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Mike Leigh on TV

The small screen work of a great director

Main image of Mike Leigh on TV

In the light of Mike Leigh's later status as an internationally successful filmmaker, it is surprising to reflect that, after his first feature Bleak Moments (1971), he did not get the chance to make another film for the cinema for 17 years. Fortunately, he was able to hone his skills by working in television during that time, in common with other directors such as Ken Loach and Stephen Frears.

Leigh's TV features include several classics of the medium, and show him developing many of the preoccupations and techniques that would characterise his later films. In two of the earliest, he returned to his native north-west England: 'Hard Labour' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 12/3/1973) is a character study of a middle-aged Salford housewife, and 'The Kiss of Death' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 11/1/1977) shows the faltering attempts at romance of a young undertaker's apprentice in Oldham.

Mostly, however, the TV films, like the later work, focus on the suburban south. Leigh's ability to create chillingly convincing middle-class monsters emerged in 'Nuts in May' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 13/1/1976), with the self-righteous couple Keith and Candice-Marie Pratt, and again in 'Abigail's Party' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 1/11/1977), a straightforward studio-based adaptation of Leigh's theatre play of the same year, in which the overbearing hostess Beverly presides tyrannically over an ill-fated cocktail party.

'Abigail's Party' was strenuously attacked in a review by Dennis Potter after its first transmission. He accused Leigh of sneering at lower-middle-class tastes and lifestyles although, viewed objectively, the play looks more like a lamentation of the spiritual poverty of received values. Leigh does not suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with social aspirations, only with losing sight of what one is aspiring to, and why.

He certainly seems to have slightly more sympathy for the domestically trapped Beverly than for 'Nuts in May''s Keith, who is a pompous, domineering control freak. Eventually, during the course of a camping holiday in Dorset, the control freak loses control of himself during a violent argument, and the effect is devastating, reducing Keith to tears and making him suddenly seem rather pathetic and vulnerable. Like Beverly and her fellow party-goers, he is a fully rounded and thoroughly credible character - which is precisely what makes him, and them, so appalling. Two-dimensional caricatures would be much easier to ignore, and to forget.

This ability to understand, and even care about, characters at the same time as satirising them was less in evidence in Who's Who (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 5/2/1979), set in and around a firm of London stockbrokers. Perhaps it is Leigh's lack of sympathy for the protagonists that makes this ultimately a rather episodic work that never quite coalesces. It nevertheless offered a memorable addition to Leigh's gallery of comic creations in Alan Dixon, a Pooterish middle-aged clerk who has an obsession with the activities of the British royalty and aristocracy.

Leigh's skilful orchestration of character and narrative was confidently reasserted in 'Grown-Ups' (Playhouse, BBC, tx. 28/11/1980). The story of a young couple living in Canterbury and their family, friends and neighbours, the film builds with perfect logic towards a painfully funny set piece in which five of the six principal characters are piled in an undignified scramble on a staircase. Perhaps for the first time in Leigh's work, but certainly not the last, we are confronted with a sequence of escalating comic chaos that leaves us unsure whether to laugh or to cry.

'Home Sweet Home' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 16/3/1982) was more melancholy in tone, but equally well constructed. Revolving around the activities of three postmen and their families, the film is a study of failed communication and loneliness, and demonstrates Leigh's growing ability to deal with big themes and emotions through a depiction of ordinary lives that is honest enough to be both funny and sad.

The social conscience that has underpinned much of Leigh's best work came to the fore in Meantime (tx. 1/12/1983) and Four Days in July (BBC, tx. 29/1/1985). Meantime was made by Central Television for Channel Four, making it the only one of Leigh's TV features not to be produced by the BBC. It explores the growing bond between two brothers in their early twenties, who live with their parents in a tower block in London's East End, and provides something close to a definitive portrayal of a large section of Britain four years into Margaret Thatcher's premiership, capturing the high unemployment and disaffection of the period, especially among the young urban population.

Four Days in July also approached a specific social and political situation from a familial perspective. A series of conversation pieces set in the Falls Road area of Belfast, the film leads up to the near-simultaneous birth of two babies. One of the mothers is a Catholic, the other the wife of a soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment. A recurring theme of Leigh's work - of when to have children, how to bring them up, or whether to have them at all - is explored with particular poignancy against this troubled background.

Leigh has also made some shorter TV pieces. In 1975 he wrote and directed five films lasting five minutes each, which were intended to be the first in an ongoing series. However, the BBC chose not to continue the project, and those that were made were never broadcast until a 1982 season of Leigh's work. The 30-minute plays The Permissive Society (tx. 10/4/1975) and Knock for Knock (tx. 21/11/1976) were both studio productions for BBC Birmingham, the second of which was subsequently wiped.

Leigh finally returned to the cinema thanks to a change in Channel Four policy, whereby work produced under the broadcaster's Film on Four banner would be made on 35mm so as to make possible a cinema release prior to TV transmission. By that time Leigh had created a formidable body of TV work, which had frequently attracted extremely impressive viewing figures. Grown-Ups was watched by 4.5 million, 'Nuts in May' by 8.5 million, and the third broadcast of 'Abigail's Party' - during an ITV strike - by a phenomenal 16 million. His reputation in Britain had been firmly established, and his style of narrative and characterisation was embedded in the national consciousness.

Tony Whitehead

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Abigail's Party (1977)

Abigail's Party (1977)

Memorable Mike Leigh drama about a disastrous middle-class soiree

Thumbnail image of Grown-Ups (1980)

Grown-Ups (1980)

Mike Leigh comedy about a couple at war with their middle-class neighbours

Thumbnail image of Hard Labour (1973)

Hard Labour (1973)

Mike Leigh's first TV drama, about the travails of domestic drudgery

Thumbnail image of Home Sweet Home (1982)

Home Sweet Home (1982)

Mike Leigh comedy about the private lives of three postmen

Thumbnail image of Meantime (1983)

Meantime (1983)

Memorably bleak Mike Leigh film about feuding East London families

Thumbnail image of Nuts in May (1976)

Nuts in May (1976)

Mike Leigh play about a couple on a camping holiday

Thumbnail image of Permissive Society, The (1975)

Permissive Society, The (1975)

Underrated Mike Leigh play about sex and relationships

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Play for Today (1970-84)

Play for Today (1970-84)

Single drama slot known for its provocative political work

Thumbnail image of The Television Play

The Television Play

The rise and fall of the single drama

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Leigh, Mike (1943-)

Leigh, Mike (1943-)

Director, Writer