and tragic," declares Leigh. "That is how life is. That is all there is to be said about it." He rebuts all charges of pessimism, however, even when you tell him that they have come from his own lips. "I don't think I am a pessimist," he muses. "I can't ever have said that. I've never thought that; it's not true."

Pessimist or not - actually, I think he's a realist, even if his work sometimes operates just beyond the borders of the realist tradition - it's clear that for Mike Leigh making films is a compulsion. "If I couldn't do this, or anything creative," he admits, "I'd be a pretty miserable character. Having said that, I'm 61 and I've got friends who have retired and they're having a great time... I'm actually terrifically good at pootling around and messing about, doing a bit of this and a bit of that, spending a large amount of time cooking and preparing meals. Actually, if I really couldn't do it now, having done what I've done, I'd sort of be all right. But the truth is I am compelled to capture life. And also, making films is a delightful business. It's very stimulating and pleasant, and a huge amount of fun."

It sounds suspiciously as though Mike Leigh is happy. I don't dare ask him, of course. Instead, I ask whether he has found fulfilment. "Oh yeah," says this fierce, big-hearted, brilliant man. "Absolutely. I could give you a different version of that: 'in huge quantities'."

And he laughs.

'Vera Drake' opens on 7 January