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

Article excerpt

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. …