Posts Tagged With 'Mike Leigh'

Play Not-Quite-For Today: Series Two

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Play for Today officially ended with The Amazing Miss Stella Estelle. The single play continued to get an airing on BBC1 however, and the winter 1984/5 season took up the same evening slot and could be considered another ‘unofficial’ part of the canon. As it includes some well-remembered plays, we’ve listed it below.

Terra Nova

By Ted Tally/John Bruce
Sparse, unreal dramatisation of Scott’s doomed South Pole expedition, presenting a less than completely heroic portrait of the man (played by Michael N Harbour), and featuring weird interludes in which his rival Amundsen turns up and starts winding him up.

The Long March

By Anne Devlin
After ten years in England, Doreen Hepburn returns to her native Belfast at the height of the Maze prison ‘dirty protests’ to find her local councillor father (James Ellis) being hounded by the locals for not being seen to give the prisoners enough support in their demands for special status. Filming on location in the Falls Road area caused a great deal of tension with residents, especially the staging of a ‘bin banger’ (noisy protest march) outside councillor’s home.

Punters

By Stephen Wakeham
Mick Ward and Tim Davidson are two young men working a seemingly ‘fail safe’ gambling scheme at the races.

Stars of the Roller State Disco

By Michael Hastings
Odd, well-remembered but perhaps not brilliant near-future dystopian satire, positing a grim future where permanently unemployed youths are forcibly inducted into the graffiti-covered titular disco to learn basic skills from endless instructional videos in the increasingly forlorn hope of gaining employment, skating gormlessly round and round in the meantime. Perry Benson plays Carly, a Chippendale-obsessed apprentice carpenter proudly rejecting offers of work he considers beneath him (‘I’m a craftsman!’) to the consternation of girlfriend Cathy Murphy. Shot on good old videotape in three days by Alan Clarke, on a cavernous set part-designed by writer Hastings, the on-the-nose nature of the play’s overarching conceit is offset to an extent by its many quirks, notably the casting of the gawky, speccy Benson as something approaching a romantic hero.

Talk to Me

By William Humble
Depressed young couple Patrick Barlow and Philomena McDonagh find sessions with psychoanalyst Alan Howard to little to improve their relationship.

More Lives Than One

By John Peacock
Michael N Harbour is caught between marriage and his old life with his mates. With music by Tom Robinson.

The Last Evensong

By Trevor Baxter
Taking the series into 1985, Freddie Jones is a stalwart brigadier resisting modernisation at the local church. With Tony Robinson.

Bird Fancier

By Mal Middleton
Semi-comic intrigue amongst pigeon fanciers in Sheffield, as Michael Elphick’s unstoppable winning streak is plotted against by fellow fanciers George Baker and Bryan Pringle.

The Exercise

By Tim Rose Price
A routine escape and evasion exercise in the Welsh hills for four army cadets turns into something more sinister. With Ian Hart and Leslie Schofield.

Four Days in July

By Mike Leigh
Leigh (overseeing mainly improvised acting as ever) turns his attentions to Northern Ireland with a view of the Troubles as seen through the eyes of two young couples (one Protestant, one Catholic) meeting in a maternity ward, both expecting babies in the run-up to the traditionally fraught Battle of the Boyne anniversary on July 12th. A far more warm, human portrayal of people and life than is found in some of Leigh’s previous, more celebrated, work in the Play for Today strand.

Brigadista

By Terence Hodgkinson
Paul Rogers is a successful author plugging his Spanish Civil War memoirs in Glasgow, and bumping into two old comrades from the conflict, James Copeland and Phil McCall, who remember the events he depicts rather differently.

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Who’s Who

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A departure from Mike Leigh, centring on the social mores among a firm of stockbrokers. Obsequious junior partner Alan (Richard Kane) is the main focus – a pathetically insecure creep obsessed with status, both class-based (he idolises the royals) and celebrity (he collects oleaginously solicited signed photographs of everyone from Russell Harty to Petula Clark, Dr Christiaan Barnard to fingerless pianist ‘Rhythmic Roberto’). Two of the posher brokers, slobbish Giles (Adam Norton) and uptight Nigel (Simon ‘Imitation Game’ Chandler), live together in an Odd Couple-esque relationship of mutual dislike.

A dinner party they throw for two girlfriends, loud Samantha (Catherine Hall) and timid Caroline (Felicity ‘Shooting the Chandelier’ Dean) plus another office colleague, predatory Anthony (Graham Seed). The dinner descends into a loud orgy of half-baked chat (‘the punk thing’ is oafishly discussed), clumsy seduction and boozy incoherence. Senior partner Francis (Jeffrey Wickham) discusses the financial woes of Lord and Lady Crouchurst (David ‘Country’ Neville and Richenda ‘Nuts in May’ Carey), who offer up insufferably plumy non-sequitirs and hopelessly complicated organisational news respectively, in a round robin of escalating obtuseness and confusion.

Alan, who crawls to everyone in the office save young, sarcastic Kevin (Phil ‘Quadrophenia’ Davis), annoys his eccentric, cat-loving wife April (Joolia Cappleman), when he co-opts visiting cat photographer Desmond Shakespeare (Sam ‘Grown Ups’ Kelly) into touring his collection of autographs from the great and good and even the rejection slips from the secretaries of the ones that got away – nothing is beneath proud display). He also interrupts her efforts to sell a prized puss to moneyed Miss Hunt (Geraldine James), intruding into the private life and bloodline of this genuine member of the aristocracy in his very home, and furtively looking up her mother’s surname in a handy copy of Debrett’s.

This description seems rather convoluted and directionless even by Leigh’s standards, and to be fair it does have the feel of a loose collection of ideas and scenes more than any of his other entries in the strand (even the bitty Hard Labour). Series producer Margaret Matheson had encouraged him to do something beyond what, after the success of Abigail’s Party, had come to be characterised as his trademark milieu of lower middle class suburbia. Matheson’s initiative to push writers away from their familiar areas, which worked so well in 1978’s ‘Social Issues’ season, was less successful here here.

The nearest thing to a central performance is Alan’s wonderful Rigsbyesque creation, and scenes without him suffer, with the exception of the spiralling Crouchurst interview. Like Abigail’s Party before it, this was a quick commission by series producer Louis Marks, after an ambitious Anglo-Israeli co-production authored by David Mercer fell through. Leigh himself admits that illness and the birth of his first child interrupted the shoot, and an extra few weeks could have helped iron out the rougher element – in particular the dinner party scene, which sails as close as Leigh’s work has come to the alleged vices of improvised caricature and loud, repetitious cliché his harshest critics have levelled at him, but even here there are the pockets of great character work and observation characteristic of even Leigh’s weakest work.

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Abigail’s Party

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Obviously we could have found some better screengrabs than this, but... well, you've seen the bloody thing enough times anyway, haven't you?By Mike Leigh. Along with Scum, one of the few Play for Todays to have made a sizeable impact into popular culture. Alison Steadman gets grotesquely down to Donna Summer before hosting the half-hearted suburban drinks do from hell, revealing the proto-Thatcherite anti-social mores of the newly-minted suburban middle classes in the process. With Tim Stern as Beverley’s anti-social husband Laurence (whose weak heart condition eventually gets the better of him in the final confrontation) and meek Janine Duvitski as Ange (with thick husband Tone in tow). Add nervous teacher Sue – escaping from the titular party her daughter is holding next door – and a pentagon of mutual loathing and incomprehension is drawn among the Dralon.

Something of a cult these days (to put it mildly), rep companies up and down the land recreate it in minute detail – rare is the production, it seems, in which the leading actress will dare to move away from Steadman’s original swooping Essex intonation, or the decor away from the original MFI shelving/Tretchikoff painting/ice-and-slice chic. It’s a bit of an odd state of affairs, all told, that what began as a series of improvisations (the way Leigh always works with his actors) has become set in stone, as it were. This can tend to give the whole thing a seventies-in-aspic air that trivialises it if you’re not careful.

OK, the performances tend to grotesque characterisation, but the central thrust – of the dimmer-yet-forceful lower middle classes steamrollering the more reserved, thoughtful types on their way up, and disintegrating their own lives in the process – is more important than the oft-quoted Roussos specifics. Since these references litter the dialogue, and any major update would doubtless fail to match the wit of the original, this remains a problem for the play when seen today.

There’s also the problem that, in mocking the ignorant snobbery of the social arriviste, it panders to the entrenched snobbery of the inherited middle classes. Or, as Kenneth Williams, something of a snob himself but hailing from a working class background, put it: ‘Hampstead sophisticates knowingly laughing at all the bad taste lines. “Oh, a bottle of Beaujolais! How lovely! I’ll just pop it in the fridge…” And they fell about, loving their superiority.’ Any comedy of manners depends on a sense of superiority for the audience to some extent, but the use of snobbery to make a point about class aspirations puts the whole enterprise on ground as dodgy as poor Laurence’s ticker. To add to the confusion, many modern fans of the play (or those with broadsheet columns, at least) treat it as an illustration of how backward society was in the 197os. Ah, if only Play for Today were still about, we’ve got a great idea for an ensemble social satire. Let’s call it The G2-ers

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Kiss of Death, The

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Wanna see a dead body?Shy and sarcastic teenage Oldham undertaker’s assistant Trevor (David Threlfall) knocks about with drinking pal Ronnie (John Wheatley) and his girlfriend Sandra (Angela ‘Who’s Who’ Curran). The superficial world of pubs and disco nights out contrasts with Trevor’s serious experiences at work under Mr Garside (Clifford ‘Hard LabourKershaw) – a grim business deflected, badly, with off-colour jokes. Sandra’s friend, forthright, gum-chewing, slightly tarty shoe shop assistant Linda (Kay Adshead) takes a shine to Trevor, but his defensive reticence (and, worse, his abject refusal to dance) makes the courtship an excruciating ballet of non-sequitirs and dropped glances, especially in a five minute seduction scene in which, after much procrastination, Trevor clumsily grapples Linda into a clinch, then falls into a giggling fit after she suggests he accompany her upstairs.

In a final, downbeat scene, Trevor drives a bride to a church in the undertaker’s saloon (serving a creepy double purpose), and he and Ronnie take off in it, driving out of Oldham, into the Pennines and away from the small town claustrophobia. The moribund atmosphere of the place is of course echoed in the constant brushes with the dead and dying. Linda’s elderly neighbour collapses in their presence, and Trevor skilfully handles the situation to avoid a tragedy, though still can’t resist the occasional weak gag along the way. All face-saving jokery falls by the wayside, however, when he comes face to face with a cot death victim in the mortuary. This moment of unstinting cold reality (the camera does not shy away from showing the body) affects Trevor, but – this being a Mike Leigh film – it doesn’t magically change his character (‘for the better’, as it would in so many other pat dramas), merely reinforce his defensive barricades against a world that increasingly scares and excludes him. What’s essentially a character sketch of Trevor is given ‘life’ by the meticulous performances of Threlfall and Adshead and, in a first for Leigh, the film is effectively scored by Carl Davis.

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Hard Labour

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After the no-budget success of his cinematic debut Bleak Moments, Mike Leigh made an incursion onto television under the wing of series producer Tony Garnett. Shot on location in the Higher Broughton borough of Salford, a working class district that was home to Leigh in his formative years, the story centres on the lot of stoical middle-aged Catholic house-cleaner Mrs Thornley (Liz Smith), who leads a life bereft of cheer. Her day fluctuates between resignedly cleaning the windows and polishing the silverware of the upwardly mobile households in the district, notably the supercilious Stones (Vanessa Harris and Cyril ‘Sling Your Hook’ Varley), and dreading the arrival home of husband Jim (market trader and amateur actor Clifford ‘Kiss of Death‘ Kershaw), who works as a night watchman in a warehouse full of rubber ducks and similar ephemera, constantly upbraided and put down by his (far younger) superior colleague, and subsequently takes his frustrations out on his wife, with violent demands of dinner and drunken, brutal Saturday night sexual lunges.

On the new nearby council estate, Mrs Thornley’s son Edward (Bernard Hill) and his prissy, nagging wife Veronica (Alison Steadman making her TV debut) mark time in the ‘new’ Broughton, a world of near-identical municipal housing (‘Every house is just that little bit different’, avers Veronica) and empty suburban routine. As with much of Leigh’s work, a synopsis of the plot makes the play seem rather aimless and uninspiring – save for two major events. Mrs Thornley’s daughter Ann is, after much soul-searching on both her and her mother’s part, persuaded to undergo an abortion with the help of charming local cabbie-cum-grocer Naseem (Ben Kingsley), and a subsequent, guilt-ridden trip to the confessional box brings from Mrs T the admission she doesn’t love people enough, followed by the cathartic confession that she no longer loves her husband at all – upon hearing which, the attending priest blithely gives her five Hail Marys, an Our Father and a Glory Be before returning to his newspaper.

The lack of conventional plot, while arguably contributing to the shapeless, ‘vignette montage’ feel of the film, is entirely appropriate – neither circumstances nor personalities of the characters depicted here are going anywhere. The cast of characters is the chief pleasure here – Ben Kingsley’s terrific turn, Louis ‘Comedians’ Raynes’ larger than life rag and bone man, Steadman’s embryonic suburban harpy, and most of all Liz Smith’s amazing central performance, which does the most to hold the film together. Subsequent entries by Leigh would prove more popular, and more successfully integrate his actor-centric writing-rehearsal methods with a satisfactory story structure, but already in this early outing a unique voice is making itself heard.

Screen-grabbery:
Liz makes up Quiet tonight... Sauce bottle on table, fag on the go - that's it!
New from Waddingtons! Very Dickensian Down the high street
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