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Hard Labour (1973)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Hard Labour (1973)
For Play for Today, BBC1, tx. 12/03/1973
70 min, colour
DirectorMike Leigh
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerTony Garnett

Cast: Liz Smith (Mrs Thornley); Clifford Kershaw (Jim Thornley); Polly Hemingway (Ann Thornley); Bernard Hill (Edward Thornley); Alison Steadman (Veronica)

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An everyday account of the unceasing work undertaken by a harassed wife and mother.

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In this, Mike Leigh's first television drama, Mrs Thornley quietly endures a life of unceasing domestic work: as a char for Mrs Stone and at home for her demanding husband, Jim. Throughout, Mrs Thornley is inarticulate and passive. Her characterisation attracted complaints from left-wing and feminist critics suggesting that, when he derived the character from his middle-class mother's cleaning lady, Leigh could not imagine a fulfilling life beyond such work. However, although she does not articulate her feelings, Leigh uses cutaway shots of her to comment on others' attitudes. Furthermore, her apparent passivity serves several dramatic purposes.

Leigh uses visual echoes and parallels to juxtapose Mrs Thornley's domestic and paid jobs, heightening the play's exploration of identity as shaped by work and maternal duty (hence the pun in the title) and gender roles across classes and generations. It also heightens Leigh's wider social point that people's private lives are so separate that they are often connected only by economic convenience. Leigh acknowledges his position by filming the middle-class Stone in a house two doors away from his old home. He cites Hard Labour as a very personal film which unusually for him touches, albeit marginally, upon his Jewish background.

The play's closing scenes imply submerged depths beneath Mrs Thornley's passivity and Jim's belligerence. Mrs Thornley rubs Jim's unsightly hairy shoulders, alleviating rheumatic pain but also satisfying his unarticulated need for intimacy and physicality. This leads Mrs Thornley haltingly to discuss her emotional restraint with a priest, who prescribes penance. There follows a lengthy closing shot of Mrs Thornley cleaning windows, implying that penitence motivates her work. This, alongside recurring Catholic imagery, implicates religious guilt in her confused identity and offers active interpretations of her stoical labour, although she does not experience the moments of realisation common to characters in Leigh's later work.

Reinforcing the play's political concern with isolation and working-class communities, Leigh heightens confinement and the repetition of mundane tasks through restrictive editing and compositions, including shots which isolate feet and hands at work. Although he retains characteristic features, such as his noted process with actors, he also employs improvised location footage inspired by producer Tony Garnett, a device which he would subsequently avoid. Though more sombre than Leigh's later work, Hard Labour's visuals, which comment on the action and on modern life's ironies in an understated, witty way, address a common Leigh theme: limited social and emotional communication.

Dave Rolinson

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Video Clips
1. Home and work (4:20)
2. Sunday dinner (1:48)
3. We must suffer (2:00)
4. Confession and Penance (4:04)
Garnett, Tony (1936-)
Hill, Bernard (1944-)
Kingsley, Sir Ben (1942-)
Leigh, Mike (1943-)
Smith, Liz (1921-)
Mike Leigh on TV
Play for Today (1970-84)