Mike Leigh's secret is revealed

This is the first time that anyone has had a Bafta award for anything of mine. I've only had two nominations before ... for that reason I've let my membership lapse

David Lister
Wednesday 30 April 1997 23:02

Mike Leigh, the film director given one of the industry's highest honours this week by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, revealed yesterday that he had resigned from the academy because of its failure to acknowledge his films for over 20 years.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, the enigmatic and hugely talented creator of quintessentially British films also expressed for the first time his disappointment that his film Secrets and Lies, which won the Bafta best original screenplay and the Alexander Korda award for outstanding film of the year, had lost out so heavily at the Oscars to The English Patient.

But Leigh's real wrath was reserved for Bafta, the 50-year-old body, which comprises all the great and the good in the British film and television industries, and awards the British equivalent of the Oscars each year.

Mike Leigh is unique in British film making. Working with equal success in movies, theatre and television, he has evolved a naturalistic and obsessively demanding relationship with specially selected troupes of actors evolving their characters and through them the scripts, and presenting an often depressing but equally often hilarious and poignant picture of contemporary Britain.

They range from the comic middle-class pretensions of suburbia in Abigail's Party, starring his estranged wife Alison Steadman, to his current triumph Secrets and Lies, the Oscar-nominated and Bafta-winning deeply affecting tale of a black girl's search for her natural mother who turns out to be white.

Despite his ever-growing fan base in Britain and abroad, the introverted Leigh has always considered himself an outsider in the industry, rightly resentful of the small number of cinemas his films often gain distribution to, and of the lack of establishment recognition of his work.

A clue that, despite the acclaim for Secrets and Lies, he might still feel this exclusion came at last Monday night's Baftas. The most memorable image of the occasion was beaming superstar Diana Ross underneath a plumage of purple hair presenting the top award to a solemn, unsmiling Leigh.

Speaking to the holder of the Bafta award for best British film yesterday it became clear why even in his greatest moment of triumph he was feeling just a little curmudgeonly and wore a hangdog expression.

With thinly disguised contempt for the British academy, he complained that until he became a hot Hollywood property this year, Bafta had never nominated a single one of his full-length films or television works.

Leigh revealed that he had resigned from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, which gave him three awards this week, because of what can only be described as his contempt for the organisation. And he gave the first expression of his disappointment that Secrets and Lies had been so eclipsed by The English Patient at the Oscars.

Although Leigh would not criticise The English Patient himself, he did say that "many people in Hollywood" were surprised by the large number of prizes it had been giveng and the blank drawn by his own film. Bafta, by contrast, awarded Secrets and Lies prizes for best british film, best original screenplay and best actress for Brenda Blethyn who played the white mother.

But Leigh said yesterday: "This was the first time anybody has ever had a Bafta award for anything in any of my films or television pieces. I have only ever had two nominations before and even those were for special short films. I can say nothing more eloquent than those facts. I leave everyone to form their own opinions on that.

"For that reason I let my membership lapse. When you get best director and best actor at Cannes [Leigh's film Naked won the Palme D'Or last year] and not even a nomination at Bafta, it was then I gave up. As somebody who has contributed fairly largely to the film industry, what that tells you about Bafta, well it doesn't need me to spell it out."

Even with three Bafta awards for his film, Leigh was loath to give the academy much credit for its good taste. "With the Oscar nominations, to have ignored Secrets and Lies would have been astonishing behaviour."

The lack of recognition for one of Britain's most successful, idiosyncratic and quintessentially British directors by the British film establishment does seem extraordinary. It is not only Bafta that has failed to recognise him. Earlier this year the Evening Standard Film Awards, decided by a jury of eminent film critics, ignored Secrets and Lies completely despite its Oscar nominations. The jury refused to consdier him for best screenplay as they claimed that his method of involving the cast with an evolutionary screenplay disqualified him. Ironically, best screenplay was one of the awards he picked up at Bafta.

The Oscars, Leigh admitted yesterday, proved a crushing disappointment for him. Nominated for five categories, his film won none, while The English Patient scooped nine.

Leigh said: "I actually quite like The English Patient and I like Tony Minghella [the director]. Of course, the famous night out at the Oscars when you have five nominations and walk away with nothing was not a nice night out for those of us involved with the film. It took our great sense of humour not to get pissed off.

"Many people in Hollywood said that The English Patient had got rather too much and we had got too little. But in the great scheme of things all the films that have taken awards are films that in the broad sense have intelligence and integrity."

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