Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh (born 1943) is a British writer and director whose works have appeared on film, television, and the stage. Leigh's unusual methodology for writing his works—working in collaboration with the actors who will would portray his characters—has resulted in such critically acclaimed films as Naked and Secrets and Lies.

Mike Leigh was born February 20, 1943, in Salford, Lancashire, England, the son of Dr. Alfred Abraham and Phyllison Pauline (Cousin) Leigh. His physician father was of Jewish descent, and the family name had been changed from Lieberman to Leigh by the time Leigh was born. Dr. Leigh's practice was in a working-class neighborhood, and Leigh attended local schools like Salford Grammar School.

A fan of films from an early age, Leigh earned a scholarship to college but chose to study acting instead and in 1960 entered London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Leigh quit two years later because of the school's stifling atmosphere, although he did direct a student production of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker before he left.

After leaving the Royal Academy, Leigh continued his education in a number of creative arenas. From 1963 to 1964 he attended the Camberwell School of Art and the London International School of Film Technique. The following year he was a student at the Central School of Art and Design.


Began Career at Theater

From 1965 to 1966 Leigh was the associate director of the Midlands Art Centre for Young People, located in the industrial city of Birmingham. There he created three plays designed to be performed improv by Birmingham's innercity youth. Leigh's first play The Box Play was produced in 1965, and he also directed the production. In 1966 he formed the short-lived Dramagraph production company. Before the company went bankrupt he was able to direct a production of Little Malcolm and His Struggle against the Eunuchs, written by David Halliwell. Leigh did not confine himself to directing and writing for the stage; he fulfilled his acting ambitions by appearing with the Victoria Theatre at Stroke-on-Kent, Staffordshire in 1966. Leigh has continued to appeared in occasional films throughout his career.

In 1967-68 Leigh worked as an assistant director of the famous Royal Shakespeare Company. While there, he directed the troupe in production of Nenaa. He also worked in theater-related areas, lecturing in drama at Sedgley Park and de la Salle colleges in Manchester from 1968 to 1969 and the London Film School from 1970 to 1973.

It was while working in the theater in the 1960s that Leigh devised his uncommon scriptwriting method. After he had sufficient funding for a project, he asked his actors to create characters they wished to play, then worked with each actor individually on developing that character's entire life history. While Leigh had an idea of where he wanted the story to go, it was during rehearsals and improv that the whole script came together. Leigh refined this method while working in television and film later in his career. Though it sometimes was difficult to acquire funding without a finished script, Leigh eventually transcended this difficulty as producers realized that his works often gained an unusual polish and depth because of his writing method.


Made First Film

In 1972 Leigh wrote and directed his first feature-length film, Bleak Moments, after obtaining funding from Memorial Enterprises, a company run by actor Albert Finney, during a low point in the British film industry. Bleak Moments focuses on an unmarried woman, an accountant's clerk, who lives with her 29-year-old, mentally challenged sister. Although unplanned, Leigh subsequently took a break from film for 17 years, taking instead to the stage and to television, until funding once again became available for the kind of cinema projects he wished to do.

Much of Leigh's work for stage and television in the 1970s and early to mid-1980s featured themes and character types he would go on to explore in his later films. Many of his works of this period focus on the working and lower middle classes and concern unemployment and family life. Leigh did his first television drama in 1973, Hard Labour, a dark look at a working-class family. In 1977 he wrote and directed both a stage and television-movie version of Abigail's Party, about a party hostess forced to deal with a guest inconciderate enough to have a heart attack while attending Abigail's social gathering.

Other notable television movies by Leigh include Home Sweet Home (1982), about three postmen and their respective families, and Nuts in May, about a class conflict that occurs when middle-and working-class couples converge at a campsite. In 1977's The Kiss of Death an under-taker's apprentice discovers the fairer sex, while Grown Ups (1980) explores the problems in a working-class marriage which is threatened when the husband leaves his wife.

While Leigh's theater credits are not lengthy, several of his plays, such as Babies Grow Old (1974), The Silent Majority (1974), and Smelling a Rat (1988), explore similar themes. Produced in 1979, Leigh's Ecstasy is representative, focusing as it does on the way London's working-class women are abused and exploited. A number of Leigh's plays were produced in the United States after their author made a name for himself as a filmmaker.

Perhaps ironically, while Leigh often focused on left-leaning issues in his television movies and stage productions, he was not popular with British socialists and others of the political left because of his negative depiction of working-class people and their issues. Chris Savage King, in New Statesman & Society, praised Leigh's television work, however, writing that during the late 1970s and into the 1980s many dramatic films produced for British television subjected viewers to a lecture "on some aspect of social malaise or … [presented] an uncritical tour around upper-middle-class afflictions. Mike Leigh plays were special, because they were recognizable. The dramas were too close to home to be seen at any airy distance. And the characters were too insistently and pitilessly themselves to fall into a category of the oppressed."


Returned to Cinema

In 1988 Leigh received funding for his second feature film, High Hopes. This quiet comedy is set in London and takes place during the regime of conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The movie focuses on a free-spirited couple, Cyril and Shirley, who are working-class optimists by choice but with secret hopes and ambitions. The pair are forced to deal with Cyril's family: his rich sister and her husband and his problematic mother and her yuppie neighbors. While realistic, the play's naturalism is heightened for comic effect.

High Hopes received much critical praise and helped to introduce Leigh to movie audiences in the United States. Critic Jay Carr praised the film in the Boston Globe writing that "Leigh is an angry, humane battler trying to keep working-class hopes and ideals alive in what he sees as an increasingly selfish and soul-crushing Thatcherian England."

Films have remained Leigh's primary focus throughout much of his career since High Hopes, although he continued to venture into television and theater on occasion. In 1990, for example, he wrote the play Greek Tragedy (an Australian Comedy) on commission from Sydney's Belvoir Street Theatre to commemorate Australia's bicentenary. The play focuses on Greek immigrants to Australia while drawing on the history of Greek tragedies. Though Leigh's work was criticized by some in Australia, he learned much about the two cultures in the process.

In 1991 Leigh had a small hit on his hands after writing and directing the working-class family comedy Life Is Sweet. The story focuses on parents Wendy and Andy and their dreams. Andy, a chef, tries to start his own business selling food from a van while Wendy helps a family friend start a restaurant that soon fails. Their daughters have difficulties as well. Nicola, although intelligent, is a college dropout with an eating disorder while Natalie works as a plumber's assistant and hones her sarcastic wit on her family. Life Is Sweet chronicles the minutia of its characters' lives and, while there are depressing elements, Leigh shows optimism by the end.

Life Is Sweet was generally well received by critics. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, "Leigh's films appear to be shapeless, devoid of poetry. They are unforgiving in their portrayal of squalor. They shuffle along on tired feet, seemingly as aimless and inarticulate as their characters. Yet at some point in each of his films there comes a transforming moment when the unbearable and the hopeless fuse together to create an explosion of recognition, sometimes of high, incredible hilarity."


Challenged Viewers with Naked

Leigh's next film, much darker and more bitter than Life Is Sweet, was 1993's Naked. Winning Leigh the Cannes Film Festival's award for best director, Naked shows its writer's conscious move away from domestic concerns. Naked primarily focuses on one character, Johnny (played by actor David Thewlis), who rants and raves his theories as he travels the streets of his working-class London neighborhood. Arriving in London with neither money nor a place to stay, Johnny ends up sleeping at his ex-girlfriend's apartment. A dynamic character, Johnny is violent and intelligent, both a victim and a victimizer.

While Naked was praised by critics as thought provoking, it was better received in the United States than in Great Britain. As Canby wrote in the New York Times, " Naked is as corrosive and sometimes as funny as anything Mr. Leigh has done to date. It's loaded with wild flights of absurd rhetoric and encounters with characters so eccentric they seem to have come directly from life. Nobody would dare imagine them."


Secrets and Lies Garnered Broad Appeal

While Naked attracted a larger audience for Leigh than had his earlier works, his next movie seemed almost main-stream. Secrets and Lies covers the domestic front; its story focuses on a black ophthalmologist named Hortense, who finds and meets her birth mother, a white, middle-aged, working-class woman named Cynthia. Cynthia hides the revelation from her family at first, but as her brother, his wife, and one of Cynthia's daughters find out the truth, the film focuses on how it changed their lives. Secrets and Lies appealed to a broader audience than any other film by Leigh, earning him Academy Award nominations for best direction and best screenplay.

Leigh's next two films forged a new path for the director. His 1997 film Career Girls focuses on two female friends from college who meet later in their lives. The movie looks at the women's pasts and their present state, presenting a portrait that is emotionally bleak. Perhaps because of its dark nature, Career Girls was not as well received as Leigh's other works.

Leigh did something very different with 1999's Topsy-Turvy, and was much more successful. Focusing on the collaboration between 19th-century composer W. S. Gilbert and librettist Arthur Sullivan, who collaborated on such popular light operas as The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, Leigh's period drama begins in 1884 as the pair attempt to stage the newly completed Mikado. Topsy-Turvy, while very much a backstage story, nonetheless shows how Gilbert and Sullivan related to each other, as well as how their productions were staged. This film was generally well received by critics and audiences alike.

In 2002 Leigh returned to familiar territory with All or Nothing, which focuses on the intersecting lives of three dysfunctional working-class London families living in public housing. The couple at the center, Phil and Penny, have marital problems, and Phil cannot make enough as a cab driver to support his family. Their children are equally unhappy, but for differing reasons. Phil and Penny's neighbors include Maureen, whose teenage daughter is pregnant, and Carol, who is an alcoholic. All or Nothing, which takes place in one weekend, incorporated themes of despair and redemption, and of the need by humans to be loved.

Although films such as Secrets and Lies and Topsy-Turvy have made Leigh a household name in England and established a strong following in the United States, other of his films have been viewed as subversive. With each new film, each new approach, he runs the same risk of negative critical reaction, even in his native country. However, Leigh's motivation has not been fitting in with the movie mainstream. As he told Desson How of the Washington Post, "My ongoing preoccupation is with families, relationships, parents, children, sex, work, surviving, being born and dying. I'm totally intuitive, emotional, subjective, empirical, instinctive. I'm not an intellectual filmmaker. Primarily my films are a response to the way people are, the way things are as I experience them. In a way, they are acts of taking the temperature."


Pendergast, Tom, and Sara Pendergast, editors, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, St. James Press, 2000.


American Theatre, May-June, 1995.

Associated Press, October 30, 1991.

Boston Globe, March 31, 1989; January 21, 2000.

Calgary Herald, February 18, 2000.

Christian Science Monitor, September 7, 1993.

Cineaste, Fall 1996; Winter 2002.

Financial Times (London, England), October 12, 2002.

Independent (London, England), August 8, 1990; March 17, 1991; May 18, 2002; October 12, 2002.

New Statesman & Society, April 23, 1993.

New Times Los Angeles, January 13, 2000.

New York Times, September 24, 1988; February 19, 1989; April 10, 1992; December 16, 1993; September 22, 1996; November 14, 1999; October 20, 2002.

Time, September 30, 1996.

Time Out, September 25, 2002.

Washington Post, December 27, 1991; January 30, 1994.