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.

Leigh often displays a kind of horrified delight in the tawdriest aspects of English life: tiger-skin patterned wallpaper, dolls of Spanish dancers on bedside tables, male hands groping large bottoms wrapped in pink chiffon. Leigh’s England, populated by grasping used car dealers, nosy social workers, randy postmen, frustrated housewives, office clerks, and croupiers, could not be further removed from the thatched cottage or countryhouse image of England promoted in New Yorker ads or Merchant Ivory films.

Leigh’s loving reconstruction of seediness sometimes reminds one of Diane Arbus’s photographs. Like Arbus he has been accused of patronizing his subjects. This is because, like Arbus and her admirers, Leigh and his audience are, on the whole, not of the same class as the people portrayed. And there is, of course, a certain voyeuristic pleasure to be got from Leigh’s work. But unlike many of Arbus’s subjects, Leigh’s characters are not freaks. For the world he has created, with some but not very much exaggeration, is entirely normal. Much of England really is like that. And because he is so unsentimental in his depiction of the working class, or the striving lower-middle class, his characters are rarely caricatures.

Leigh’s method of improvisation has much to do with this. For if his actors and actresses simply acted out the tics and mannerisms of class stereotypes, Leigh’s work would be no more than social satire. Satire is after all the art of caricature. What makes Leigh’s theater so much more than that is the way his actors develop their characters. The mannerisms, the accents, the walks, form just one layer of the complex personalities built up over time. It is as though Leigh’s method speeds up the natural formation of personality: the process of a lifetime compressed into the space of months. This does not always work, especially with minor characters. There may not always be time enough. Some of the weaker performances in Leigh’s films—the yuppie couple in High Hopes, for example—look unfinished, for they are stuck in their mannerisms; their characters remain unformed. Usually, however, Leigh’s characters come splendidly alive.

In his latest stage play, It’s a Great Big Shame! performed this autumn in London. Leigh tries to undermine the sentimental, music hall image of nineteenth-century London’s East End by showing the cold, rough reality behind its chirpy Cockney ditties. The play is in two parts. The first part is a long sketch of squalid Victorian street life and a disastrous marriage between a simpleton and a shrew. The second half is about lower-middle-class black people, living in the same place today. Leigh has as little patience with the conventional images of calypso and racial solidarity as he has with the mawkishness of the Victorian music hall. Like the white Cockneys a century before, the black Cockneys are sad, angry, bickering human beings who drive each other to violence. The violence, brought on by the usual Leigh mismatch of weak husbands, frustrated wives, and selfish, disapproving siblings, leads to murder in both instances. Faith, the black sister in this play (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), clucking with disdain and parroting the language of advertising brochures, was the perfect example of a developed Leigh character. You could see exactly where she came from, so to speak, but she was also a unique person.

Leigh’s characters only turn into caricatures when he uses them purely to make points. This almost never happens with his working-class roles. It rarely happens with his nouveaux riches. The ghastly, giggling Valerie in High Hopes, slipping into a frothy bath with a champagne bottle stuck in her mouth, is an exception. But it often happens with his yuppies, such as the absurd sadist, Jeremy, in Naked, who drives around alone in his black Porsche, looking out for women to abuse. Members of the upper end of the middle class in Leigh’s work are never the nice sons of Jewish doctors, or the educated urban audience of his plays. They are what is known in Britain as Hooray Henrys, braying cads in striped shirts who are brutal to everyone beneath them—that is, when they are not sitting around in Kensington drinking champagne or pelting each other with bread rolls.

Many of Leigh’s films and plays show how the different strands of British society connect—or fail to connect. The topography of big British cities, especially London, helps him, for London’s geography is full of tragicomic possibilities. It has been the strategy of postwar local governments to mix up, where possible, privately owned houses with so-called council houses, homes bought by municipal authorities to provide public housing. And the steady gentrification of the poorer parts of London and other cities has added to this social mosaic. The street I live in is fairly typical: our neighbors on one side are unemployed working-class white people; on the other is a family from Bangladesh and a cleaning lady from Jamaica. Next to them lives a stockbroker.

This sort of mixture sets the scene in much of Leigh’s work. The opening sequence of Grown Ups, a film made for the BBC in 1980, shows a row of modern semi-detached houses in Canterbury. Dick and Mandy (“Mand”) have just moved in. Dick works in a hospital canteen, and Mandy as a cashier in a department store. They are visited by Mandy’s monstrously intrusive sister, Gloria (“Glore”). Gloria: “Tell you what Mand, I reckon you’ve really come up trumps ‘ere.” Mandy: “It’s private next door.” Gloria: “I know, I’ve seen.” Mandy (proudly): “It’s private all the way up.” Dick (sourly): “Yeah, but it’s council all the way down, innit?’ ”

The gap between council and private is also one of the ingredients of Abigail’s Party, one of Leigh’s funniest, most harrowing, and successful plays, first performed in the theater, then on television. It is set in North London in a patchwork of new housing developments and nineteenth-century terraced houses. Abigail’s mother is an upper-middle-class divorcée, called Sue, who owns her house. She is invited over for a drink by her distinctly down-market neighbors, Beverly and Lawrence. Beverly, beautifully acted by Alison Steadman (Mrs. Mike Leigh), is a gross, overdressed, restless housewife, with a taste for Greek crooners. Lawrence is an anxious estate agent, with high cultural aspirations (Beethoven’s Ninth on the stereo). Lawrence is being slowly destroyed by the endless humiliations meted out by his wife. They are joined by an ex-football player, whom Beverly tries to seduce, and his wife, Angela (Ange), a garrulous nurse. Genteel, buttoned-down Sue is almost as much out of place in this company as the Saudi businessman is with Vernon’s friends in Goose-Pimples.

But Leigh’s most perfectly realized battle in the simmering British class war—perhaps the best thing he has done—is a BBC film called Nuts in May (1976). The action here does not take place in row houses, but in tents. Keith and Candice Marie (Alison Steadman) are an earnest middle-class couple on a camping holiday in Dorset. They eat health food, listen to bird calls, and play folk music on the banjo. Keith likes to lecture his wife about nature, health, and local history. Candice Marie has a hot water bottle in the shape of a cat called Prudence. Keith kisses Prudence goodnight before turning in. Ray, a burly college student from Wales, turns up on the camping site. Ray likes beer, football, and pop music played at high volume. Tension begins to build, especially when Candice Marie appears to like Ray. Then Finger, a plasterer, and his girlfriend, Honkie, arrive on a motorbike. Finger and Honkie are loud, lusty working-class people, who like to fry sausages and beans, when they are not making love or farting in their tent. Candice Marie eggs Keith on to do something about the noise. Keith has to prove his manhood. And the tension explodes in a scene of comic violence when Keith loses his temper and runs amok.

Much of the comedy in Nuts in May, as in all Leigh’s work, lies in the minutely observed mannerisms of British class. But to say that Leigh’s films are about class is like saying that Buñuel’s films are about the Catholic church. In fact, Nuts in May, like Leigh’s other plays and films, is as much about the sex wars as the class wars: the two are subtly interwoven. Keith’s weediness is constantly shown up by virile local farmers, as well as by Ray and Finger. That is why Candice Marie, mousy as she may seem, goads him into action. In the contemporary half of It’s a Great Big Shame! it’s the strong presence of Barrington, the muscle-bound friend of the pipsqueak Randall, that finally drives Randall’s wife, Joy, to murder her husband. Likewise, the key to Mike Leigh’s latest film, Naked, is not, as the critic of Le Monde thought, a critique of “Thatcherism” or the homeless problem; it is sex.

In Naked, Johnny, played brilliantly by David Thewlis, needs sex, but is terrified of domesticity. Homelessness, far from being his problem, is Johnny’s chosen path to self-destruction. He wants women to love him, but backs off when they do. He is a disturbing character to watch, especially in the current state of gender politics, because he is a charming misogynist. Which is not to say that the film is misogynistic. As in other Leigh movies—Life is Sweet, for example—the strongest, most sympathetic character is a woman. Compared to the others, Johnny’s ex-girlfriend Louise is a rock of stability who is trying to throw him a lifeline.

Leigh’s dark vision of London’s wet, neon-streaked streets, where young drifters huddle around fires under Victorian railway arches, or holler madly in the night, gives Naked the air of a French film noir. The movie looks different from anything he has done before. But Naked is not as much of a new departure for Leigh as some critics have suggested. For Johnny is trapped in the same dilemma that runs through all of Leigh’s work: Hell is the others, but the others are also our only salvation. The lifelines of family and marriage are potential prisons too.

Louise almost manages to turn Johnny around from being a manic destroyer of himself and the others attracted to him. There is a scene of great tenderness, after Johnny has been beaten up in the street by thugs. Louise washes his wounds, and they revive their former intimacy. Together they sing an old song from their native Manchester—a typical Leigh touch. And at last Johnny looks at peace with himself. Louise decides to give up her job in London and they plan to go back to Manchester together. The Mancunian tune is like a Siren song, full of promise of a better, more settled life. But, like a cardboard-city Ulysses, Johnny resists it, and when Louise goes off to hand in her notice at work, he lopes off into the grubby streets as fast as his wounded legs can take him.

We are not supposed to admire Johnny. He is too perverse, too destructive for that. But we can recognize, nonetheless, that Johnny’s predicament is a basic human problem, for which Leigh sees no solution. He just stares at it, picks at it, ponders it, and shows it in every film and play he has done. Family lives, particularly relations between husbands and wives, are almost always disastrous in Leigh’s work. Yet some of the strongest scenes in his films are of reconciliation.
In Meantime, Mark and Colin, his slow-witted younger sibling, live in the domestic hell of a cheap housing estate. Colin is a humiliated, cowering figure, whose only gesture of defiance against his bleak existence is to shave his head, to look like the local skin-heads. Mark has taken out his own frustrations on Colin throughout the film. But now he strokes his brother’s bald head, as a gesture of solidarity. “Kojak,” he says. And for the first time in the movie, we see Colin smile. In Grown Ups, family life is a mixture of mayhem and smoldering rows, yet Dick and Mandy decide to have a baby. In High Hopes, the elderly mother is mistreated by her coarse and selfish daughter, and family relations are catastrophic, but still her son, Cyril, a working-class hero who worships at Karl Marx’s tomb, and his girl-friend, Shirley, want to start a family of their own.

And so it goes on. People persist in getting married, and having families, even though the chances are that it will all end in misery. But there is one thing sadder than connecting badly with other people, and that is not connecting at all. Leigh’s first feature film, Bleak Moments, made in 1971, offers an interesting parallel to his most recent one. Both films are about failing to connect. In Naked the sex is loveless and brutal, in Bleak Moments the sex is suppressed. Both films show how people use language without being able to communicate feeling, except in song (hence, perhaps, the British fondness for community singing).

The main characters in Bleak Moments are a typical Leigh cast. Sylvia and Pat work as secretaries at an accountant’s office. Hilda is Sylvia’s mentally retarded sister. Norman is a hippie from Scunthorpe, and Peter a schoolteacher. Pat is unattractive, but disguises her unhappiness behind a veil of hysterical good cheer. Sylvia is attractive but repressed. Norman is so shy, he can only express his feelings by singing folk songs atrociously. Hilda is emotional, but cannot talk at all. And Peter, who fancies Sylvia, is as tight as the white collar round his neck. It is as though middle-class English life has made all these people, except Hilda, emotionally autistic.

In one marvelous scene, they are all gathered for a cup of tea in Sylvia’s house. None of them knows what to say to the others. They are all too embarrassed to talk. Like an English Bergman or Dreyer (there is something Scandinavian about the English affinity for unhappiness), Leigh trains his camera on their faces, one by one: Peter, anxious, disapproving, jaws working, lips pursed; Sylvia, unsure, unhappy, eyes darting about the room; Pat, embarrassed, sucking a chocolate; Norman, catatonic, fidgeting; Hilda, close to tears.

That same evening, after an excrutiating meal in a local Chinese restaurant, Peter and Sylvia return to her house. Desperate for some connection, physical, mental, or preferably both, Sylvia forces Peter to drink sherry with her. After a great deal of embarrassment, they kiss. Sylvia breaks away and asks Peter whether he would like a cup of coffee. “That would be very nice,” he says. End of love scene.

Peter had spoken before about the problems of language. He tells Sylvia how difficult it is for him to communicate with Hilda, “I never know what to say to her,” he says. Sylvia tells him to say anything he likes. Yes, he says, but “I mean that the usual conversational gambits don’t seem to be any use.” Sylvia looks at him and says: “I’m not sure conversational gambits are ever of any use. They seem to me to be an evasion of what is going on.”

This is still the key to Leigh’s work: conversation as a form of evasion. One could say it is the key to English manners too. It is hard to get on a London bus or listen to the people at the next table in a cafeteria without thinking of Mike Leigh. Like other wholly original artists, he has staked out his own territory. Leigh’s London is as distinctive as Fellini’s Rome or Ozu’s Tokyo. These are of course products of the imagination, cities reinvented for the movies. Mike Leigh’s England is personal as well as a local product. And yet it is universal too. For Vernon and Graham and Candice Marie, and the many others, are not just Leigh’s people, not even just British people; by creating them, Leigh has shown us a glimpse of ourselves.

This Issue

January 13, 1994