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Blair, Les (1941-)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Blair, Les (1941-)

Though he probably remains best known for directing G.F. Newman's controversial drama series about the criminal justice system, Law and Order (BBC, 1978), and the follow-up on the health service, The Nation's Health (Channel 4, 1983), Les Blair's career as a film and television director embraces 23 television dramas and four feature films over a period of 30 years.

Born on 23 October 1941, Blair acted in plays at Salford Grammar School alongside the slightly younger Mike Leigh. While Leigh went on to RADA, Blair studied economics at Liverpool University before joining a Birmingham advertising agency as a copywriter. But the two met up again in Birmingham, sharing a flat and an improvisatory approach to drama at the Midlands Arts Centre. Like Leigh, Blair also enrolled on a course at London Film School, but then spent six months at the Prague Film School, where he made a documentary about life in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia - the first sign, perhaps, that his subsequent career might veer away from Leigh's. In 1971 Blair produced and edited Leigh's first feature film, Bleak Moments, and both were subsequently recruited by Tony Garnett to make dramas for Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84): Blair's 'Blooming Youth' (tx. 18/6/1973) closely followed Leigh's 'Hard Labour' (tx. 12/3/1973).

For the remainder of the 1970s and most of the 1980s Blair, like Leigh, worked mainly in television, directing dramas which were often devised through workshop improvisation. This approach was evident in films such as The Enemy Within (BBC, tx. 11/6/1974), about a radical teacher; 'Beyond the Pale' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 6/1/1981), about the East London Jewish community; and Four in a Million (ITV, tx. 30/3/1982), about four nightclub entertainers. Blair also brought a naturalistic style to the television plays he directed from others' scripts, such as Alan Bleasdale's first TV drama, 'Early to Bed' (Second City Firsts, BBC, tx. 20/3/1975), about an adolescent's sexual affair with his married neighbour, and Brian Glover's 'Sunshine in Brixton' (Plays for Britain, BBC, tx. 20/4/1976), about an aspiring footballer.

The association with Leigh and Garnett highlights two important aspects of Blair's work: the use of improvisation to coax naturalistic performances from actors was an approach shared with Leigh, while working with Garnett enabled Blair to pursue social and political concerns. In many ways Blair's films, whether for television or the cinema, occupy an ideological space in British film and television drama somewhere between Leigh's heightened, almost caricatured naturalism and the social realism of Garnett and Loach, where a naturalistic style is used to address social issues and aspects of political history. This is clearly evident in Law and Order and The Nation's Health, which achieve much of their impact through a naturalistic style and acting.

Blair collaborated with G.F. Newman again on his first feature film, Number One (1984), about a snooker player's exploitation by a professional promoter, the first of only three films directed by Blair to receive a cinema release. His second, Bad Behaviour (1993), explored class relations in London in the early 1990s, following the social restructuring of Thatcherism, while Jump the Gun (1997) was an equally perceptive examination of life in post-apartheid South Africa.

The feature films, however, should not be seen apart from Blair's television dramas, of which there were another nine between 1985 and 1993, including two BAFTA award-winners: 'The Accountant' (Screen One, BBC, tx.24/9/1989), about a small-time accountant who gets involved with the Mafia; and 'News Hounds' (Screen One, BBC, tx. 2/9/1990), about tabloid journalism. Others include 'Honest, Decent and True' (Screen Two, BBC, tx. 9/2/1986), based on Blair's experience of working in an advertising agency; Leave to Remain (Channel 4 tx tx.11/5/1989), about an Iranian student in England; 'Filipina Dreamgirls' (Screen One, tx. 15/9/1991), about mail-order brides; 'The Merrihill Millionaires' (Screenplay, BBC tx. 29/9/1993), about the human effect of pit closures; and 'Stand and Deliver' (Obsessions, BBC, tx. 15/3/1998), about a stand-up comedian. All illustrate Blair's stylistic and thematic preoccupations: the use of improvisation and unobtrusive camerawork to achieve relaxed, naturalistic performances in the pursuit of a non-didactic critique of social reality.

Blair's impressive body of work has not received the critical attention it deserves, probably because most of it has been made for television. The fact that H3, his 2002 film about the 1981 IRA hunger strikes, has received such little exposure is indicative of his neglect, in relation to his more celebrated school friend.

Lez Cooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bleak Moments (1971)Bleak Moments (1971)

Mike Leigh's debut, about a lonely girl caring for her learning-disabled sister

Thumbnail image of Nation's Health, The (1983)Nation's Health, The (1983)

Uncomfortably realistic depiction of the British medical profession

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Play for Today (1970-84)Play for Today (1970-84)

Single drama slot known for its provocative political work

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Garnett, Tony (1936-)Garnett, Tony (1936-)

Producer, Director, Writer, Actor

Thumbnail image of Leigh, Mike (1943-)Leigh, Mike (1943-)

Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of Newman, G.F. (1946-)Newman, G.F. (1946-)

writer, producer