Say what you like about Mike Leigh – and many do – but his taste in actors is unimpeachable. Interviews with the intelligent, thoughtful likes of Jim Broadbent, Eddie Marsan, Sally Hawkins and Timothy Spall helped build a comprehensive and impressive picture of the British film director in Imagine... the One and Only Mike Leigh (BBC1).
Both Leigh and his long-term collaborators agree there’s a strong autobiographical thread running through his work, which must have made Alan Yentob’s job of getting to know the man behind the movies much easier. (As, presumably, did the fact that both men were born in the 1940s to Jewish families, raised in Greater Manchester and have spent significant portions of their careers making television for the BBC).
Leigh described a childhood in Salford that was loving, but nonetheless marked by “terrible screaming matches” of the kind you’ll find in most of his family dramas. His mother’s work as a midwife provided the inspiration for Vera Drake (2004) and his divorce from actress and collaborator Alison Steadman an acknowledged influence on All or Nothing (2002) – but perhaps the most intriguing autobiographical parallel is with his latest film, Mr Turner, the study of an eccentric and driven artistic genius.
This wasn’t only a chronological account of Mike Leigh as a great film-maker, it was also a revealing explanation of his artistic method – one of the most creative and misunderstood in cinema. Leigh’s determination to “work from life” led to the development of a structured improvisational technique that has remained largely unchanged to this day. We heard Alison Steadman discuss waking up in a tent in-character to play nature-lover Candice in Nuts in May and Timothy Spall on the two-year fine art course he took in preparation to play JMW Turner.
Leigh’s films have been subject to criticism of course, but he readily engaged with the most oft-repeated, “this whole notion that ‘we’ are sneering at ‘them’”, after only a little prompting from the ever amenable Yentob: “Abigail’s Party, I think, like all of my stuff, isn’t about ‘them’, it’s about ‘us’.” Still, even after Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), Leigh’s reputation as a grumpy gloom-merchant remains difficult to shift. Could this be something to do with those eyebrows, set high on his forehead that look perpetually unimpressed? As family snaps of the youthful Leigh revealed, this isn’t an expression of his true attitude to the world, it’s just the shape of his face. It’s an interesting face, too, the kind that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mike Leigh film.Reuse content