Mike Leigh Biography

Mike Leigh Biography on Monsters and Critics


"Mike Leigh" OBE (born February 20, 1943) is an English film and theatre director.


Early life

Leigh was born in Broughton, Salford, Lancashire. He was brought up in a Jewish immigrant family (whose surname was originally "Lieberman", but was anglicised before Leigh's birth). His father was a doctor in an overwhelmingly working-class area of Salford (near Manchester). Initially trained as an actor at RADA, Leigh went on to start his directing skills at East 15 Acting School where he met the actress Alison Steadman. He has made a number of films, usually choosing 'down to earth' subjects and subject matter. His films are usually set in London.


Leigh has a knack for working with fresh new talent, including (at the time) Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and David Thewlis. Despite his quite varied use of actors he has built up an exceptionally strong repertory associated with him, including Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, and, most fruitfully, Jim Broadbent. He also worked with the late Katrin Cartlidge. His stage work is generally more caustic, strident, and in some ways aggressively unsubtle in the service of a larger point about the banality of society, at least as defined by the behaviour of the 'ordinary' people in his plays. "Goose-Pimples" and "Abigail's Party" are quite similar in this regard, both focusing on the vulgar middle class in a convivial party setting that spirals out of control. To observe the occasional obviousness is not to deny that they are meticulously constructed and often quite funny and penetrating.

Earlier plays such as "Nuts in May" and "Abigail's Party" tended more towards bleakly yet humorously satirising middle-class manners and attitudes, while later films such as "Naked" and "Vera Drake" are somewhat starker, more brutal, and concentrate more on the working-class. A commitment to realism and humanism is, however, evident throughout. His stage plays include "Smelling A Rat", "It's A Great Big Shame", "Greek Tragedy", "Goose-Pimples", "Ecstasy", and "Abigail's Party".

The evident anger inherent in Leigh's material, in some ways typical of the Thatcher years, fittingly seemed to soften after her departure from the political scene. "Life is Sweet" may be the turning point in this regard: the family at the film's centre may be banal as anyone in "Abigail's Party", but Leigh is disinclined to judge them, and treats them with considerable tenderness.

Even a movie as roiling with fury as "Naked" is quite different in tone from, say, "Goose-Pimples". Johnny (played by David Thewlis) in "Naked" may be shocking and inappropriate, but he's not merely cruel and stupid - far from it. For all the pain Johnny is able to fling at people, even he is ultimately a sympathetic creature contending not with the dilemma of which flashy sports car to drive, but with the very nature of his existence.

"Topsy-Turvy" is another film that is difficult to imagine Leigh producing in the Thatcher years.

In 2005, Leigh returned to directing for the stage after many years absence with his new play, "Two Thousand Years" at the Royal National Theatre in London. The play deals with the divisions within a left-wing secular Jewish family when one of the younger members finds religion. It is the first time Leigh has drawn on his Jewish background for inspiration.

Leigh uses lengthy improvisations developed over a period of weeks to build characters and storylines for his films. He starts with some sketch ideas of how he thinks things might develop, but does not reveal all his intentions with the cast who discover their fate and act out their responses as their destinies are gradually revealed.

Initial preparation is in private with the director and then the actors are introduced to each other in the order that their characters would have met in their lives. Intimate moments are explored that will not even be referred to in the final film to build insight and understanding of history, character and inner motivation. The critical scenes in the eventual story are performed and recorded in full-costumed, real-time improvisations where the actors encounter for the first time new characters, events or information which may dramatically affect their characters' lives.

Final filming is more traditional as definite sense of story, action and dialogue is then in place. The director reminds the cast of material from the improvisations that he hopes to capture on film.

In an interview with Laura Miller, 'Listening to the World: An Interview With Mike Leigh,' published on salon.com, Leigh states, 'I make very stylistic films indeed, but style doesn't become a substitute for truth and reality. It's an integral, organic part of the whole thing.' Leigh's vision is to depict ordinary life, 'real life,' unfolding under extenuating circumstances. He makes courageous decisions to document reality. He speaks about the criticism "Naked" received: 'The criticism comes from the kind of quarters where 'political correctness' in its worst manifestation is rife. It's this kind of naive notion of how we should be in an unrealistic and altogether unhealthily over-wholesome way'.

Leigh has won several prizes at major European film festivals. Most notably he won the Best Director award at Cannes for "Naked" in 1993 and the "Palme d'Or" in 1996 for "Secrets & Lies". He won the Leone d'Oro for the best film at the International Venice Film Festival in 2004 with "Vera Drake". He has been nominated for the Academy Award five times, twice each for "Secrets & Lies" and "Vera Drake" (Best Original Screenplay and Best Directing) and once for "Topsy-Turvy" (Best Original Screenplay only).

Personal life

In September 1973 he married Alison Steadman; they have two sons. Steadman is perhaps the most consistent presence in his work, appearing in seven of his films and several of his plays, including "Wholesome Glory" and "Abigail's Party". They divorced in 2001.


"Bleak Moments" (1971)

"Hard Labour" (1973)

"Nuts in May" (BBC "Play for Today", 1976)

"Abigail's Party" (BBC "Play for Today", 1977)

"Grown-Ups" (1980)

"Meantime" (1983)

"The Short and Curlies" (1987)

"High Hopes" (1988)

"Life Is Sweet" (1990)

"Naked" (1993)

"Secrets & Lies" (1996)

"Career Girls" (1997)

"Topsy-Turvy" (1999)

"All or Nothing" (2002)

"Vera Drake" (2004)

List of plays

"The Box Play" (1965)

"My Parents Have Gone to Carlisle" (1966)

"The Last Crusade of Five Little Nuns" (1966)

"Individual Fruit Pies" (1968)

"Glum Victoria and the Lad with Specs" (1969)

"Bleak Moments" (1970)

"A Rancid Pong" (1971)

"Wholesome Glory" (1973)

"The Jaws of Death" (1973)

"Dick Whittington and his Cat" (1973)

"Babies Grow Old" (1974)

"The Silent Majority" (1974)

"Abigail's Party" (1977)

"Too Much of a Good Thing" 1979; BBC radio)

"Ecstasy" (1979)

"Goose-Pimples" (1981)

"Smelling a Rat" (1988)

"Greek Tragedy" (1989)

"It's a Great Big Shame!" (1993)

"Two Thousand Years" (2005)

External links

(Mike Leigh live on "Film Unlimited") - "The Guardian", March 17, 2000.

(Extensive Mike Leigh Biography and Filmography)

(Interview with Leigh on Naked from 1994)

(A Conversation with Mike Leigh - an in-depth interview with the director)


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article about Mike Leigh.

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