How a £1.25m 'blind grant' led to Leigh's Venice triumph

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.

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."

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