BOOK REVIEW / A Bearded Prophet of the Wilderness
Campbell, John, The Independent (London, England)
If uniqueness is the mark of an enduring artist, Mike Leigh passes the test. There is no one like him. No other playwright or film director - certainly in Britain - does what he does. He developed his own method early on and has stuck to it tenaciously for 30 years, from his first staged experiments on the Sixties fringe through television breakthrough in the Seventies with Nuts in May and Abigail's Party to international recognition as an independent, prize-winning and even bankable film maker (High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Naked) in the late Eighties. His integrity commands respect even if you question the results.
His method is often described as "improvisation". But this is misleading. It suggests something serendipitous and uncontrolled, whereas in fact all Leigh's finished work is very tightly structured. Nothing is improvised on stage or camera. The improvisation comes much earlier, when he and his actors together create the characters whose interaction will form the story of the play or film. Leigh does this individually with each actor, building a complete character through traits of personality, language, clothes and lifestyle before introducing them to one another. Thus events and dialogue are sparked by the collision of autonomous characters instead of being given to the actors in advance by an omniscient author. Other directors use improvisation to explore and deepen actors' understanding of their roles: no one else starts with it. But the point is that Leigh, starting with nothing, ends up with a precisely detailed script. His credits used to say "devised and directed by Mike Leigh"; they now read "written and directed".
Of course, he is not quite sui generis. His method was influenced by people like Peter Brook and Ken Campbell. Paradoxically his finished product comes closest to Pinter, whose resonant sounding of the hollow poetry of banality is honed in the study, not the rehearsal room. Michael Coveney draws other comparisons, with Ben Jonson's comedy of "humours" and with Ayckbourn. But like him or loathe him - and you can loathe him either for creating patronising caricatures or reproducing the sheer tedium of ordinariness - Leigh is a true original. It is a pity his name does not lend itself to an adjective like "Pinteresque".
His surname, Coveney reveals, was actually changed from Lierbermann. His grandparents on both sides were part of that fruitful influx of Jewish emigrants from Russia that so alarmed the Tory Government of the day that it passed the 1902 Aliens Act to keep them out. …