The Uniqueness of Ordinary Lives: Mike Leigh's BBC Films

By Quart, Leonard | Film Criticism, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Uniqueness of Ordinary Lives: Mike Leigh's BBC Films


Quart, Leonard, Film Criticism


Before Mike Leigh directed films for widespread release and critical recognition like Naked and Secrets and Lies, he spent years directing striking, low budget films for the BBC. The subtlety and uniqueness of these films have never been given their due. Since the television films were small in scale and most often dealt with daily domestic life and relationships, they have rarely been treated to the same critical consideration as the films distributed in movie theaters.

In fact, the category television film is problematic, since much of Britain's film output is either made directly for television or subsidized by Channel Four and the BBC. As a result, some of Britain's best directors, Stephen Frears, Ken Loach, Peter Greenaway, Alan Clarke, and Richard Eyre among them, have made a significant portion of their films for television. Their works, often confusingly categorized as drama on film, were starkly different from the formulaic American made-for-television films. The British films were often personal works dealing with national themes, like Clarke's biting Made in Britain (1983), which centers around an intelligent, volcanic, racist skinhead (Tim Roth) in Thatcher's Britain, who is inexorably trapped by his own rage and nihilism. Almost none of these films adhered to the conventions of the American disease or social problem of the week genre or that other staple--tabloid re-creations of true Stories of child abuse, wife battering, and murder. Not that British television doesn't have its soporific sitcoms and Australian soaps, and carry a wide variety of American dross, but it remains a medium where a unique, original writer like Dennis Potter was given enough television time and freedom to produce a multi-layered, self-refexive, formally and intellectually complex work like The Singing Detective.

Leigh never saw his television films, except for their budget constraints, as any less singular and inspired than theatrical features like High Hopes. (1988). Though he is aware that budgetary pressures set limits on what can be done:

   The truth is that ... there are problems with BBC films. They're all shot
   on 16mm and they're shot very quickly. The cameramen are very good, but the
   crews are often out shooting documentaries. You can't devote the time to
   the films and have the same photographic standards that you get with
   feature films (Ellickson & Porton, 15).

None of those limitations prevented Leigh from making striking television films like Grown-Ups (1980), the first film made for television accepted by the London Film Festival, and Home Sweet Home (1982). Both center around working class characters and their daily activities--work, alienated or abrasive conversations between husbands and wives, visits from other people, and meals. Ordinary lives are given dimension and complexity because Leigh has a gift for using the close-up, speech patterns, and silence of his characters to go beyond the surface behavior and capture their essence. He has always asked his actors to get to their characters' inner core--giving his ordinary characters a richly detailed individuality (an entire backstory or past and psychological depth) that mainstream films usually fail to project.

Leigh sets Grown-Ups on a quiet street in Canterbury, while Home Sweet Home is set in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. In neither film does the external world or location play a role. As in almost all of Leigh's films the action centers on character and behavior, and the interaction between character and setting is rarely significant. In Grown-Ups Leigh confines the film's action almost entirely to two neighboring houses, one a shoddily-built council house, the other a more substantial, semi-detached, comfortable, private one. A badly educated, young working-class couple, Dick (the brilliantly chameleon-like Philip Davis) and his wife Mandy (Lesley Manville) live in the council house. The other is inhabited by an unhappy, alienated middle class couple--their former high school teachers, Ralph (Sam Kelly) and Christine (Lindsay Duncan)--deferentially and uneasily addressed as Mr.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Uniqueness of Ordinary Lives: Mike Leigh's BBC Films
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.