Mike Leigh: The return of a national treasure

It has no title yet, no star cast, and it opens next month. So how come the forthcoming attraction at the National Theatre has sold out? Because it is a new play from the brilliant Mike Leigh. By Paul Vallely
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The Independent Culture

But the journalistic cynic could not have been more wrong. With more than a fortnight to go to the play's opening - and still no title in sight, and no stars in its cast - the National has sold every available ticket for the show's entire run.

This unprecedented theatrical phenomenon stems entirely from the idiosyncratic modus operandi of Mike Leigh who has, over the years, been transformed from a prickly theatrical eccentric into something approaching a lugubrious national treasure whose films, including Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake, have won international film awards on numerous occasions.

For Leigh does not so much write his plays and films as evolve them with his actors in extended improvisation sessions lasting many months. Each actor begins working privately with the director. One of Leigh's regulars, Timothy Spall, describes the process: "You create the character on the basis of someone you know, and you build an entire reservoir of information about them. What you don't know you invent - where they went to school, what their preoccupations are - and you produce a character."

The process can take weeks. Mike Bradwell, now director of the Bush Theatre, was one of Mike Leigh's earliest collaborators. In 1971 when Leigh secured funding from Albert Finney - a fellow old boy of Salford Grammar School - to make a low-budget film, Bleak Moments, Bradwell played Norman the hippy. "I was one of Scunthorpe's only hippies," Bradwell recalls. "It was all very well for Jerry Rubin to say, 'Shoot your parents', but what if you were living with them, and had to go home for your tea?" While "in character" researching the part, Bradwell bumped into John Lennon in the street but Leigh cut the encounter from the final film on the grounds that it was too unbelievable.

When Leigh feels the character he wants is emerging, he introduces his creation to one of the other members of the cast, manufacturing the drama by issuing simple commands: "Character A meets Character B in the pub" or "C sleeps with Character D". Such is the level of hyper-realism he cultivates that Leigh has reportedly urged actors to have real-life sex if a scene calls for it. Much of the work does not appear in the final work but builds insights and explores the inner motivation of the character.

"Obviously what we bring into existence is a great deal more complex than the stuff you see in the film," Leigh said of his method when his film All or Nothing came out in 2002. "We build it in a completely three- dimensional way. If what you see in the film has any resonance, it's because the rest of it is there; the iceberg's there, even if you only see the tip."

The actress Alison Steadman, star of numerous Leigh projects, and his former wife, said: "He may not be sitting at a typewriter, but he is creating, moulding, writing and distilling all the information."

Steadman first came to the notice of the British public in 1976 in a television play that set the tone for the Leigh oeuvre. Entitled Nuts In May, it told the story of a neurotic banjo-playing, mushroom-gathering vegetarian hippy couple from Croydon who encounter boisterous working-class culture on a camping trip. The film, now ranked 49th in the British Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest British television programmes, turned Leigh into a cult figure.

But it was another of her performances through which Leigh produced one of the iconic images of the 1970s. In his television drama Abigail's Party, Alison Steadman played Beverley, a make-up artist of monstrous vulgarity, hosting drinks for her neighbours in her Romford living room.

It was a comedy of suburban manners that pitilessly lampooned lower middle-class aspirations and the desert of emotional desperation hidden beneath. It was televised by the BBC on a night when ITV was hit by a strike. The result was that Abigail's Party was seen by 16 million viewers and became a classic of cringe-making suburban ghastliness. Beverley's whining enquiry "a little top-up?" became a national catchphrase. "Abigail's Party still ranks as the most painful hundred minutes in British comedy-drama," a critic said recently.

Not everyone was convinced, however. The then doyen of television playwrights, Dennis Potter, fulminated that it was "based on nothing more edifying than rancid disdain, for it was a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes".

More recently, Ricky Gervais - who has admitted that his series The Office, like Caroline Ahern's The Royle Family, was inspired by the work of Mike Leigh - has said: "A part of me thought: that's my family. There's nothing wrong with being working class and aspiring to have a better life. And it's sometimes too easy to take the piss without affection."

The criticism that he patronised the people in his plays is one that was frequently levelled at Leigh in those early years. His fans denied that, saying there was something glorious about the way he transmuted the minutiae of ordinary people's lives into great drama - not merely parroting the way they spoke but lifting their demotic language into a kind of poetry.

Leigh was born in an overwhelmingly working-class area of Manchester, the son of a doctor of Russian-Jewish descent. It was there in that middle-class household, he has recalled, that he first decided he wanted to be a film-maker.

"When I was about 12 my grandfather died. It was a very cold, snowy day in December 1955. We were in the house. It was full of mourners and these old guys staggered downstairs with this coffin.

"I remember thinking that this would make a great film. I then thought, 'That's what I want to do. I want to make films'." But when his father died in 1985, Leigh suffered a nervous collapse. For almost three years he hardly worked, staying at home looking after his two sons.

When he finally emerged he embarked on a new phase of his career, making a series of major feature films that were imbued with a softer version of his satiric vision. Life Is Sweet in 1990 was a study of a harassed mother and a bulimic daughter, played by Steadman and Jane Horrocks.

Then in 1993 came Naked, a deeply disturbing story of a misogynist rapist but one in which Leigh demonstrated a different kind of feel and relationship to his characters bringing out an empathetic insight into even this most despicable figure. The film, starring David Thewlis, won Leigh the Best Director Award at Cannes that year, in which he was also awarded an OBE.

But this new level of sympathy was most evident in Secrets and Lies, which in 1996 received five Oscar nominations with its story about a bemused young black woman who traces her biological mother and finds she is white.

The story had all the bleak suburban embarrassment of Leigh's earlier work but with a radiance and inspiration that was somehow redemptive.

Leigh drew stunning performances from the two actresses, Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, which won the film the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

After a sumptuous and decidedly non-sneering evocation of the world of Gilbert and Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy (1999), and a return to the bleak world of a London housing estate in All Or Nothing (2002), depicted with greater complexity and sympathy, Leigh - now arguably Britain's leading film-maker - produced what has been his most successful film to date. Vera Drake is the story of a middle-aged woman in 1950s Britain who spends her days taking care of her elderly mother and her sick neighbour - and who also helps local girls who are "in trouble" by inducing illegal abortions.

Once more the Leigh method was in evidence. Only Imelda Staunton, who took the lead role, was told in advance that the subject of the film was abortion. "In rehearsal," she says, "he doesn't tell you what everyone else is doing, or even what you're going to be doing".

None of cast playing Vera's family, nor Staunton herself, knew that Vera was to be arrested until the moment the actors playing the police knocked on the door of the house that they were using for rehearsals.

"Working with Mike was shocking, terrifying, exhilarating," says Staunton, who won the Best Actress award at the Baftas for her performance. "It was the best job of my life. It's rather like falling out of an aeroplane with no parachute."

Which is pretty much what the audience who have bought tickets for "The Play With No Name" at the National Theatre have paid up for.

What the professionals say

"There's a mixture of honesty, adhering to the rules of the game, and, at the end of the day, absolute cheek"

Timothy Spall

"Secrets and Lies was a great film, but his other films were just as good. That it reached a wider audience surprised me."

Brenda Blethyn

"He works so hard, and I think he expects other people to work hard. And in my book, that's enough."

Imelda Staunton

"There's something quite ordered, quite meticulous in the way Mike works ... I got an enormous buzz from that."

Lesley Manville

"[The process is] hugely stimulating and rewarding. You're involved in every creative moment.

Jim Broadbent

"I've wanted to work with Mike Leigh as long as I've wanted to act, and to get the chance is every actor's dream."

James Corden

"His films have what so many lack in this age of homogenised international product: utter specificity."

Sam Mendes

"In rehearsals and improvisation, you create with him a fictional world which gets richer and richer the longer you go on."

Phil Davis

"I wrote myself out of Life is Sweet. I've worked with Mike before - I know the trick."

David Thewlis