Meantime was the eighth of the nine features (if one includes the studio production Abigail's Party) that Mike Leigh wrote and directed for British television in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the only one not made by the BBC. Set in the fourth year of Margaret Thatcher's premiership, it reflects the period's high unemployment and disaffectation, especially among the young urban population.
Although Meantime was the first overtly politicised film that Leigh had directed, he characteristically chooses to tell his story through familial relationships. At the core of the film is the developing bond between the two brothers, Mark and Colin. Sharp-witted Mark is a familiar figure in Leigh's work; rebellious, disillusioned rather than cynical, and possessed of a spiky, sarcastic wit intended to provoke and wrong-foot others. The most extreme version of this character type is Johnny, the central character in Leigh's controversial Naked (1993).
Although Mark appears to treat the slower, shyer Colin with the same offhand derision he feels for everyone else, he reveals himself to be really quite protective. He worries when Colin seems to be getting too friendly with the dangerous skinhead Coxy, and intervenes when Barbara, their aunt, offers to pay Colin to decorate the inside of her house, an offer he considers patronising.
Though both appear to be in their twenties, Mark and Colin still live with their bickering, humourless parents. By the end of the film, after they have left Barbara's house and returned home separately, the bond between them seems to have strengthened. Colin has an uncharacteristic outburst during a family argument, ordering their parents out of the bedroom he and Mark share. When they are left alone, Mark tries to find out where Colin has been that day, reassuring him unaffectedly that 'I love you'.
Next morning, they implicitly agree that nobody should tell them what to do, and exchange smiles for the first time. For Leigh's characters, a sense of humour and an ability to share jokes are always a sign of resilience and imagination, and here it reinforces the bond between the brothers and the independence of spirit that they may now be able to share.
As always, Leigh worked closely with his actors, using extensive improvisational techniques in the preparation and rehearsals. He was well served by a then largely unknown cast including Tim Roth, Phil Daniels, Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina.