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1970s 1980s BBC drama Directors Mike Leigh Play For Today

Mike Leigh and Play for Today

The following interview was recorded on 14 July 2000 in the bar of the North Stafford Hotel in Stoke-on-Trent. Mike Leigh had travelled up to Stoke from London to receive an Honorary Degree from Staffordshire University, where I was Principal Lecturer in Media Studies, and I was transporting him to and from Trentham Gardens, where the degree ceremony was held. I was teaching a course on British Television Drama at the university and researching a book on the history of British television drama, so I took the opportunity of talking to Mike about his TV plays while he was there. On the way back to the station we went to have tea and spent more than an hour talking, mainly about his Play for Todays.

I had recently interviewed Tony Garnett (an interview which, following Garnett’s death, is due to be published in the Journal of British Cinema and Television in 2021) so there are some references to that interview and also to Mike’s most recent film, Topsy Turvy (1999). Because I had not formally arranged an interview, I had not prepared a list of questions, so the interview was rather ad hoc and unstructured. I had not even seen all of Leigh’s films at the time (which soon became apparent to him as we talked!) but he was very considerate and quite willing to talk at length in response to my questions, even missing a train in the process!

While the interview is dated in some respects now, having been superseded by subsequent interviews, not least Amy Raphael’s Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh (Faber & Faber, 2008), it contains some interesting material and is presented here as a contribution to the events marking the 50th anniversary of Play for Today.

Lez Cooke: You did a lot of work in the theatre in the ‘60s, was it always your intention to move on and work in film and television?

Mike Leigh: Absolutely, film has always been the primary objective and concern and it just seemed initially a good thing to get some training and background in … well anything I could get my hands on really. So I went to RADA and I went to Camberwell [School of Art] and the Central School of Art and to the London Film School in the early ‘60s and then worked in the theatre, started to develop the sort of stuff that I have done ever since but with a view to making films and my first film was, as you know, a feature film, Bleak Moments (1971).

LC: Made for the BFI Production Board.

ML: To say made for the BFI is … there was the so-called Experimental Film Fund, whereby if it was a BFI production you could do it at less than union rates. The minimum amount that the BFI were empowered to put into such a production was a hundred pounds and a hundred pounds was what they put into Bleak Moments, and they usually miss it off their lists of BFI films, though it was a BFI film, but they seem to be less keen on claiming it than anybody. So I’m slightly circumspect when the question is put as you put it, ‘made for the BFI’. It was made with the reluctant, grudging assistance of the BFI. Virtually all the rest of the money was put up by Albert Finney, through Memorial Enterprises, and it won prizes and people still continue to see it and like it apparently.

But as a result of that I met Tony Garnett … actually as a result of the play out of which I built the film, which Tony Garnett saw, and Tony was really very supportive and once we’d done Bleak Moments he sort of got me in to the BBC. I have to say that given that I now have enjoyed what I think is the privilege of making films where I don’t say what they’re going to be about and there isn’t a script and I’ve got absolute control of the film and the casting, given that I’ve been doing that continuously since 1971, pretty much, I think that I’ve been incredibly lucky, especially as I now do it, to all intents and purposes, in the commercial context. That is down to two things: one is Albert Finney giving us the money to make that film with complete generosity and not asking too many questions and the second was Tony Garnett getting me into the BBC, which nobody else could have done, because that was 1971/72, at a stage when he’d done all the stuff with Ken [Loach] and he was very much a force to be reckoned with and he really made it possible and because of that, although I hardly worked with him again, for various reasons to do with him doing other things, it established a principle which left it possible for me then to make a series of films, mostly Play for Todays but not all of them, on an on-and-off basis for BBC in London and some for Pebble Mill between 1972 and 1984, alternating with theatre pieces which I continue to do, one of which, Abigail’s Party (1977), which was done at Hampstead, of course was wheeled into the studio and, paradoxically, became the most successful of these things, although it wasn’t actually generically a piece of television at all. And because that principle had been established at the BBC, where I would simply show up and, when I could persuade them to give me an empty slot, which I couldn’t always do, because usually producers don’t want to waste their slot on something they didn’t know what they were going to get when they had writers they wanted to work with and ideas they wanted to explore, but when I did get a slot it was always ‘Oh well that’s the slot, that’s the production date, that’s the budget, that’s the production serial code number, go off and make a film’ and that was it and it was incredible freedom.

So when we finally got to the end of that period, when Channel Four started, it became possible to be taken seriously with this way of working, because it had been established at the BBC. Of course the thing about the Play for Today period was that, in retrospect, it was plainly the most creative, rich and, in terms of drama about life, a most important period, it was very very rich. It would be wrong to suggest that all of the Plays for Today were masterpieces or perfect but certainly the collective spirit of what they came out of was very healthy, and of course an interesting thing is that the general assumption about Play for Todays, as had been the case with Wednesday Plays, for the most part, was that they did deal with issues and society and real things and all of that, which was of course never prescribed by anybody, there was never any policy about it so far as you could tell, it simply came out of the zeitgeist of the period and of the general kind of feeling about things.

LC: You’re generally not associated with people like Tony Garnett, but Hard Labour (1973), which he produced, was the first Play for Today you did.

ML: Yes and it was the most Tony Garnett-like piece I produced.

Hard Labour (1973)

LC: I was going to ask you about that because both that, and I guess Bleak Moments as well, seem to me to be more social realist in their style, whereas Nuts in May (1976), for example, seems to veer much more towards caricature. Would you accept that?

ML: Well I think you’ve got to go back and look at those pieces to evaluate that observation, that analysis, because as a matter of fact I think Bleak Moments, if you go back and look at it, you will find to be extremely heightened and stylised and taut and …

LC: As all your work is though.

ML: But more, very much, almost the most. Whereas Hard Labour without question contained the most passages of naturalism. It was more susceptible to being influenced by a prevailing style than anything else, it’s outside the canon of all my work for that reason, which Bleak Moments isn’t, is what I’m saying.

LC: Right, yes. I mean Hard Labour, I suppose I am thinking of that more than Bleak Moments, in terms of its style, seemed less heightened in terms of the characterisation, etc.

ML: Yes, well I don’t know about the characterisation, but certainly the filming style is less taut and less disciplined and actually quite sloppy in many ways.

LC: I wondered to what extent, stylistically, that was different because it was produced by Tony Garnett.

ML: Yes, I think that’s true. Only in the sense … there’s certainly no way in which he made me do anything, it’s quite hard to define, especially a quarter of a century later, but by some kind of influence of association and osmosis it had that effect on it. Whether in fact it’s correct to analyse the likes of Nuts in May as caricature remains to be seen. Certainly the mode of the storytelling is more strip cartoon-like, but I don’t know that caricature … I would suggest that the nun in Hard Labour is much more of a caricature in the pejorative sense than any characters, which are actually quite detailed and three dimensional, in Nuts in May

Nuts in May (1976)

In Nuts in May I was very consciously liberated from the notion that the only way to say anything about society was to talk about working-class people and say obvious things about them, there are other ways of saying things and indeed that’s what Nuts in May does. I don’t think it has any less to say about class and society than Hard Labour and actually I suspect it has more to say in a more coherent and meaningful way than Hard Labour. I think Hard Labour’s a little bit kind of tautological really, which I don’t think Nuts in May is. I also think Nuts in May has the distinction of being funnier, more entertaining than Hard Labour, which is important too.

Also, I did in Nuts in May what I’ve been doing ever since … I’ve done it forever in one form or another, I was deliberately subverting the assumptions of the form. In other words, here was a Play for Today but I thought well why should I make another play that looks like a Play for Today, let’s get out and do something fresh, and something that came very naturally to me, so I think that’s important. But having said that, working with Tony Garnett on that [Hard Labour] was incredibly important. I don’t just mean from a career point of view but ideologically, to be able to focus on various things that I always felt were terribly important really.

LC: Play for Today does seem like a bit of a misnomer for many of those things, not just your own work, in terms of going out into the real world.

ML: Absolutely and actually that’s what I was going to say … I mean I’m old enough to remember, as you probably are, television plays which actually looked and sounded like plays … way way back, when television was live in the early ‘50s, you could watch a play on Thursday and on Sunday on BBC, there was only BBC, and the thing was to see how it differed in the two performances, and of course the legacy of ‘play’ was obviously where The Wednesday Play and Play for Today came from, but we learnt to live with that. More important is that all of us and I was certainly no exception, sat around whingeing endlessly that we weren’t making feature films and that the world out there on the rest of the planet thought nothing was happening in the UK and we didn’t exhibit them theatrically and we didn’t send them to film festivals and we weren’t working on 35mm and all the rest of it. Which was all a very legitimate grumble, except that what I probably knew deep down but didn’t confront, for obvious reasons, was that there was no way that the kind of freedom that we had at the BBC could ever be experienced in the commercial sector even if anyone gave us the money, certainly not at that time. So obviously the movies were hiding in television, which I’m sure you’ve endlessly heard people say, and it was actually a very rich period I think in the history of British cinema. So although your remit is very much television drama, given that the vast majority, though by no means all of the pieces, certainly the best, were actually shot on film, I personally think that is a period of filmmaking that’s to be taken very seriously.

LC: Were they all done on 16mm, those Plays for Today?

ML: Mine?

LC: Yes.

ML: Yes, I think they all were. There was no facility for 35mm because Television Film Centre at Ealing was geared up to 16mm. I don’t think anyone shot anything on 35 as far as I’m aware.

LC: That was Tony’s great innovation in the ‘60s with Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966), using 16mm, going out on the streets really for the first time.

ML: Well of course that’s right. Their thing was why not use the facility that the BBC had got to make … people watch the news … why not make drama in the same mode? Of course, whether Tony ever talks about this or not I don’t know, but what’s certainly the case, certainly I would think it’s important, is that prior to all of that, the Wednesday Plays and Cathy Come Home and everything, you’d got the Nouvelle Vague boys out there shooting …

LC: Tony did mention the influence of that yes.

ML: Well that’s good, I’m glad to hear it (laughs).

LC: He said it’s that style they were after in Up the Junction.

ML: Yes because if you look at Vivre Sa Vie (1962) or any of those films from A Bout de Souffle (1960) onwards that was the thing and they were using lightweight Eclairs weren’t they, which we sometimes used in the BBC, and then there was this ‘What you can do with a 16mm camera’ and there were things happening in America too which were all part of that movement, obviously some stuff that Cassavetes did, Shadows (1959), and people like Adolphus and Jonas Mekas and various people, The Connection (1961, directed by Shirley Clarke). But we all used to grumble and say, ‘Why can’t the BBC make the films, why can’t we do these films on 35mm? We do all this work and then people only see them once.’ The fact is that people would see them once and we knew perfectly well that that meant on some occasions nine and, in the case of Abigail’s Party‘s famous second repeat, sixteen million people watched. But we’d say, ‘No they only get seen once and then they’re lost forever’, which is true. ‘Can’t we do them first on 35mm and show them in the cinema first’ and the BBC simply wouldn’t contemplate it.

But of course the guys were listening and Jeremy Isaacs and David Rose, Channel Four, it’s exactly what happened. Not as soon as they began – my biggest single personal regret is that Meantime (1983) was shot on 16 and not 35. It was a Channel Four film and we asked David [Rose – who moved to Channel Four in 1981 as Commissioning Editor for Fiction] if we could do it on 35 as a feature and the fact is that wasn’t in place yet. I think the thinking is another six months later and we’d have been okay and so it sank pretty much without trace as a not very well aired television film. Though it’s enjoyed some kind of underground cult status for quite a long time.

LC: Had a lease of life on video hasn’t it, yes.

ML: Yes, but only since the early ‘90s in fact.

Meantime (1983)

LC: Do you see Film on Four, when it came in, as being a continuation of the Play for Today tradition?

ML: I don’t now, if you’d asked me that at the time I wouldn’t have been able to say otherwise. It seemed that that’s what it was …

LC: Because Meantime you could easily have done as a Play for Today.

ML: Yes absolutely, theoretically. The only difference is I worked with a freelance cinematographer, Roger Pratt, and therefore the overall quality of it was higher because it was a freelance feature film crew. Not that the films we made at the BBC were automatically of low standard, they were of different standards. I mean the last few films I did there were shot by Remy Adefarasin, whose work you know, the last famous thing he shot was Elizabeth (1998).

LC: Right, yes. But would there have been more money for the Channel Four films than for the BBC Play for Today?

ML: Well because it was an independent picture you could spend the money in different ways. Whereas there was no below the line costs you could actually reallocate the budget. I can’t talk about it in much detail but certainly there is a kind of qualitative difference between Meantime and its Play for Today counterparts.

LC: It’s that difference which I’m really trying to get to grips with because obviously there are similarities in terms of a lot of those Play for Todays were shot on film, albeit 16mm, but of course as you say they didn’t get a cinema release, whereas a lot of the Channel Four films did get a cinema release.

ML: Well they did, this is the point. That’s why your question ‘Do I see the Film on Four as a continuation of Play for Today’, the reason why that’s really not a question with an answer, and if there is an answer it’s probably no, is because pretty soon, but from my point of view not soon enough, they started to shoot Films on Four on 35mm to motion picture standards and release them theatrically, and immediately two main things happened: one was that by the very dint of making them on 35mm and to motion picture standards, you got a different quality of material, film, and the other, which is more important I guess, from the point of view of your question, is that at the BBC, and although Granada did some parallel types of things and so did other [companies], the ones at the BBC are the ones that really are the kind of benchmark, the films at the BBC were made with total freedom from any kind of commercial pressure. There were no ratings wars. They weren’t in competition with anybody. You had carte blanche to do whatever and therefore everybody was liberated to make indigenous subjects.

The minute Channel Four started and the prospect came into existence, which it almost immediately did, of selling films overseas, then the American market became an issue and the minute the American market became an issue, that started to inform the sort of films that people made. So if you look at those movies that were made from thereon in you can see them trying to be movies and for various reasons which aren’t relevant, for various personal reasons, I didn’t make a film then for Channel Four until 1988, High Hopes, and by that time Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) and all those films were on the go and there was a, to a greater or lesser extent, conscious or semi-conscious or in some cases unconscious genuflection towards the American market, which I think informed the nature of those films so much that they ceased to be a natural expression of indigenous issues, like Play for Todays had been, and I’m quite sure I haven’t just said anything that you don’t already know perfectly well, but that is terribly important historically.

LC: Yes there was a lot of quite, apart from being indigenous work, very radical work done for Play for Today which hasn’t been made much since really.

ML: No, I think that’s right.

LC: My students are astonished when I show them things like John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil (1974) …

ML: Absolutely.

LC: … The Spongers (1978), you know, those kind of things…

ML: Just Another Saturday (1975) …

LC: You can’t imagine them getting made today.

ML: Well, no, I think it’s tough, I think it would be tough.

LC: Certainly not for BBC1, which is what they were made for at the time.

ML: Well that is a whole other matter, if you start to talk about the difference between that BBC and this BBC, you’re not talking about the same institution at all, in any shape or form.

LC: Come back to your own work then. Obviously Abigail’s Party, which you said was perhaps the most successful of your work, ironically was the one which was done as a straight studio play wasn’t it.

ML: It wasn’t even that, it was a theatre play in fact.

LC: Yes and it was shot as though it was a theatre play to a large extent wasn’t it really. I mean it’s not out in the real world as things like Hard Labour were.

ML: No it’s not and technically it’s a bollocks really, it’s appalling, it’s the most terrible mess if you look at it, it really is.

LC: So how do you explain its huge success?

ML: Well I would have to admit that the play obviously gets across and indeed the truth is that when we wheeled it into the studio in November 1977 the actors had just done 104 performances of it and it was fantastically solid and that shows. It was a very thorough piece of work and indeed when I talk about Hard Labour being all over the place, which it was, I actually think, just as a matter of interest and just to digress for a moment, that although Grown-Ups (1980) wasn’t actually a Play for Today, it was a Playhouse, but that’s a technicality, it’s the same sort of thing, I think that Grown-Ups and Home Sweet Home (1982) and Four Days In July (1985) are the best of my BBC films because they’re the most disciplined, the best constructed, the best written and the most distilled and one of the reasons for that is that Grown-Ups and Home Sweet Home followed my work on Abigail’s Party, Ecstasy (1979) and Goose-Pimples (1981), which were three very thorough stage plays, because stage plays have to be thorough in a way that you sort of don’t have to be when you can go out and shoot any old thing in the street and then piece it together in the cutting room, and liberated from the prevailing ethos of pseudo-documentary drama, assimilating it rather than merely being liberated from it probably more accurate, I think I turned in better films basically…

But Abigail’s Party, for all the awfulness of its rushed studio quality, and I swore I would never go into a studio again, at the time when I swore that I didn’t know that it was going to go out of fashion and it wasn’t going to be a problem, at the time it was a major ideological crisis about whether one would go into studios. But despite its technical sloppiness the play itself was kind of solid and I think that accounts for its success. Also the other thing that accounts for its success without any shadow of a doubt is the fact that the second time it was repeated it went out during an ITV strike, on a very wet night, before Channel Four was invented and when something very highbrow was on BBC2. It was a stormy night throughout the UK and so we did score sixteen million viewers and I think that contributed considerably to its fame and fortune.

Abigail’s Party (1977)

LC: Was the working method the same on each of these? Abigail’s Party, Hard Labour

ML: The working method has been, in principle, the same since the beginning, yes. In principle. So from The Box Play (1965) to Topsy Turvy (1999), which is my entire output, 1965 to 1999, in principle yes. I’d better tell you one thing, in passing, which is that I did a stint at the RSC, ‘67, and when I left there, David Jones, who had done things on the BBC and who was running things at the RSC with Sir Peter Hall, said you should definitely apply to the BBC Trainee Directors’ Course, so I did and in due course I was interviewed by a very formidable roomful of uninterested people and they said ‘Well what would you do, how would you apply this?’ and I said ‘Well, go out with a cast for some weeks and create the material and then go out and shoot the film by making it up as you went along’ and an icicle formed in the room, you could feel it, and I was turned down. But the Head of Plays said apply again, so I applied again and, I can’t remember the actual order of things now, I know that I applied three times, at some point I met Tony Garnett who was outraged by this and said we’ll have to do something about this, but the joke was that the final time I got a letter saying ‘Please apply again’ I was in a position to write back and say ‘I’m unable to pursue this because I’m currently directing a Play for Today for the BBC’, which of course was under Tony’s aegis and I never actually did the Directors’ Training Course at all. So that in a way is important from the point of view of the distance, the gulf, between Tony’s radical end of the BBC and the institutional end of the BBC that was still running the organisation.

LC: But in terms of when you moved from the theatre to working in film and television, do you make a distinction between your work in terms of work which is made for TV or work which is made for the cinema or is it all of a piece to you?

ML: Well the theatre work, by definition, has to be in a separate category, by the nature of theatre. I have to say that I’ve always felt that my natural habitat and the medium that more lends itself for me to do the things I really want to do and to my ways of working, is film. So I’ve therefore always regarded theatre as a kind of secondary activity. So far as the so-called distinction between film and television, there isn’t one really, as far I’m concerned, because although, apart from three … four pieces I ever did in the studio, which just felt like sub-films really, at the end of the day a film is a film is a film and I’m not the only person to say that and I don’t think, missing out the specific things we were saying about Hard Labour which are to do with particular things about being in the BBC and being with Tony and stuff, I don’t really think that any of the films that I made for television would have been necessarily especially different things, apart from the actual detailed difference of how you make a feature film from a television film, had I made them for the cinema.

Obviously when we were working on Play for Today films there would be discussions where you would say ‘Well …’, we’d set up a long shot and then we’d say ‘Well on an ordinary domestic receiver’, and of course in those days screens were smaller than they now are, ‘that’s going to be very tiny so maybe we should go a bit closer’, but that’s about as far as we ever got in conscious terms in the direction of making a distinction. Of course, when you compare the way we made those films, and some were more sophisticated than others, for example the guys, who were perfectly good, who came out to shoot Nuts in May and The Kiss of Death (1977) from Pebble Mill, they were working on Farming Today for most of the year until the previous Friday, and they just spent the whole year shooting nodding heads talking about the price of hay and whatever and out they’d come to shoot a Play for Today film and they’d gradually get more artistic as the days went by, but it was pointing a camera at things, throwing light at it and shooting. It became more sophisticated, and also in sound terms too, when I worked with people like Remy Adefarasin later when I did things like Grown-Ups and Home Sweet Home and Four Days in July, it was moving into a more sophisticated area, but compare any of that with the kind of preparation for example that we’ve put into Naked (1993) or Secrets and Lies (1996) or Topsy Turvy, in terms of shooting tests and selecting film stocks and discussing the palette and of course the difference between rehearsing for five weeks and rehearsing for seven months and all of those things and all the things you do with Dolby stereo and all that stuff, then obviously it’s a different territory.

But in the end, in storytelling terms and in terms of the use of the medium at its raw basic level, they’re films and I’ve always thought of them as such. The only other thing I suppose that’s important, that’s worth saying, which I kind of guess is part of the answer, is that, certainly when I was doing my Plays for Today, there was a very clear, inevitably, a very clear notion about the audience. It was the audience that was going to see it on a Monday or whenever it was, at 9.25, I can’t remember, it varied I think, and we’d be in Oldham shooting something and I’d say ‘Well I don’t know whether they’ll get this in John O’Groats and Land’s End’. So one thought about those things and of course once you’re making a film that’s going to get an international release it’s slightly less easy and straightforward to have a conception of an audience, but that doesn’t really make any fundamental difference because in the end you tell the story you have to tell and be as specific about the cultural language that you’re creating to tell the story as you would otherwise be.

LC: I was going to ask about the audience, because most of your work is about the working class or the lower middle class and yet, it seems to me, that the audiences are more likely to be more middle class.

ML: Well I don’t think, I actually do not, I insist that that is not the case, was not the case with Play for Today at the time, if we’re talking about Play for Today. If we’re talking about film-going audiences that’s a different matter, but in so far as Play for Today at the time was concerned, since that’s what we’re talking about, that was absolutely not the case. There is no doubt whatever that those programmes, as they called them, were seen by a very wide spectrum of audience and the reactions came from those quarters.

LC: Would there have been a difference between Play for Today and Channel Four in terms of the audience? The Channel Four audience might have been different to the Play for Today audience?

ML: I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t know that it’s relevant because by the time Channel Four was happening the age of Play for Today was over, but maybe that’s not relevant either.

LC: But I mean Channel Four was presented as being an alternative channel, more minority interest perhaps, whereas Play for Todays did go out on BBC1, the main BBC channel.

ML: Yes that’s what I’m saying, that’s my point exactly, that they were popular.

LC: I don’t know Four Days in July, but is that an exception to your work?

ML: Well it’s an exception in the sense that it’s set on this other planet called Northern Ireland but it’s not an exception in terms of …what I manage to do, I think and hope, is to make as personal a film as I would otherwise make, dealing with things that you would recognise as being the kind of spirit and what I deal with, to do with men and women and children and having babies and life going on and relationships and all of that, but dealing with it within the context of the Troubles and these two couples, the wives are both in the very late stage of pregnancy and both the babies are born on the twelfth of July, simultaneously, next to each other in the Royal Victoria Hospital, and through that I look at all kinds of things in these two parallel meandering stories.

Four Days in July (1985)

So in surface terms obviously it’s different, but in spirit and in essence it’s absolutely consistent and I do think it’s probably one of the pieces of work of which I’m, at the risk of being boring, most proud, because it really was quite an achievement on a lot of people’s parts to go and spend … I mean I spent a year, first of all going backwards and forwards to Ireland. It came out of a discussion with [Kenith] Trodd, who produced it as you know, and I said, and he thought it was a good idea, I said I would only do it if the BBC would give me six months on contract just to research, which amazingly they did, so I went all over Ireland, I did everything you could think of, I got into some very tight corners and got my head round the whole thing before I even started casting, and I think it sort of paid off. I only wish to hell that every year when we get around to the Troubles again, I wish to hell they’d show it.

LC: Yes, that’s what’s the real shame about Play for Today, unless there’s a particular anniversary or somebody dies or whatever …

ML: Well even then you’d be bloody lucky to get the thing shown.

LC: Can I just ask you again about Hard Labour, as your first Play for Today, how much time would you have spent on that? What was the production time? How did it develop? How did it get to the screen?

ML: It was in pre-production over quite a long period because, again this was the great thing about working with Tony, we did creative things like we put adverts in The Stage asking for actors between forty-five and sixty who came from up North and who could improvise and of course we were inundated with all kinds of scallywags and some very good people came out of it, but I spent months whilst teaching in the London Film School, which is how I earnt my bread and butter at that precise point in time, I spent months going in and doing chunks of audition as well, but we went into rehearsal for about six or eight weeks, I can’t actually remember, and then shot it for the length of a Play for Today, which was about four or five weeks, I can’t actually remember to tell you the truth, then it was in post-production.

LC: To what extent would the actors have had a script which they were working to, or to what extent was that developed during the course of those rehearsals for the play?

ML: There’s never been a script, ever, on any of my films.

LC: So when scripts get published that’s always after the event.

ML: Totally.

LC: Taken from the screen.

ML: Absolutely, yes. The ones that you can buy I’ve sat down with a videotape and written them down, in literary form obviously. That isn’t to say that when we shoot the film, scene by scene when we make the film we get it to a very precise scripted condition, but it is scene by scene and in fact the writing of the script, in the sense that you’re now talking about, doesn’t happen in that period of rehearsal before the shoot. That period is all about creating the premise of the film, the relationships, the characters, the background, so that I can then write a structure and within that structure I then build the film as we go along and really define the material then. Hard Labour being no exception.

LC: So if the actors are developing the script then, is that what you’re saying, as they go along, are they coming up with the lines of the dialogue themselves, out of this process of improvisation?

ML: Well it’s more complex than that. The first job is to create the world of the film and the improvisations are all about not trying to create a script or a film but about being real and living through years of relationship or whatever and obviously in setting that up, in setting up the dynamics of the relationships and who’s who and what’s what, my job is to construct something which, by definition, is a dramatic premise. Then I write a structure, which is entirely my responsibility and a thing I obviously do solo. Then, sequence by sequence, as I say, we go to the location and build a scene by improvising and then rehearsing, developing from improvisation through to something that’s very scripted. Now, into what you finally wind up with, there goes a substantial amount of stuff that came out of the improvisation, but also, another substantial amount of stuff that comes from me, saying well actually why don’t you say this and why don’t you swap that over and instead of saying that why don’t you say this and so on and so forth, and incidentally, in Topsy Turvy the third source of the dialogue comes from a lot of direct quotes and epigrams and things which have been stitched into the dialogue as well.

Hard Labour (1973)

LC: Would that mean that there’s a greater shooting ratio in terms of the amount of material that’s shot?

ML: No.

LC: Would you do lots of takes and they might vary a lot from take to take?

ML: No, absolutely not. In fact my shooting ratio is traditionally quite low because by the time we shoot it it’s very precise, very tightly scripted, very thoroughly rehearsed and there’s a great tradition of carry on rehearsing whilst the cinematographer is lighting and just refining the dialogue down and if you look at the films, with the exception of some of Hard Labour and possibly some of Who’s Who, certainly if you look at the better constructed films, which is I think most of them really, you will only see very precise dialogue and in that sense, from a process point of view, and therefore from an aesthetic point of view, and actually therefore from an ideological point of view too I’d suggest, they differ considerably from say what Ken [Loach] does. Ken takes an opposite view and likes to have things happen spontaneously on camera and shoot vast amounts of footage to arrive at it and indeed knows how to do that, on the whole I find that uninteresting and not what it’s all about basically. I’m far more interested in distilling the material so that what you get is something very concentrated and precise and then filming it in a relatively classical sort of way really.

LC: It’s interesting that you use that term distilling, because when I talked to Tony Garnett he was talking about his work being a form of ‘distilled naturalism’. Now I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but would you say that applies to your work really?

ML: Not at all. I think that the word naturalism hardly applies to anything I’ve done. I think it applies in a rather quasi sort of way, as I said earlier, to bits of Hard Labour, but frankly, I think if you had to use an ism, I think my work comes under the heading of realism but not naturalism. That’s to say an approach to distilling the real that really does distil to the essence of something, rather than something that records the surface of things, which I think is what naturalism is, as I understand it.

LC: But I think, from what Tony Garnett was saying to me, in a sense he’s trying to get to the essence of things but maybe the approach, the methodology, is different.

ML: I think, with all due respect to everybody involved, I don’t think you can actually make the comparison at all you’re making, because as a producer, what Tony has achieved is a whole lot of different kinds of things, working with different sorts of writers and with different kinds of directors, so you can’t compare that with a very singular thing that I’ve been doing all on my tod in a separate compartment. I just make that comparison.

LC: When you got into making films, whether for cinema or TV, presumably that was liberating for you to get out into the real world. Was that a part of the attraction?

ML: Yes but the thing was … what you have to understand is that … that’s absolutely accurate except that the danger slightly … although you’re not saying this … the danger slightly … the premise that sounds as though it might be lurking in that question, though I’m sure it isn’t, is that I suddenly discovered something called film but actually I’d been discovering something called film from about 1947 onwards and certainly spent most of the ‘50s obsessively looking at film and when I came to London in 1960 and discovered World Cinema my entire preoccupations were dominated by the cinema, as indeed they still are, and indeed made a number of short films, which aren’t worth talking about, during the course of the ‘60s. So, when it finally got to making the film certainly it was liberating but it wasn’t a kind of … I mean getting out there into the street again and doing it properly was absolutely inevitable and what had to happen basically.

LC: But it’s clearly very important, I’m thinking particularly of those opening scenes in Hard Labour, but it’s in other things as well, of getting out into the street and establishing the setting and the place.

ML: Yes and of course the very good thing about Hard Labour is that Tony, which again was Tony being a very good creative producer, he encouraged me to go back to my roots a bit with it, which I sort of did in a sort of diluted kind of way, but we certainly went up and spent all that time in Manchester and Salford and that was fantastic, so to actually shoot a film right round the corner from where you grew up and all that kind of stuff, which I did, was great.

Hard Labour (1973)

LC: When you see somebody walking up a street, walking into the back yard, walking into a real terraced house you get a very different sense of place to what you get in Abigail’s Party where it’s completely enclosed all the time. You don’t get a sense of the outside world.

ML: Absolutely, although just having made a feature film in which you hardly see the outside world … but I think we made that work because, I don’t know what you think, whether you missed the outside world particularly.

LC: Not particularly because the emphasis was different, it was very much about the stage.

ML: But you’re absolutely on the case, the truth is, just to nail something that we’ve half talked about, I think if you’re making a comparison between those two consecutive films, Hard Labour and Nuts in May

LC: And their difference really …

ML: Well Nuts in May is an infinitely more radical film than Hard Labour.

LC: Why do you say that?

ML: Well because Hard Labour, I don’t know how radical it is or it isn’t, but it certainly kind of distils a whole lot of slices of life in a way that I guess is sort of original, but as a real kind of radical experiment in storytelling and of a way of juxtaposing place, characters, situations and integrating humour, I think Nuts In May is far more original and therefore radical really, I would suggest. I think Hard Labour, as a piece of filmmaking, was actually more conventional compared with Nuts in May, I think. All the stuff when you’re walking around Salford market with the mother, it’s sort of alright but it’s not really … Some of that sort of footage is too much in love with the sheer fact of being there and it’s not really shouldering …

LC: It’s more observational in a documentary sense really.

ML: Yes, in a rather sort of slightly unmotivated way. Whereas everything in Nuts in May has got an absolutely clear dramatic … it’s more cinematic, Nuts in May.

LC: Yes and it’s got a quite strong narrative drive.

ML: Yes, absolutely, mind you, it has to be said that if you make a film about people on holiday, half the work’s done for you because holidays are linear, whereas if you make a film about people in their everyday lives, which is humdrum, it’s by definition as unlinear and as uncausal as you like, that has to be said. I take it from the absence of it from the conversation that you’re not familiar with The Kiss of Death.

LC: I’m not I’m afraid, no. Another one I need to see.

ML: Because I think that’s one of the best of those. That was the third one. You see I also think that it took me two or three films to get the hang of making those Play for Todays really and those two, Nuts in May and The Kiss of Death, are the two I made produced by David Rose for Pebble Mill. The Kiss of Death is the one about the undertaker’s assistant in Oldham … when you see it you’ll immediately say that it reminds you of some parts of Bleak Moments, especially the relationship stuff between the guy and the girl. It’s a film about youth actually, apart from anything else, and in that sense it also relates to Meantime in some way, but I think it has some of the graphic edge of Nuts in May and much more of the emotional compassionate stuff that is in some of the other earlier films. It’s funny how some sink without trace more than others.

LC: So what about this question of caricature then, because it does … I mean Nuts in May is very funny, Abigail’s Party is very funny and they seem to set out to be funny in a way that perhaps some of your other work doesn’t.

ML: Well I don’t think that’s true. I think the comic element is always there and so is the tragic element and that’s there in Nuts in May too. There was an attempt after we did it to hijack it as a comedy series by the BBC Comedy Department which I went to great lengths to sabotage, successfully. It was a misplaced aspiration because it’s not … of course it works through being funny but underneath it all it’s deadly serious and it is about real people and real feelings and real communication and loneliness and selfishness and class distinctions and …

LC: That’s why I find there’s always a slightly … I don’t know whether it’s intentional, you’ll tell me no doubt … uncomfortable quality about your work, because of that clash perhaps about it being very funny and then you get involved with laughing at it and then you discover actually there’s this tragic side running underneath.

ML: Oh absolutely, of course. But that’s like when you want to laugh at a funeral, that is absolutely right. But there’s a great difference between all of that and caricature. I don’t think any of the characterisations in Nuts in May are caricatures actually. I think the guy, Keith, is absurd, but all those people are absurd in a tragic sort of way and people are like that, you know. I think it’s very accurate, I think they’re very three-dimensional characters and I’m not deluding myself in that, I really do think that.

LC: I think that’s true, there’s clearly a grain of truth, and perhaps a large grain of truth, in a lot of those characters. I’m wondering whether, through the process of development, of improvisation, etc, and of heightening that it does veer towards caricature.

ML: No, I have to insist that I cannot talk about my work over a twenty-seven year period in the same breath. What you’re saying, does it apply to Topsy Turvy? Does it apply to Secrets and Lies?

LC: No, I’m saying it applies to some things and I’m thinking particularly of Nuts in May.

ML: What else are you thinking of?

LC: To some extent Abigail’s Party, of the ones I know, in a way that it doesn’t seem to me that it applies to your later work.

ML: No, I don’t think it does and of course Abigail’s Party was a piece of theatre which was wheeled into a studio. The fact is, however, there’s no question that if people relate to it in the quantities that they do it’s because they believe in the characters, basically, and again there’s a huge amount of pathos laced through Abigail’s Party. There was a production of the play not long after we did it, at Hornchurch or somewhere, and I met some actors and they said ‘Oh well we ran it with real drink, just to get the feel of it’ and I said ‘You must have been completely pissed’ and they said ‘We were, there were 39 drinks cues in the first act’, which there are. Now the relevance of that obviously is that it’s very heightened, it’s very constructed so that it creates the illusion of things, it’s very condensed, basically. Now you wouldn’t do that in a film and you don’t need to do it in a film, it’s theatrical, it’s heightened in that sense, and that’s what you’re talking about.

Now it may be that you perceive the same element, the same thing as being there in Nuts in May. I think it’s for the reason I’ve already mentioned in another context, it’s because of the linear nature, the insular linear nature of holidays. I defy anybody who’s had a holiday experience, especially a traumatic one, not to concur with this experience, it’s very concentrated and everything becomes much more of a crisis than it would in real life and I think that’s got something to do with Nuts in May, but also there are other elements like, for example, when they go to Lulworth Cove and he looks up at something which in fact has been there for centuries and people have been looking up at for just as long, where you see the strata doing that (indicates with his hands), which is why it’s called ‘stair hole’ and he says ‘It’s called stair hole because there’s a stair up there and a hole down here’ and we pan from that to this and you’re looking at this and he’s saying ‘You’re standing on sedimentary limestone’ and she can’t hear him.

Nuts in May (1976)

Now what I’ve done is gone there with completely organic and real characters, albeit people who are in themselves, like some real people are, slightly dotty, and taken actual elements and put them together in such a way it has a cartoon-like quality, although it’s all so real, that’s to say everything that’s there is there, you know, anyone could have done that, and in the next moment they’re actually drenched, and they’re drenched because it rained (laughs). Do you see what I mean? But surely that’s in the nature of filmmaking? For me the important thing about that was to say okay let us not merely keep pointing the camera at dead obvious statements about how awful some people’s lives are and not actually say anything about it. Let’s tell a story in other ways.

LC: That particular example, where Keith says that, does that come from you, or is that something which would have been developed with the actors?

ML: Oh, I can’t tell you, I don’t know. Both things happen, it becomes a very creative thing where we all work … I don’t know, I’ve no idea, couldn’t tell you that.

LC: In terms of authorship, if you like, this is a very collaborative process then.

ML: Yes.

LC: Or do you think of yourself as being ‘the author’?

ML: I do and the biggest mistake I ever made was to have ‘devised and directed’ on all these earlier films and now I’ve very sensibly gone back to what I started with, to say ‘written and directed’, because a film is written by its author. Authorship in the context of cinema is the he or she who tells the story.

LC: But you’re not writing them any more now than you were then, is that the case?

ML: No, I wasn’t writing them any less then than I am now is the point. That is the point.

LC: Yes. I can see the difficulty and I understand why you try to avoid that.

ML: Actually, the fact is there isn’t a difficulty and if you talk to anybody that’s been involved in this, they’ll, without exception, be very clear and comfortable about who’s who and how it works. My job is to set up a working situation so that people can become, in a very creative way, can really ‘do their characters’ and build into that … I build into the way the characters are during the rehearsal period, the way they talk, as I work with people on the language and all sorts of stuff. There’s a lot of input from me on that, so we then get to a point where they can absolutely organically improvise in character and by that time I’m on the wavelength of each of them so that I can contribute, take from what they do, add to it, rework it, or whatever. So it is collaborative but it’s the style, it’s the context, it’s all those things.

LC: There is certainly a continuity in terms of how people talk and I’ve noticed particularly with the female characters that a lot of the women characters, played by different actresses, there is a manner of speech which is very similar from film to film.

ML: Only in some characters, only in some characters. I don’t know how relevant or important that is, what you say, because what’s also true is that there’s quite a range of different sorts of people in these films, so I don’t know how that’s important. Also the other thing is, that you obviously think it’s important because you’ve talked about place and all that, is that it’s not just about what actors do but it’s about cinematography and design and all the rest of it and music too actually.

LC: Yes, in terms of the stage I’m at with my research I’m at that point where I’m looking at the transition from the studio play, with the very strong theatrical influence upon it, TV studio play, to The Wednesday Play, Play for Today which did go much more out into the real world, shooting on film as opposed to being recorded in the electronic studio, etc., so it’s that transition which I find quite interesting.

ML: But it’s also interesting how, quite late on in the history of the studio, and I’m not talking about Abigail’s Party here by any manner of means, because there was pressure on to use these damn studios for plays, some people did some quite interesting and radical things. I mean Richard Eyre did a quite interesting Cherry Orchard (1981). More interestingly, Alan Clarke did Brecht’s first play Baal (1982), with David Bowie, which was quite interesting and original in its use of the studio.

LC: Some of those things were being done around the time that you were doing Play for Today as well.

ML: Yes, absolutely and they started to use single camera as well, which made a huge difference.

LC: But you wanted to get out of the studio, basically.

ML: Partly because I did lots of theatre – for me the place to be artificial was in the theatre and films were about getting out onto the street and that was the end of it, basically.

 

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