How a Â£1.25m 'blind grant' led to Leigh's Venice triumph
Monday 13 September 2004
Mike Leigh's portrait of a 1950s working class wife and mother who "helps out" pregnant girls by performing illegal, back-street abortions has been hailed as his greatest film since
Secrets and Lies. But when the UK Film Council agreed to stump up £1.25m to fund the film, it had no clear plot or script and was simply known as
Mike Leigh's portrait of a 1950s working class wife and mother who "helps out" pregnant girls by performing illegal, back-street abortions has been hailed as his greatest film since Secrets and Lies. But when the UK Film Council agreed to stump up £1.25m to fund the film, it had no clear plot or script and was simply known as Untitled '03.
What became Vera Drake went on to beat 21 contenders to win the Golden Lion prize for best film at the Venice Film Festival, while its lead star Imelda Staunton, won the best actress title.
For the UK Film Council, it was a "leap of faith" that clearly paid off. "Normally, one makes a decision on the basis of a screenplay. When Mike does a film, no one really knows what it's about," said Robert Jones, the head of the council's Premiere Fund, which channels money from the National Lottery into the British film industry. "He works with his own chosen actors. They workshop and improvise, so for us it was something of a leap of faith."
Accepting the prize at the awards gala in Venice's La Fenice theatre, Leigh paid tribute to the council for its support of the film, which cost £4.7m to make.
"All film-making is tough and Vera Drake was no exception," he said. "It was made under tough conditions with a ridiculously low budget. In a cynical world it is a wonderful thing and most reassuring when low budget, serious, committed, independent, European films are recognised and encouraged in this way and helped to reach their audiences."
The director also made a pointed reference to the organisers of the Cannes film festival who rejected Vera Drake out of hand earlier this year.
"I would like to thank most sincerely the Cannes Film Festival for rejecting this film so we might be here this evening," he said.
The director is famous for the process by which he improvises his stage plays and films with his cast - including the 1970s classic Abigail's Party, Naked and Secrets and Lies, which won the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1996.
Next year, Leigh is due to present a play at the National Theatre which its director, Nicholas Hytner, also admits he knows nothing about.
It will have eight actors and they will have the unusually long period of 18 weeks of rehearsals starting in April to develop the project.
"He doesn't tell us what it's going to be and we will find out when he has done it. I'm very happy with that," Mr Hytner said.
But he admitted that Leigh was probably the only director he would trust to produce a work in that way.
Vera Drake stars Staunton as a kindly cleaning lady living a humble existence in post-war London with her mechanic husband, Stan, and their two grown-up children.
But Vera has a secret. Without accepting payment, she carries out abortions for young working-class girls who have "got themselves into trouble". When one of the girls she treats becomes seriously ill, the police are called in and Vera is sent to jail.
The film raises difficult questions about abortion, and highlights the hypocrisy of 1950s society, where the rich could pay for the discreet termination of a pregnancy but the poor were forced to risk their lives in dangerous back-street operations.
"The audience must walk away with a debate and struggle with it. These things are not black and white," said Leigh.
Mr Jones said: "Like any great film-maker, he has proved that he is able to address a contemporary, thorny issue in a way that is oblique enough and has enough other emotional elements not to preach to the audience."
Leading article, page 30
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 10 ways we damage our teeth – without realising
- 2 Fifa corruption arrests: Nike reported to be 'multinational sportswear company' at centre of bribery claims over Brazil shirt deal
- 3 Facebook Messenger sends 'creepily' precise location data, as revealed by Marauders Map Chrome extension
- 4 Photo of wedding guest proposing to girlfriend in front of bride and groom goes viral
- 5 Charlie Charlie Challenge explained: it's just gravity — not a Mexican demon being summoned
Grace of Monaco film panned: Screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman as movie gets US debut
Royal Academy of Arts' Tim Marlow: Bronze statue of lovers embracing at St Pancras station is a lesson in 'how not to do' public art
Big Brother contestant Aaron Frew removed from house for 'inappropriate behaviour' after flashing fellow contestants
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Jamie Raven divides Twitter as fans expose mind-boggling magic trick
ASAP Rocky gives nauseating response to explicit Rita Ora rap: 'I'm not saying she's a terrible person'
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'