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.