It’s a Great Big Shame!
Life is Sweet
Four Days in July
Nuts in May
‘Abigail’s Party’ and ‘Goose-Pimples’
‘Smelling a Rat’ & ‘Ecstasy’
Too Much of a Good Thing
There was a time, about twenty-five years ago, when spontaneity was the rage. This was encouraged in daily life, as well as in the theater. Indeed, the cult of spontaneity demanded that the barriers between the two should be removed: theater was life, life was theater. “Happenings” turned the world into a stage. Inhibitions were an enemy, to be kicked over in public. Audiences had to “participate.” And the participants in theater workshops were provoked into revealing their “true” selves in so-called encounter sessions. People would howl and cry and laugh hysterically, while others would sit around, watching this mental stripping with embarrassed fascination. Orchestrating these spectacles was the leader, or director, or whatever he (almost always a he) was called, who looked at what he had wrought with the smug demeanor of a guru.
Much of this was more group therapy than theater. Happenings could be fun, even creative, but the cult of spontaneity produced little of lasting value. For most theater workshops and happenings were too narcissistic, too unformed, too raw to be meaningful to anyone besides the participants. Letting it all hang out does not create a work of art. Transforming one’s feelings into something else can do so, but that takes talent and discipline. The former is always in short supply, and the latter is hard to reconcile with pure spontaneity. And yet the experimentation of the 1960s was not a wasted effort. For some remarkable things emerged from the dross. Peter Brook’s work in the theater, for example, and the movies of John Cassavetes owed much to improvisation. And then there is Mike Leigh. His latest film, Naked, won him the best director’s prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.
Mike Leigh was born in the north of England in 1943. He was trained in the theater at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and in film at the London Film School. When he arrived in London in the early 1960s, he was excited by Cassavetes’ movies, and by Brook’s work at the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Improvisation,” as he put it, “was around.” But he distanced himself from its psychodramatic excesses. Happenings didn’t interest him. Acting, writing, and directing did. He no longer acts. But so far he has written and directed twenty-four theater plays, twelve TV plays, four movies, one radio play, and several short sequences for television. He describes himself as a story-teller. His stories are made up during many months of rehearsal. “There is nothing extraordinary about our technique,” Leigh told me in his London office. In fact, I think there is. What is extraordinary is the combination of improvisation and discipline, spontaneity and precision.
The notes for his published plays mention that they have “evolved from scratch entirely by rehearsal through improvisation.” This is true of the movies as well. To make Naked, a story about a drifter in London, who is so terrified of domesticity that he abuses every women who falls for his manic charm, Leigh put his actors through four months of rehearsal before shooting a frame. There was no script to begin with. Leigh’s actors literally have to find their characters, through improvisation and research into the ways people in specific communities speak and behave. The setting for Leigh’s stories can be in Northern Ireland (Four Days in July), or in a modern South London slum (Meantime), but wherever it is, Leigh and his cast immerse themselves in the local life before creating the story. Then, gradually, as Leigh works with each of his actors individually, speech patterns, facial expressions, body movements, accents are developed until characters emerge, as it were, naturally. But still there are no lines. The rehearsal, Leigh says, “is to prepare ourselves, so we can make up the film.”
Leigh starts with a rough idea for a story. Sometimes it is no more than a mood, or a sense of place. He showed me the first shooting script for Naked. It contained no lines, and no instructions, but just a bare outline: Scene One. London. Day. Johnny and Sophie. And so on. Each scene is then rehearsed on location, while Leigh writes the script. By the time he is ready to shoot, everything has to be precise. There is no more improvisation in front of the camera. “To get everything right for that one moment on film, that’s what interests me. You want the spontaneity of the theater to happen at that white-hot moment when the camera is rolling.” These decisive moments in Leigh’s work are theatrical, often hilarious, and yet absolutely believable. There is usually a climactic scene in every story, a horrible family row, a chaotic explosion of repressed emotion, sometimes relieved by an instance of tenderness. These scenes are theater, but with the dangerous edge of reality.
In the radio play Too Much of a Good Thing (1979), the plot, as with most of Leigh’s plays, is deceptively simple. Nothing much happens, yet everything happens. Pamela falls in love with Graham, her driving instructor. Pamela lives with her father, a ratcatcher. Graham is Pamela’s first love. Graham likes Pamela, but after he has successfully coaxed her into bed one Friday night, he soon loses interest. Pamela realizes it is all over. She returns home to her father. Her father carries a dead rat through the house to burn in the garden. Pamela is upset. Thinking it’s the dead rat that has distressed her, her father tells her to cheer up. “It might never ‘ave ‘appened,” he says.
The BBC refused to broadcast Too Much of a Good Thing until 1992. The official line was that the play was “too banal.” But the ban probably had more to do with an explicit sex scene between Graham and Pamela. The fact that you cannot see but only hear them making love—the clothes slipping off, the sighs of anticipation, the yelps of excitement—makes the scene more suggestive, and therefore, perhaps, more shocking to a BBC controller than it would have been on film. To say that the play was “banal” was, in any case, to utterly miss the point. Of course the words were banal, as banal as the letters most people write, or the conversations one overhears in public places. Leigh’s drama, like Harold Pinter’s, is created by what lies beneath those banal conversations. His characters hide their feelings in a number of ways: by talking in clichés lifted from the mass media or in an endless stream of puns or jokes, or by saying nothing much at all. Some are hopelessly inarticulate. Others, like Johnny, the drifter in Naked, keep up a constant brilliant, ironic patter to ward off intimacy.
There is a lot of cruelty in Leigh’s plays. People test one another’s nerves, not always intentionally, until they cannot take it any more, and the tension is released in verbal or physical violence, like a thunderstorm following days of sultry weather. Aggression is sometimes the only way people can communicate their feelings. Singing is another. What you will not get is the fine writing of mainstream drama. The people in Leigh’s plays and films may sound grotesque at times, but only rarely do they sound like actors or actresses.
Mike Leigh is often described as a satirist of English manners. And to some extent he is. He is a master of the nuances of British class divisions: a particular kind of wallpaper, a pair of spectacles, a turn of phrase, can be enough to place a character in terms of class, region, and upbringing. Again, it is Leigh’s precision that is striking. Art direction and stage design (usually by Alison Chitty) are of vital importance.
Take, for example, his stage directions for Goose-Pimples, a wonderful play produced in London in 1981, but alas never recorded on film. The play takes place in the flat of Vernon, a car salesman in a tacky North London suburb. His flat-mate, Jackie, who works as a croupier in a gambling club, brings a rich Arab client home for a drink. The Arab hardly speaks English and thinks he is being taken to a brothel. Jackie and Muhammed are joined by Vernon and Irving, another car salesman, and his wife, Frankie, who is having an affair with Vernon. Muhammed thinks Vernon is the barman, and Vernon calls Muhammed Sambo. The play shows what might happen when a confused Arab businessman is suddenly trapped in the company of ignorant, drunken, lower-middle-class English people. It is a slow but relentless descent into hell. Here are Leigh’s instructions for Vernon’s apartment:
The flat is on the second floor of a block of flats…built around 1935. The lounge and dining areas are in a double room, which was designed originally as two rooms with folding doors between them, but the doors have been removed. In the lounge area are a black leather sofa and swivel armchair, a side table, a bar with bar-stools, a music center with cassettes and records underneath, a television and an imitation leopard-skin rug… The walls are papered with tiger-skin wallpaper (or something similar). There are no pictures, but several mirrors and veteran car motifs. The doors to the two areas are close to each other, and have frosted-glass panes.
There is nothing impressionistic about this. Leigh describes with the meticulousness of a social anthropologist. The same is true of accents, which makes his plays very hard to perform outside Britain. These are Leigh’s notes for Ecstasy, performed in London in 1979:
Jean and Dawn are natives of Birmingham. Mick is from County Cork, Len is from rural Lincolnshire and Roy and Val are from inner North London, where the play is set. The dialogue, language and usage in Ecstasy are extremely precise, and in the author’s view the play should only be performed in the correct accents.
Note the “inner North London.” The play is set in Kilburn, only a few subway stops away from the suburbs of outer London. But Kilburn, with its rundown streets and its mixed population, is another world from the chintzy, tawdry gentility of the outer suburbs that are the setting of many other Leigh dramas, such as Life is Sweet.
Leigh himself, a slight, stooped figure, whose bulging eyes appear to be popping out of his skull, like those of a child staring at the grown-ups, not wanting to miss a thing, is perfectly placed to be a chronicler of the British scene. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish household in a working class district of Manchester, where his father practiced medicine. Leigh’s father was known as the “whistling doctor,” since he was always whistling as he went on his rounds. Leigh went to a local state school and he would watch his father’s National Health Service patients coming to the house to be treated. To be surrounded by people who are familiar, yet different, is to grow up with watchful eyes. Leigh’s way of looking at people, with their heightened oddities, is rather like the way children observe their teachers at school. Every quirk is mercilessly noted.