Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh OBE (born 20 February 1943) is an English writer and director of film and theatre. He studied theatre at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and further at the Camberwell School of Art and the Central School of Art and Design. He began as a theatre director and playwright in the mid-1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s his career moved between theatre work and making films for BBC Television, many of which were characterised by a gritty "kitchen sink realism" style. His well-known films include the comedy-dramas Life is Sweet (1990) and Career Girls (1997), the Gilbert and Sullivan biographical film Topsy-Turvy (1999), and the bleak working-class drama All or Nothing (2002). His most notable works are the black comedy-drama Naked (1993), for which he won the Best Director Award at Cannes, the Oscar-nominated, BAFTA and Palme d'Or-winning drama Secrets & Lies (1996) and the Golden Lion winning working-class drama Vera Drake (2004). Some of his notable stage plays include Smelling A Rat, It's A Great Big Shame, Greek Tragedy, Goose-Pimples, Ecstasy, and Abigail's Party.

Leigh is known for his lengthy rehearsal and improvisation techniques with actors to build characters and narrative for his films. His purpose is to capture reality and present "emotional, subjective, intuitive, instinctive, vulnerable films." His aesthetic has been compared to the sensibility of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. His films and stage plays, according to critic Michael Coveney, "comprise a distinctive, homogenous body of work which stands comparison with anyone's in the British theatre and cinema over the same period." Coveney further noted Leigh's role in helping to create stars – Liz Smith in Hard Labour, Alison Steadman in Abigail's Party, Brenda Blethyn in Grown-Ups, Antony Sher in Goose-Pimples, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in Meantime, Jane Horrocks in Life is Sweet, David Thewlis in Naked – and remarked that the list of actors who have worked with him over the years – including Paul Jesson, Phil Daniels, Lindsay Duncan, Lesley Sharp, Kathy Burke, Stephen Rea, Julie Walters – "comprises an impressive, almost representative, nucleus of outstanding British acting talent."Ian Buruma, writing in the New York Review of Books in January 1994, noted: "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."

    Early life

    Leigh was born in Welwyn, the son of Phyllis Pauline (née Cousin) and Alfred Abraham Leigh, a doctor. His mother, in her confinement, went to stay with her parents in Hertfordshire for comfort and support while her husband was serving as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Leigh was brought up in Broughton, Salford. He is from a Jewish immigrant family whose surname, originally Lieberman, had been anglicised in 1939 "for obvious reasons". When the war ended Leigh's father began his career as a general practitioner in Higher Broughton, "the epicentre of Leigh's youngest years and the area memorialised in Hard Labour." Leigh went to Salford Grammar School, as did the director Les Blair, his friend, who produced Leigh's first feature film Bleak Moments in 1971. There was a strong tradition of drama in the all-boys school, and an English master, called Mr Nutter, supplied the library with newly published plays. Outside of school, Leigh thrived in the Manchester branch of Habonim. He attended summer camps and winter activities over the Christmas break all round the country in the late 1950s. Throughout this time, (and though supplemented by his discovery of Picasso, Surrealism, The Goon Show, and even family visits to the Hallé Orchestra and the D'Oyly Carte), the most important part of his artistic consumption was the cinema. In 1960, 'to his utter astonishment', he won a scholarship to RADA. Initially trained as an actor at RADA, Leigh went on to start honing his directing skills at East 15 Acting School where he met the actress Alison Steadman.

    Leigh responded negatively to RADA's agenda, found himself being taught how to 'laugh, cry and snog' for weekly rep purposes and so became a sullen student. He later attended Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (in 1963), the Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design, and the London School of Film Technique in Charlotte Street. When he had arrived in London, one of the first films he had seen was Shadows, an 'improvised' film by John Cassavetes, in which a cast of unknowns was observed 'living, loving and bickering' on the streets of New York, and Leigh had "felt it might be possible to create complete plays from scratch with a group of actors." Other influences from this time included Harold Pinter's The Caretaker—"Leigh was mesmerised by the play and the (Arts Theatre) production"— Samuel Beckett, whose novels he read avidly, and the surreal writing of Flann O'Brien, whose 'tragi-comedy' Leigh found particularly appealing. Influential and important productions he saw in this period included Beckett's Endgame, Peter Brook's King Lear and in 1965 Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, a production developed through improvisations, the actors having based their characterisations on people they had visited in a mental hospital. The visual worlds of Ronald Searle,George Grosz, Picasso, and William Hogarth exerted another kind of influence. He played small roles in several British films in the early 1960s, (West 11,Two Left Feet), and played a young deaf-mute, interrogated by Rupert Davies, in the BBC TV series Maigret. In 1964–65 he teamed up with David Halliwell, and designed and directed the first production of Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs at the Unity Theatre.

    Leigh has been described as "a gifted cartoonist ... a northerner who came south, slightly chippy, fiercely proud (and critical) of his roots and Jewish background; and he is a child of the 1960s, and of the explosion of interest in the European cinema and the possibilities of television."


    Between 1965 and 1970 Leigh's activity was varied. In 1965 he went to work at the Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham as a resident assistant director and had the opportunity to start experimenting with the idea that writing and rehearsing could potentially be part of the same process. The Box Play, a family scenario staged in a cage-like box, "absorbed all sorts of contemporary ideas in art such as the space frames of Roland Pichet..it was visually very exciting,", and two more 'improvised' pieces followed. After the Birmingham interlude he found a flat in Euston, where he lived for the next ten years. In 1966/67 he worked as an assistant director with the Royal Shakespeare Company, assisting Peter Hall on (a disastrous) Macbeth, and on Coriolanus, and Trevor Nunn on a knockabout The Taming of the Shrew. He also worked on an improvised play with some professional actors on a play of his own called NENAA, (an acronym for the North East New Arts Assiociation), which explored the fantasies of a Tynesider working in a café, with ideas of founding an arts association in the northeast.

    Leigh wrote, in 1970, "I saw that we must start off with a collection of totally unrelated characters (each one the specific creation of its actor) and then go through a process in which I must cause them to meet each other, and build a network of real relationships; the play would be drawn from the results." After Stratford-upon-Avon Leigh directed a couple of London drama school productions that included Thomas Dekker's The Honest Whore at E15 Acting School in Loughton – where he met Alison Steadman for the first time. In 1968, wanting to return to Manchester, he sub-let his London flat and moved to Levenshulme. Taking up a part-time lectureship in a Catholic women teachers training college, Sedgley Park, he ran a drama course and devised and directed Epilogue, focusing on a priest with doubts, and for the Manchester Youth Theatre he devised and directed two big-cast projects, Big Basil and Glum Victoria and the Lad with Specs.

    As the decade came to a close Leigh knew he wanted to make films, and that "The manner of working was at last fixed. There would be discussions and rehearsals. Plays or films would develop organically with actors fully liberated into the creative process. After an exploratory improvisation period, Leigh would write a structure, indicating the order in which scenes happened, usually with a single bare sentence: Johnny and Sophie meet; Betty does Joy's hair; [etc.]. And it was rehearsed and rehearsed until it achieved the required quality of 'finish'."

    In the 1970s, Leigh made nine television plays. Earlier plays such as Nuts in May and Abigail's Party tended more towards bleakly yet humorously satirising middle-class manners and attitudes. His plays are generally more caustic, stridently trying to show the banality of society.[]Goose-Pimples and Abigail's Party both focus on the vulgar middle class in a convivial party setting that spirals out of control. The television version of Abigail's Party was made at some speed, Steadman was pregnant at the time, and Leigh's objections to flaws in the production, particularly the lighting, led to his preference for theatrical films.

    There was something of a hiatus in Leigh's career following the death of his father at the end of February 1985. Leigh was in Australia at the time – having agreed to attend a screenwriters conference in Melbourne at the start of 1985, he had then accepted an invitation to teach at the Australian Film School in Sydney – and he then 'buried his solitude and sense of loss in a busy round of people, publicity and talks.' He gradually extended 'the long journey home' and went on to visit Bali, Singapore, Hong Kong, China. He said later, " The whole thing was an amazing, unforgettable period in my life. But it was all to do with personal feelings, my father, where to go next, and my desire to make a feature film. I felt I was at the end of one stage of my career and at the start of another." His 1986 project codenamed 'Rhubarb', for which he had gathered actors in Blackburn, including Jane Horrocks, Julie Walters and David Thewlis, was cancelled after seven weeks rehearsals and Leigh returned home. "The nature of what I do is totally creative, and you have to get in there and stick with it. The tension between the bourgeois suburban and the anarchist bohemian that is in my work is obviously in my life, too...I started to pull myself together. I didn't work, I simply stayed at home and looked after the boys." In 1987 Channel 4 put up some money for a short film and, with Portman Productions, agreed to co-produce Leigh's first feature film since Bleak Moments.

    In 1988 Mike Leigh and producer Simon Channing Williams founded Thin Man Films, a film production company based in London, to produce Mike Leigh's films. They chose the company name because both founders were the opposite of it.

    Later In 1988, he made High Hopes, about a disjointed working-class family whose members live in a run-down flat and a council house. Leigh's subsequent films such as Naked and Vera Drake are somewhat starker, more brutal, and concentrate more on the working-class; another of his recent films, however, is a modern-day comedy, Happy-Go-Lucky. A commitment to social realism and humanism is evident throughout. More specifically, several of his films and television plays examine the domestic relationships of ordinary people, which are brought to a head or transformed by some crisis towards the end of the film.

    His stage plays include Smelling A Rat, It's A Great Big Shame, Greek Tragedy, Goose-Pimples, Ecstasy, and Abigail's Party.

    The anger inherent in Leigh's material, in some ways typical of the Thatcher years, softened after her departure from the political scene. In 2005, Leigh returned to directing for the stage after many years absence with his new play, Two Thousand Years at the Royal National Theatre in London. The play deals with the divisions within a left-wing secular Jewish family when one of the younger members finds religion. It is the first time Leigh has drawn on his Jewish background for inspiration.

    Leigh has won several prizes at major European film festivals. Most notably he won the Best Director award at Cannes for Naked in 1993 and the Palme d'Or in 1996 for Secrets & Lies. He won the Leone d'Oro for the best film at the International Venice Film Festival in 2004 with Vera Drake. He has been nominated for the Academy Award seven times, twice each for Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake (Best Original Screenplay and Best Directing) and once for Topsy-Turvy, Happy-Go-Lucky, and Another Year (Best Original Screenplay only). He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2008.

    Leigh has used a pool of actors regularly over the years, including Alison Steadman, Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey, Phil Davis, Jim Broadbent, David Thewlis, Sam Kelly Peter Wight, Imelda Staunton, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Claire Skinner, James Corden, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Brenda Blethyn and the late Katrin Cartlidge.

    Leigh was selected to be jury president of the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival.


    Leigh uses lengthy improvisations developed over a period of weeks to build characters and storylines for his films. He starts with some sketch ideas of how he thinks things might develop, but does not reveal all his intentions with the cast who discover their fate and act out their responses as their destinies are gradually revealed. Initial preparation is in private with the director and then the actors are introduced to each other in the order that their characters would have met in their lives. Intimate moments are explored that will not even be referred to in the final film to build insight and understanding of history, character and personal motivation. When an improvisation needs to be stopped, he says to the actors: 'Come out of character,' before they discuss what's happened or what might have happened in a situation.

    Leigh begins his projects without a script, but starts from a basic premise that is developed through improvisation by the actors. Leigh initially works one-to-one with each actor, developing a character who is based, in the first place, on someone he or she knows. The critical scenes in the eventual story are performed and recorded in full-costumed, real-time improvisations where the actors encounter for the first time new characters, events or information which may dramatically affect their characters' lives. Final filming is more traditional as definite sense of story, action and dialogue is then in place. The director reminds the cast of material from the improvisations that he hopes to capture on film. "The world of the characters and their relationships is brought into existence by discussion and a great amount of improvisation ... And research into anything and everything that will fill out the authenticity of the character." It is after months of rehearsal, or 'preparing for going out on location to make up a film', that Leigh writes a shooting script, a bare scenario. Then, on location, after further 'real rehearsing', the script is finalized; "I'll set up an improvisation, ... I'll analyse and discuss it, ... we'll do another, and I'll ... refine and refine... until the actions and dialogue are totally integrated. Then we shoot it."

    In an interview with Laura Miller, "Listening to the World: An Interview With Mike Leigh", published on salon.com, Leigh states, "I make very stylistic films indeed, but style doesn't become a substitute for truth and reality. It's an integral, organic part of the whole thing."[] Leigh's vision is to depict ordinary life, "real life", unfolding under extenuating circumstances. [clarification needed] Speaking of his films, he says, "No, I'm not an intellectual filmmaker. These are emotional, subjective, intuitive, instinctive, vulnerable films. And there's a feeling of despair...I think there's a feeling of chaos and disorder." He makes courageous decisions to document reality. He speaks about the criticism Naked received: "The criticism comes from the kind of quarters where "political correctness" in its worst manifestation is rife. It's this kind of naive notion of how we should be in an unrealistic and altogether unhealthily over-wholesome way."

    Leigh's characters often struggle, "to express inexpressible feelings. Words are important, but rarely enough. The art of evasion and failure in communication certainly comes from Pinter, whom Leigh acknowledges as an important influence. He especially admires Pinter's earliest work, and directed The Caretaker while still at RADA."

    Leigh has cited Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray among his favourite film makers. The critic David Thomson has written that, with the camera work in his films characterised by 'a detached, medical watchfulness', Leigh's aesthetic may justly be compared to the sensibility of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Michael Coveney: " The cramped domestic interiors of Ozu find many echoes in Leigh's scenes on stairways and in corridors, and on landings, especially in Grown-Ups, Meantime, and Naked. And two wonderful little episodes in Ozu's Tokyo Story, in a hairdressing salon and a bar, must have been in Leigh's subconscious memory when he made The Short and Curlies (1987), one of his most devastatingly funny pieces of work, and the pub scene in Life is Sweet..."

    Leigh's style has been influential over a number of film companies. The youth film company ACT 2 CAM uses his improvisation techniques to build characters and context for films with young people in the UK. His character work, improvisations and unplanned scenes are a technique followed by East 15 School of Acting, where these methods continue to be taught and used at the forefront of the acting and directing training industry.

    Personal life

    In September 1973, he married actress Alison Steadman; they have two sons: Toby (born February 1978) and Leo (born August 1981). Steadman appeared in seven of his films and several of his plays, including Wholesome Glory and Abigail's Party. They divorced in 2001. He now lives in Camden.[]Marion Bailey is his partner.

    He is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association. In 2014, Leigh publicly backed "Hacked Off" and its campaign towards UK press self-regulation by "safeguarding the press from political interference while also giving vital protection to the vulnerable."


    Feature films

    • Bleak Moments (1971)
    • High Hopes (1988)
    • Life Is Sweet (1990)
    • Naked (1993)
    • Secrets & Lies (1996)
    • Career Girls (1997)
    • Topsy-Turvy (1999)
    • All or Nothing (2002)
    • Vera Drake (2004)
    • Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
    • Another Year (2010)
    • Mr. Turner (2014)

    Short films

    • The Short and Curlies (1987)
    • A Sense of History (1992)
    • A Running Jump (2012)

    Television films

    List of plays

    • The Box Play (1965)
    • My Parents Have Gone to Carlisle (1966)
    • The Last Crusade of Five Little Nuns (1966)
    • Individual Fruit Pies (1968)
    • Glum Victoria and the Lad with Specs (1969)
    • Bleak Moments (1970)
    • A Rancid Pong (1971)
    • Wholesome Glory (1973)
    • The Jaws of Death (1973)
    • Dick Whittington and His Cat (1973)
    • Babies Grow Old (1974)
    • The Silent Majority (1974)
    • Abigail's Party (1977)
    • Too Much of a Good Thing 1979; BBC radio
    • Ecstasy (1979)
    • Goose-Pimples (1981)
    • Smelling a Rat (1988)
    • Greek Tragedy (1989)
    • It's a Great Big Shame! (1993)
    • Two Thousand Years (2005)
    • Grief (2011)

    Recurring collaborators

    Actor Bleak Moments
    Hard Labour
    Knock for Knock
    Nuts in May
    Abigail's Party
    Kiss of Death
    Who's Who
    Too Much of a Good Thing
    Home Sweet Home
    Four Days in July
    The Short and Curlies
    High Hopes
    Life is Sweet
    Secrets & Lies
    Career Girls
    All or Nothing
    Vera Drake
    Another Year
    Mr. Turner
    Eric Allan N N N
    Dorothy Atkinson N N N
    Michele Austin N N N
    Marion Bailey N N N N
    Linda Beckett N N N N
    Elizabeth Berrington N N N N
    Brenda Blethyn N N
    Jim Broadbent N N N N
    Lorraine Brunning N N
    Katrin Cartlidge N N N
    Simon Chandler N N
    Ron Cook N N
    Allan Corduner N N
    Heather Craney N N N
    Eileen Davies N N N N
    Phil Davis N N N N N N N
    Edna Doré N N N
    Janine Duvitski N N
    Karina Fernandez N N N
    Sally Hawkins N N N
    Marianne Jean-Baptiste N N(composer)
    Sam Kelly N N N N N N
    Clifford Kershaw N N
    Lesley Manville N N N N N N N N N
    Oliver Maltman N N N
    Eddie Marsan N N
    Sinead Matthews N N N
    Daniel Mays N N
    Gary McDonald N N
    Wendy Nottingham N N N N
    Stephen Rea N N
    Martin Savage N N N N N
    Andy Serkis N N
    Lesley Sharp N N
    Ruth Sheen N N N N N N
    Claire Skinner N N
    Liz Smith N N N
    Timothy Spall N N N N N N
    Imelda Staunton N N
    Alison Steadman N N N N N N N
    David Thewlis N N N
    Sylvestra Le Touzel N N N
    Joe Tucker N N N
    Peter Wight N N N N N N


    Further reading

    • Carney, Ray & Quart, Leonard, The Films of Mike Leigh – Embracing the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
    • Clements, Paul, The Improvised Play (London: Methuen, 1983) ISBN 0-413-50440-9 (pbk.)
    • Coveney, Michael, The World According to Mike Leigh (London: HarperCollins, 1996)
    • Movshovitz, Howie (ed.) Mike Leigh Interviews (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2000)
    • Whitehead, Tony, Mike Leigh (British Film Makers) (Manchester University Press, 2007)

    External links

    • Mike Leigh at the Internet Movie Database
    • Mike Leigh at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
    • Mike Leigh at the Internet Off-Broadway Database
    • Mike Leigh at British Council: Literature
    • Mike Leigh on Happy-Go-Lucky and on childhood visits at grandparents in Hitchin, ITV Local Anglia interview 2008
    • Mike Leigh live on Film UnlimitedThe Guardian, 17 March 2000.
    • Extensive Mike Leigh Biography and Filmography
    • A Conversation with Mike Leigh – an in-depth interview with the director
    • Mike Leigh: A Life in Pictures, BAFTA webcast from the Brighton Festival, May 2008
    • An interview with British filmmaker Mike Leigh with David Walsh on the World Socialist Web Site – 5 December 2008
    • Mike Leigh interview in June 2008
    • Interview with Barbara Ellen in New Statesman Magazine – 21 October 2010

    Awards and achievements
    Cannes Film Festival
    Preceded by
    Robert Altman
    for The Player
    Best Director
    Mike Leigh

    for Naked
    Succeeded by
    Nanni Moretti
    for Caro diario
    Cannes Film Festival
    Preceded by
    Emir Kusturica
    for Underground
    Palme d'Or
    Mike Leigh

    for Secrets & Lies
    Succeeded by
    Abbas Kiarostami
    for Taste of Cherry and Shohei Imamura for The Eel
    Venice International Film Festival
    Preceded by
    Andrey Zvyagintsev
    for The Return
    Golden Lion
    Mike Leigh

    for Vera Drake
    Succeeded by
    Ang Lee
    for Brokeback Mountain