His­tory gruff

Be it thick ac­tors or po­lit­i­cal bone­heads, di­rec­tor Mike Leigh is not a man who suf­fers fools gladly

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY DON­ALD CLARKE

Di­rec­tor Mike Leigh won’t suf­fer fools

Mike Leigh has a rep­u­ta­tion for not suf­fer­ing fools gladly (a eu­phemism if ever there was one). I can’t say I’ve any di­rect ev­i­dence to sup­port this leg­end. He has al­ways en­dured your cur­rent fool with equa­nim­ity and, on the morn­ing we speak, he is bor­der­ing on the ef­fer­ves­cent. Peter­loo, his study of a no­to­ri­ous mas­sacre in 19th-cen­tury Manch­ester, has just pre­miered in that city to much hoopla.

“It was great,” he bub­bles. “The idea of a Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val screen­ing in Manch­ester was a great one.” Does Leigh still see him­self as a Man­cu­nian? “If I were to ask you would you still re­gard your­self as Ir­ish you’d laugh, right?” he says. “I have lived in Lon­don since I was 17 in 1960. But once a Man­cu­nian al­ways a Man­cu­nian.”

Leigh em­ployed his usual im­pro­visatory tech­niques to de­vise Peter­loo. No word of the script was writ­ten down be­fore the ac­tors en­tered the re­hearsal space. We get in­sights into ev­ery­day work­ing peo­ple’s lives. We also get a lu­cid ex­pla­na­tion of the pres­sures that drove hun­dreds to an assem­bly de­mand­ing re­form in par­lia­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

“When we were work­ing on it a cross-sec­tion of peo­ple from Manch­ester – of all ages – told us they never knew about it,” he says. “I grew up 15-or-so min­utes from where it hap­pened. The pri­mary school could have marched us down there and showed us the area and had us back in school by lunchtime. My dad was a so­cial­ist and I don’t re­mem­ber him men­tion­ing it at all.”

Leigh goes on to ex­plain that, after later read­ing about the Hus­sars’ slaugh­ter of 15 pro­tes­tors in St Peter’s Field, he felt that Peter­loo would make a good sub­ject for a film. “But it didn’t oc­cur to me that per­son would be me be­cause I then only did con­tem­po­rary films,” he says.

There is logic in that. Find­ing his groove with a se­ries of won­der­ful plays for the BBC in the 1970s – Nuts in May and Abi­gail’s Party among them – Leigh de­vel­oped a tech­nique that ul­ti­mately de­liv­ered in­ti­mate, fully de­vised movies such as Naked, Se­crets & Lies and Vera Drake. To the out­sider, it sounds tricky to use such tech­niques with his­tor­i­cal sub­jects. The facts are al­ready the facts. Yet Leigh has adapted ad­mirably with Mr Turner, his re­cent study of artist JMW Turner, and with the cur­rent project.

“If you are drama­tis­ing his­tor­i­cal events you can read all the books you like,” he says. “That will tell you what hap­pened. But you have to bring that to life. I sim­ply ap­plied these tech­niques we’d in­vented to these sit­u­a­tions.”

March of his­tory

Some things have changed in Leigh World. Who would have ex­pected to see the Ama­zon logo be­fore one of his films? Peter­loo was, in­deed, pro­duced by the stream­ing gi­ant and he has noth­ing bad to say about the re­la­tion­ship. What about the stream­ing rev­o­lu­tion in gen­eral?

“That is just the march of his­tory,” he says. “I still have a col­lec­tion of CDs. I am lis­ten­ing to mu­sic on those. What I am not do­ing is lis­ten­ing to mu­sic on wax cylin­ders. We used to shoot all our work on film and I was mil­i­tant about it. Peter­loo and Mr Turner were shot dig­i­tally. And, as far as Peter­loo goes, the use of CGI has given us a mas­sive in­spi­ra­tional bonus. We couldn’t have done this with­out that tech­nol­ogy.”

The bi­cen­ten­nial of the Peter­loo Mas­sacre lands next year. That drove the project for­ward. But Leigh was also in­spired by par­al­lels with cur­rent po­lit­i­cal dis­con­tents.

“I never say to an au­di­ence: ‘Think this’,” he says. “I leave you with things to deal with. Ob­vi­ously it’s about democ­racy. It’s about power at one end of the spec­trum and the

I never say to an au­di­ence: ‘think this’. I leave you with things to deal with. Ob­vi­ously it’s about democ­racy. It’s about power at one end of the spec­trum and the have-nots at the other

have-nots at the other. It’s hard for me to itemise what those res­o­nances are. But it does seem to ring a few bells.” Democ­racy is still un­der threat. “Well, ex­actly.” Dis­pu­ta­tious waves re­ally do seem to be trou­bling the United King­dom (as we can still just about call it). As we speak, the news is clogged up with yet more con­fu­sion about Brexit. Asked his views on the sub­ject, Leigh drops into ex­as­per­ated rhetor­i­cal ques­tions. “Well, what do you think?” I don’t know. Sur­prise me, Mike. “It is ridicu­lous. It’s ir­re­spon­si­ble. It’s mad,” he says. “Bone­heads say: ‘But isn’t Peter­loo about peo­ple want­ing the vote? They had a ref­er­en­dum, they voted for what they wanted.’ But Brexit was a ter­ri­ble ma­nip­u­la­tion of peo­ple and their needs. We know that it pro­gresses nowhere on a daily ba­sis. It’s a disas­ter. It is

truly lam­en­ta­ble. What’s go­ing to hap­pen with the Ir­ish Border? You don’t know the an­swer to that.”

What about Jeremy Cor­byn? The Labour leader – who cam­paigned against the EU for decades – has been less than vo­cif­er­ous in his op­po­si­tion to Brexit. What does Leigh make of him?

“I don’t know the an­swer to that,” he says. “In my heart I think it’s great to have a pure and proper so­cial­ist lead­ing the party. I didn’t agree with him on Brexit. But I don’t know where he’s go­ing. I look for­ward to see­ing where he does go when he has the power to ac­tu­ally do some­thing.”

Al­ter­na­tive uni­verse

There are no ca­reers in cinema quite like that of Mike Leigh. Raised as the son of doc­tor in Sal­ford, he be­came in­ter­ested in drama at Gram­mar School and, much to his sur­prise, even­tu­ally won a schol­ar­ship to Rada. We could imag­ine an al­ter­na­tive uni­verse in which Leigh – fa­mously bearded and hang­dog of face – be­came one of the na­tion’s great char­ac­ter ac­tors. But he ad­mits that he never had the slight­est in­ter­est in act­ing. He went on to Cam­ber­well Art School and the Na­tional Film School.

“I wanted to make things: do plays, make films. Those things are a fan­tasy at the age of 17,” he says.

Like his con­tem­po­raries Ken Loach and Stephen Frears, Leigh got an early start in cinema – Bleak Mo­ments from 1971 – and then moved to­wards the BBC when the Bri­tish film in­dus­try slipped into a decade-long hia­tus. That work is still re­mem­bered fondly. The broad­cast of Abi­gail’s Party, star­ring his then wife Ali­son Stead­man as the host­ess from Hades, gen­er­ated a storm of ap­proval in 1977.

“You had to­tal free­dom. I would go in and say: ‘I can’t tell you what it’s about. There isn’t a script’,” he re­mem­bers. “We wheeled the stage pro­duc­tion of Abi­gail’s Party into the stu­dio mainly be­cause Ali­son Stead­man was preg­nant with my now 40-year-old son Toby Leigh. So we did it on the box. It was very suc­cess­ful be­cause it went out when there was an ITV strike and there was some­thing very high­brow on the other chan­nel. So 16 mil­lion peo­ple watched it. Again, to­tal free­dom to do that.”

Leigh was one of those who helped en­gi­neer a re­nais­sance for Bri­tish cinema in the 1980s. He re­turned to the big screen with High Hopes in 1988. Se­crets & Lies se­cured five Os­car nom­i­na­tions and took the Palme d’Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. He was now an oak of his gen­er­a­tion. I won­der if he has found any time for pro­fes­sional re­grets.

“I don’t know. Not off the top of my head,” he says. “You look at ear­lier work and you think: maybe that was a bit crude. But that’s not what you’re talk­ing about. That’s just craft. I know film-mak­ers who say: ‘I can’t watch that film of mine.’ I don’t think I have that prob­lem. I don’t look at them ev­ery night like Glo­ria Swan­son in

Sun­set Boule­vard. Ha ha! But I can watch them be­cause I like them. Of­ten, with other film-mak­ers who have that prob­lem, it’s be­cause they haven’t made the film they wanted to make.”

He ex­plains that he has man­aged to em­u­late the ap­proach of a nov­el­ist or a painter. Un­like those artists, how­ever, he does have to work with col­lab­o­ra­tors. Dick Pope’s cine­matog­ra­phy on Peter­loo is gor­geous. The act­ing is as ex­cel­lent as ever. It must take a par­tic­u­lar brain to cope with the Mike Leigh tech­nique.

“Yeah, I don’t work with thick ac­tors,” he says. “There are plenty of them out there, but none of them have been in my films. Heh, heh!”

What was that about suf­fer­ing fools? Peter­loo isout­now

PHO­TO­GRAPHs: LAURA PANNACK; AMA­ZON STU­DIOS

Left: Di­rec­tor Mike Leigh. Above: Ali­cia Turner and Max­ine Peake in Leigh’s Peter­loo.

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