Man about the set

Inhabitants of Bethnal Green's Quilter Street found themselves at the heart of a film set when Mike Leigh's crew moved into number 76.
On a sweltering summer afternoon Mike Leigh OBE stands on the corner of our street holding a quiet but intense discussion with a beefy figure in a crumpled khaki suit. The figure is Timothy Spall, the lead in the new Mike Leigh film rumoured to be a light comedy, a murder- mystery or a London equivalent of Robert Altman's Short Cuts depending on who you talk to.

Spall looks quizzical as if he is trying to get his bearings. He has to figure out how he should act here, when Maurice, the character he's been developing for the past nine months, is filmed visiting his sister Cynthia.

In the film this location will appear as a deserted area near London's docklands, a street waiting for the demolition men to arrive. In reality, it's a gentrified part of Bethnal Green. The residents were informed a month ago that a film crew would be descending on 76 Quilter Street for one week only. This is not so unusual. The Jesus Hospital Estate, where Quilter Street is situated, is obvious location fodder. An area of quiet terraced streets built in the mid-19th century, it has a movie-set atmosphere - a preserved enclave of a gradually fading London, ripe for cinematic posterity.

Mike Leigh is renowned for his exacting working methods, and even his comedies are inevitably laced with a downbeat, often despairing view of the national psyche. Before his arrival, someone on the street said that if his previous views of London were anything to go by - life on the dole in London's East End in Meantime, inner-city living in High Hopes, Soho squalor in Naked - then it must mean that we're living in the wrong area.

Today is supposed to be the first day of filming, but there are no cameras in sight. Ever reliant on improvisation to develop his formative ideas (this time relating to "parenting, infertility and racial matters"), Leigh and his cast are still rehearsing. The way Leigh's movies come together has been the subject of much scrutiny since the early Seventies; it's a painstaking organic process that can't always work to a fixed schedule.

Untitled 95 began its gestation in a Stoke Newington rehearsal room last November. At that stage there were just several actors, some "vague thoughts and feelings" and the promise of his largest-ever budget courtesy of the French production company CiBY. The pounds 3m budget, still modest by most standards, has allowed him his biggest-ever cast, several celebrity cameos and many different locations. But even now, with the characters and settings in place, Leigh's script exists only as a card the size of his hand, broad directions with the precise details of what actually happens still to be arrived at.

Do the people of Quilter Street have the patience and interest for the man's work to let the process run its course? Right now, tearing himself away from the character-developing/ story-shaping discussion with Spall, Leigh can't let that worry him. He has another problem to contend with, an unscheduled walk-on part from the nosey neighbourhood journalist.

"You really could fuck things up for us very badly you know. I'll explain later - now isn't a good time. The thing is we've got very strict internal security in this film, particularly in relation to the scenes we are shooting here. Even members of the cast are only told what they need to know," he tells me. Over the next two weeks (double the length of time originally proposed), Leigh and his crew will move into Quilter Street in earnest. Lights, scaffolding, catering supplies and large haulage trucks line the road. Walkie-talkie transmitted requests are broadcast from inside the house to portable receivers outside. Assistant directors and location managers patrol either end of the street, negotiating with home-coming school children, nearby workmen and passing drivers to keep silent while filming takes place inside the house. Of course the sound could be dubbed back in the studio, but Leigh believes there's no substitute for using live, ambient sound.

Actors and crew members come and go constantly from the house - making the short walk to the production area housed in a series of trailers in a nearby park or to a "safe house" rehearsal room in a nearby pub that is waiting to be sold. The result is something of a circus, like a cross between a siege and a street party on your doorstep.

Leigh admits "it's a bloody nuisance" to have a journalist living on the set. Location visits aren't something he normally allows, but he says he'd hate to have a film crew on his doorstep and over the two weeks he is both courteous and accommodating, stopping by to give me work-in-progress reports, calling round for a drink when the testy open rehearsals are finished, always keen to emphasise the community-minded nature of his crew.

"I sometimes wonder how come it takes all this baggage to film a few scenes. But there's no other way to do it, you could do all this in a studio but it just wouldn't be the same. It doesn't work. The atmosphere is completely different," says Leigh.

A look inside 76 Quilter Street bears out his point. For several weeks before the arrival of the whole crew, various prop persons and set designers filled the house with the contents of several junk shops and car-boot sales. Until recently the house had been home to two elderly sisters and its interior design is unchanged from the pre-war period. Quilter Street wasn't the first choice of Leigh and his scouts but the interior fits their requirements. Old paintwork, small cramped rooms, cheap wood panelling - it's like an art exhibit filled with cheap tack from five decades of working-class consumption.

The house will be home to Cynthia Purley, played by Leigh regular Brenda Blethyn, who seems to be in a perpetual state of lip-biting anxiety. Each morning she approaches the house looking as if she's on her way to make a court appearance. Cynthia is a fortysomething council employee, a single mother living with her teenage daughter Roxanne, played by Claire Rushbrook, a young actress making her screen debut. Cynthia has recently inherited the tenancy after a long period caring for her late mother. The house is dirty and untidy - half-empty whisky bottles, lottery tickets, an Esther Rantzen Hearts of Gold paperback, a cheap Charles and Di royal wedding souvenir can be spotted among the faded Fifties decor. Pervading the air is an acrid stench of cheap air freshener. With all the people and paraphernalia of film-making also crammed inside, the house becomes a broiling hothouse of frayed tempers and jangled nerve ends as the summer heatwave rises.

"It's like the bloody black hole of Calcutta," says Leigh, after a long morning session, "but I'd rather be in there than sitting in an antiseptic studio with an electronic camera." Although the crew seem to have some free time on their hands, Leigh seldom rests. While waiting for shots to be lit and set up he is usually ensconced in the rehearsal rooms with the actors. Over lunch in the trailer park he peruses photos for next week's location. He dismisses a trendy Camden wine bar as somewhere "that would invite far too much attention" and laughs at a popular health-food chain, saying: "I'm not filming there. I wouldn't give them the bloody publicity."

At the end of the day he drives over to Highbury to view the day's rushes. "When you make as few films as I do, it's essential to find out exactly what you're doing." The actors are not allowed to watch their work in progress. "Definitely not. It's so wrong. I don't think it's even worth discussing." Half-way through the first week, however, he says he's caught up with himself, meaning there's no more new material to be shot. It's a mildly critical interlude: "There's nothing there," he tells me.

The next day, after a barnstorming series of rehearsals, there's a breakthrough. Doors slam, screams are heard inside the house. Later the actresses appear on the street hugging each other during a tea break.

"There's some good emotional stuff coming out now," says Leigh chirpily, heading off for lunch. But the schedule has suffered a knockback, and in the middle week two it becomes clear that some residents have no more time or patience for the film-maker's continuing presence. When plans are made to return for pick-up shots a month later, they have to be arranged at a time when one particularly incensed inhabitant is not at home. Arriving on set for the last day of shooting, Sarah Wren, the entertainments manager from Tower Hamlets, says that it's unlikely that she'd give permission for filming to take place again. The objections have been isolated but vociferous.

The various tensions and objections that the film crew's presence have raised are not something Leigh has time to get involved with. At the end of two weeks of watching Leigh at work he seems like a scientist totally absorbed with his own filmic ecosystem, ignoring outside distractions.

"At one point I was thinking of showing more of the street, how it's changed - Cynthia's place in relation to her neighbours. But then I thought we've already covered that in High Hopes. You just have to keep moving on."