Mike Leigh: Cruel chronicler of suburbia's nasty secrets and lies

Snob or satirist? Wit or depressive? Team player or puppet-master? As his best-known work, 'Abigail's Party', is revived, the playwright's inner contradictions are as evident as ever

It is natural that anyone with so sharp an ear for English chatter should himself be talked about. Still, the Hampstead Theatre revival of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party, 25 years after its première there, is filled with echoes and querulous questions – so many of them in the unique, plaintive voice of Leigh's wife at that time, the actress Alison Steadman. And times have passed. Just as, in 1977, her character, Beverly, reckoned to put a bottle of Beaujolais in the fridge, so now that naive practice is observed in distinguished restaurants. The gaffe has turned suave.

As for Leigh himself, a year short of 60, he may be inclined to think that he is least honoured at home, if only because his work has raised so many awkward questions about class and mockery. In a nutshell (it's difficult not to sound like Leigh with his wry use of our clichés), the abiding question with Mike Leigh is whether he inhabits the rich vernacular of working-class life and talk; whether he is using that whining strain as satire; or whether something in him dreads the very people he has spent his life listening to. It is not beyond possibility that all those answers have value, or that Leigh himself is chronically mixed in his feelings. Perhaps the unending drone of small talk that he hears is a coarse bow rubbing on his fine strings.

It is possible to depict Leigh as a characteristic provincial kid who came to London in the 1960s; to regard him as a one-time actor who developed extensive theories about group improvisation who has gone on to write and direct a series of plays and films about the English underclass. That interpretation tends to take everything from Abigail's Party to Secrets and Lies at face, or ear, value – to take them as thick, juicy, naturalistic slices of life that are somehow hilarious and deeply affecting at the same time.

But the real Mike Leigh doesn't quite fit that image. Born in Salford in 1943, he was a doctor's son, and of Russian Jewish descent. In other words, the genes are not at all Mancunian working class, but far more exotic and thoroughly educated. And Leigh himself, though he talks of being a problem at school, is very smart, highly articulate and, I'd guess, not too far from depressive. To that extent, he is not simply a member of the class he describes, but its fascinated, troubled observer. More than that, Mike Leigh has never been simply a sponge for words, reproducing the ordinary talk of ordinary people. He is in love with language. He is a brilliant writer who returns again and again to the same mannered rhythms of lamentation and masochistic laceration.

If you need something concrete to make that more plain, just compare Leigh for a moment with Ken Loach, his near-contemporary. Loach makes films about the way people talk – and sometimes the films are flat or boring because of that. But Leigh takes a certain idea of common speech and turns it into a brilliant comic song. People don't actually talk the way they do in Leigh – and the real Alison Steadman doesn't sound like that. Suppose, instead, that the language be compared to the running patter of, say, Jewish vaudeville in America.

But that point of view seems to go against the grain of what is by now Leigh's celebrated process of rehearsal. He was an actor for a while, after attending the London School of Film Technique, but not very successful. From that, however, he nurtured a way of working in which actors were asked to describe real people they knew, to improvise situations about them, and from that to lay the ground for a text, written by Leigh. In so many ways, this method seems socially conscious, actor-friendly, highly improvisational, and so on. All of which only prompts the question: why do so many of Leigh's works sound as if done in the same voice, and why is so much fun being made of the type of people being presented?

To put it another way: why are suburban lives from Romford such a big hit in Hampstead? Isn't there a kind of exploitation going on, a way in which, obliquely, Leigh is asking us to marvel at the pathetic way these people talk? And, more or less, over the years, despite different projects and settings, and a shifting corps of actors, they do talk in the same forlorn way, like humdrum failures chatting to the telly because real companions have given up on them. There is a profound conflict in the process, I think, and thus the legitimate wondering of whether Leigh isn't actually driven forward by a kind of disgust or despair at these people. Is he a true working-class artist, or a middle-class listener appalled but fascinated by the junky speech patterns?

If that does not quite settle the debate as to whether Leigh is snob or satirist, surely there is room for both? Any knowledge of the full range of Leigh's work has to be aware that he never simply settled for being funny, for being an entertainer, or a real-life cartoonist (as a teenager, he was a talented caricaturist). His first theatrical movie, Bleak Moments, released in 1971, and largely financed by Albert Finney, was a tender examination of very circumscribed lives and the difficulty of maintaining hope. One of his greatest films, Naked – with David Thewlis – is a Dostoevskian study of a sexual outcast. And his latest picture, All or Nothing, with Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, is about a love story that has dried to extinction.

In other words, the entertainer in Leigh is often fighting against his own melancholy. And it may be that he likes and keeps the company of actors to avoid the most dangerous solitude. At the same time, I'm not sure if his stress on group work hasn't diverted him from self-exploration as a writer. Topsy-Turvy, his Gilbert and Sullivan story, was not just a more normally written and cast movie. It was also a portrait of two warring sensibilities in one creative persona. What's more, Gilbert and Sullivan themselves sometimes suffered from charges of snobbery.

One of the most interesting things about Mike Leigh the artist may be his need to hide behind the group, to make such a strenuous fuss about actor participation. Not that he is deceiving or abusing actors. Indeed, you can conclude that Mike Leigh is fonder of actors than he is of people. However you look at him, there is a puzzle. There are amazingly comic scenes in Leigh, all done as if overheard by a child who can't sleep, that are actually a million miles from the world of those speaking. Some of those scenes are warm and funny; others can seem chilly and supercilious.

Then there is the Leigh with a true vision about all the cracks and chasms that lie beneath the unrelenting, reassuring, cliché-filled small talk of people who only imagine or hope they're living with others, but who are in fact in a kind of isolation. What's most remarkable about Leigh is that he still hasn't worked it all out himself. This is a man who knows terror, and who feels the need to keep his puppets talking rather than yield to the silence. Though nearly 60, he could yet deliver his greatest work and it might be more harrowing than Naked – no matter that some in the audience keep laughing.

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