But are you happy?

Happy-Go-Lucky is one of Mike Leigh’s cheerier works, and even the fa­mously dour di­rec­tor seems to have light­ened up. He tells Don­ald Clarke about get­ting on with life, keep­ing se­crets from his cast, and the real rea­son Abi­gail’s Party was a suc­cess

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

MIKE LEIGH does not, they say, “suf­fer fools gladly”. This cliché is, of course, gen­er­ally used about peo­ple with the man­ners of drunken Visig­oths. Look at them side­ways and ex­pect to get an ar­row through your head.

Over the last four decades, a fair num­ber of jour­nal­ists have, in­deed, emerged pale and shak­ing from in­ter­views with the English di­rec­tor. Ask the wrong ques­tion con­cern­ing his peer­less oeu­vre – films such as Naked, Se­crets & Lies and Vera Drake – and you can ex­pect a scowl and a cast­ing of eyes to heaven. Ask about his private life and you had bet­ter don body ar­mour.

Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh’s latest com­edy, re­ceived its world pre­miere at the Ber­lin Film Fes­ti­val only days be­fore we meet. But I sense he is al­ready be­gin­ning to tire of one par­tic­u­lar line of ques­tion­ing. The pic­ture, which fol­lows an ef­fer­ves­cent pri­mary school teacher as she bum­bles about south Lon­don, ap­pears to show­case a lightening in Leigh’s tone. Af­ter all, Vera Drake, his pre­vi­ous film, could not have been more de­press­ing.

“I sup­pose my films do deal with as­pects of how we cope with the world,” he says. “But things are never as sim­ple as that. The idea that I will make a jolly film when I am happy or I’ll make Vera Drake if I’m mis­er­able is non­sense. Vera Drake dealt with a very spe­cific is­sue – abor­tion be­fore the 1967 act made it le­gal – and I had been think­ing about that theme for years.”

As it hap­pens, 65-year-old Leigh is all charm to­day. That is not to say he looks cheery. Bur­dened with the col­lapsed fea­tures of Droopy, the car­toon bas­set, the di­rec­tor is, I would sus­pect, phys­iog­nom­i­cally in­ca­pable of ra­di­at­ing any in­ner bon­homie. It is, thus, not al­to­gether sur­pris­ing that crit­ics ex­am­ine his films to gain clues as to his cur­rent state of mind.

For good or ill, Happy-Go-Lucky be­longs to Sally Hawkins. The ac­tress makes a tire­less whirl­wind of Poppy, the cen­tral char­ac­ter. While her driv­ing in­struc­tor goes in­sane, her pupils squab­ble vi­o­lently and her sis­ter sinks into grim sub­ur­bia, Poppy re­mains op­ti­mistic and en­er­getic. For all its sad­der mo­ments, Happy-GoLucky is, well, a happy film.

“I think there is an in­ter­est­ing set of ideas here. On the one level, here we are in the 21st cen­tury and we are de­stroy­ing our planet and knock­ing lumps out of one an­other. This is not the world we who be­gan work­ing in 1970 would recog­nise. If you’d said to us that, in 35 years’ time, the world would be in the grip of vi­o­lent re­li­gious ma­nia, we would have said you were crazy. But, de­spite all that, there are still peo­ple like Poppy get­ting on with life.”

Like all Leigh’s films, Happy-Go-Lucky was de­vel­oped through a process of im­pro­vi­sa­tion. De­spite the in­volve­ment of dozens of ac­tors through the decades, the di­rec­tor’s films do keep re­turn­ing to com­mon themes and char­ac­ters. Poppy, in par­tic­u­lar, is a very recog­nis­able fig­ure from Leigh World. Like Alison Stead­man in Life is Sweet, Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake, Les­ley Manville in All or Noth­ing or _Brenda Blethyn in Se­crets & Lies, Hawkins plays a long-suf­fer­ing good egg on whom weaker and more morally flawed char­ac­ters re­peat­edly lean.

“I’m sure you can see that link,” he con­cedes. “I find it dif­fi­cult to iso­late one char­ac­ter from the oth­ers in my films. They only ex­ist as de­fined against each other. The ti­tle of the film is not, I think, ironic. She is happy. She is not deliri­ous like some­body on mush­rooms. But, yes, she is a happy per­son.”

Mike Leigh was born and raised in Sal­ford, Lan­cashire (al­legedly the model for Coro­na­tion Street’s Weather­field). De­spite be­ing the son of a doc­tor, he has

al­ways de­nied that he had a mid­dle-class up­bring­ing. His dad was, he says, al­ways chas­ing up debts, and lux­u­ries were rare. He fan­cied him­self an ac­tor and won a place at the Royal Academy of Dra­matic Art, but re­alised his tal­ents lay else­where. Af­ter a spell at Lon­don Film School, he set about writ­ing and di­rect­ing his own plays.

He got to di­rect his first film, Bleak Mo­ments, just as the Bri­tish film in­dus­try was about to go into hi­ber­na­tion. This was 1971, and, like a num­ber of his con­tem­po­raries, he was forced to move into television for the next decade. Dur­ing that pe­riod, he honed his un­usual tal­ent and de­liv­ered such mor­dantly bril­liant plays as Nuts in May, Kiss of Death and, of course, the time­less Abi­gail’s Party.

Does he re­gret be­ing forced into television? “That is a very in­ter­est­ing ques­tion,” he says. “If you had asked me then I would, un­doubt­edly, have said ‘Yes’. For a decade, in be­tween Bleak Mo­ments and our re­turn to fea­tures in the 1980s, I spent the whole time be­ing pissed off. Can’t we shoot on 35mm? And so on.

“But in hind­sight, I was wrong to be an­noyed. It was a very rich and pro­duc­tive pe­riod. We did all this good work that helped us ma­ture and, when Chan­nel 4 came along and al­lowed us back into film, we were, I think, well pre­pared.”

Of all the fine work Leigh de­liv­ered for television, Abi­gail’s Party re­mains the most durable. Fea­tur­ing Alison Stead­man, then the di­rec­tor’s wife, as Bev­er­ley, the host­ess from Hades, the play has come to de­fine a cer­tain class of 1970s kitsch.

Cheese’n’pineap­ple nib­ble, any­body? “It was orig­i­nally a stage play, of course,” he re­mem­bers. “But then Alison Stead­man be­came preg­nant – with some­body who is now a 30-year-old graphic de­signer – and we just about had time to do it on television. When it was screened, a sec­ond time there was a strike on at ITV and a high­brow show on BBC2, so it ended up with view­ing fig­ures of about 16 mil­lion. It just passed into an­other di­men­sion then.”

De­spite the suc­cess of Abi­gail’s Party in 1977, it took an­other six years for Leigh to get a fea­ture film into cine­mas. Since then, how­ever, his movies have be­come a con­stant fea­ture of the cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment. David Thewlis’s per­for­mance in the grim Naked se­cured the top act­ing prize at Cannes in 1993. Se­crets & Lies won the Palme d’Or three years later. Vera Drake was nom­i­nated for three Os­cars in 2006.

De­spite de­liv­er­ing de­fi­antly ec­cen­tric work, Leigh has never found him­self idling. What’s the se­cret? “The truth is I have been re­mark­ably lucky,” he says. “It should have been im­pos­si­ble to do so many films with no script to show a pro­ducer. I have a fine pro­ducer in Si­mon Chan­ning-Wil­liams and, most im­por­tantly, the way I work, you ei­ther give us the dosh or you walk away. No­body gets to in­ter­fere. No­body gets to muck them up. So the films are never in­ter­fered into obliv­ion.”

Does he ever get tempted to change meth­ods and take on a more com­mer­cial project? “No. What would be the point? You know, for me the work is like one great con­tin­u­ous movie.” The Leigh Meta Movie. Long may it con­tinue.

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