IN PRAISE OF MIKE LEIGH

The next post will be on or before Friday April 27th.  If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating, The Lawless Book of Love, you should go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

IN PRAISE OF MIKE LEIGH

Haughty male voice. “Bring me a biscuit, Christine, a Garibaldi!”

“Very well, dear.”

“No, no, bring me a Bourbon instead!”

Thus, Ralph Butcher the middle aged, tyrannical RE (Religious Education) school teacher orders his dogsbody of a wife, netball teacher Christine, the two of them living in a faceless purchased council house in Canterbury, Kent, UK somewhere around the late 1970s, when men could still boss women about and apparently get away with it. In this accomplished 1980 Mike Leigh comedy for TV, Grown Ups, Butcher is played very ably by the late Sam Kelly (1943-1970) with his impressively egotistical owl-like face familiar from BBC comedies like Porridge and Ello Ello. Butcher is aloof and more or less contemptuous of his pupils, and likes to sit in bed reading aloud to Christine their illiterate RE essays. That is the only thing that happens in bed, and Christine played by the beautiful Pinter actress Lindsay Duncan (born 1950) here looking terminally dowdy and with a singsong pedantic voice, still wants a love life and tells Ralph at one harrowing point she would very much like that elusive trio Love, Sex and Happiness. The religion teacher is suitably stumped and makes no comment as he keeps on earnestly reading his books about the Loch Ness monster and other garish mysteries. Earlier, when his wife asked him did he really believe in the fabled monster, he had ranted at her for her lack of Faith, which of course is an interestingly heretical interpretation given that later he declares theirs to be a Christian household. Even better as a comic touch, and reminiscent of the HG Wells shop-owner tyrants in Kipps and Mr Polly, Ralph punctuates his discourse with odd gurgling noises that arise from his stomach but come relentlessly to the surface in his fish-like mouth.

Next door, two of Ralph’s former pupils, now newly-weds in their early 20s, have just moved in. They recognise him, but he doesn’t remember them, which predictably causes him nil embarrassment. Dick the husband is played by Leigh regular Philip Davis (born 1953) and he is a grunting monosyllabic underdog, working wearily as a washer up of greasy casserole tins in a cheap restaurant. He has a permanent expression of bleary disdain, and despite his ever-ready libido is fighting off the ambition of his cafe employee wife, Mandy (Lesley Manville, another Leigh regular, born 1956) to get pregnant ASAP. They are effective working class counterpoints to the childless middle class Butchers, though Dick like bossy Ralph orders Mandy to make him a cup of tea while he is watching telly sprawled on his back, and when she refuses, he gets in a filthy temper. The young and impoverished couple converse in standard aspirational cliché about gathering things together bit by bit, as they have neither Hoover nor washing machine as yet. Partly this is because they like to go out drinking most nights, while unreformed Dick also reserves the right to go carousing with the boys on his own.  And into this quaint opposition of the quietly desperate Butchers and their unglamorous young neighbours, comes the powerful dramatic foil of Mandy’s older sister, significantly called Gloria/Glor and played with absolute genius by Brenda Blethyn (born 1946) familiar both from Leigh dramas and, sad to say an unbelievably dire UK TV police drama, called Vera.

Gloria is a sad, indeed a truly tragic case. She is 32 and single, a zealous office worker, and she lives at home with Mum who nags her if she goes out, and nags her if she stops in. Her only chance of happiness is to spend as much time as possible with Mandy, so she is always gawping through the window and hailing them heartily with her squeaky insinuating voice, oblivious to their looks of frank despair. She always lands when they are about to eat their dinner, and protests that a bit of toast will be enough for her and promptly helps herself at the grill. This makes Mandy and even Dick feel both guilty and resentful, and in Dick’s case gradually explosive. Gloria craftily ingratiates herself by buying double gins for Mandy in the pub after she had promised to join them for the one drink only, then swiftly depart. Even better she turns up one day with a massive parcel which turns out to be a stand- up Hoover and the two sisters purr ecstatically at the joy of the wondrous gadget. And as foil to a foil, we also have Mandy’s old schoolmate Sharon, played perfectly by Janine Duvitski (born 1952) of Leigh’s 1977 Abigail’s Party fame. Sharon is pessimism personified, and Dick’s relentless teasing implies they might once have had something going between them. Mandy proudly shows her round the house where Sharon declares everything is either too small or needs a good clean. She grumbles about her job on the sweet counter in a big store, and says she wants to be on dresses, but once on dresses says she is bored and wishes she were back on sweets.

Things come to a disturbing head when Gloria turns up with her overnight gear claiming her Mum has kicked her out. Mandy happens to be out drinking with Sharon, and Dick is trying to watch football on Grandstand when the maddening pest arrives. On her return he orders Mandy to throw her out, who does her best, but then sobbing Gloria races off and locks herself in upstairs, until pursued by enraged Dick she flees next door to the Butchers! She barricades herself in their toilet and only Mrs Butcher shows anything like mature sympathy when it comes to calming the pathetic hysteric. She orders raging Dick to get out of her house, clouts Mandy across the face when she terrifies Gloria further, and also bellows at bullying Ralph to get out of the way. She manages to get Gloria out of her refuge with a cup of tea, whereupon the pest promptly falls asleep exhausted, and Christine organises Mandy and Sharon to take her home by taxi. All this might have seemed final, and Mandy and Dick might have banned the hopeless sister for ever more, but the film concludes with Gloria bent over her sister’s swollen belly, ecstatic as she feels the baby kicking and realising she is about to become an aunty.

So what to make of Mike Leigh (born 1943) winner of numerous international prizes for his films and TV work, yet still criticised by some for his unsentimental and others might add, cruelly satirical attitude towards his characters? Around 40 years ago the novelist Julian Barnes (born 1946) then TV critic for the New Statesman was complaining that Leigh was uncomfortably patronising towards the working class and putting his audiences into the invidious situation of sneering at what should not be sneered at. Aside from the fact that impeccably intellectual Barnes, would have about as much notion of how to blend into a rough London pub or other mundane milieu as he would of astral travel, where I believe Mike Leigh really deserves to be applauded is with his radical decision not to idealise working people, nor for that matter anyone else in his dramas. He is accused of overdone caricature when he portrays e.g. the appalling slob of a Mancunian Dad (Clifford Kershaw) in Hard Labour (1973) a gruff and loveless nightwatchman with painful feet who treats his charwoman wife (Liz Smith, 1921-2016) like dirt. But sad to say such folk did and do still exist, and I myself have known them, and Leigh really is not parodying anything or anyone to excess. And after all, Leigh is a director and a dramatist, not an idealistic journalist nor sociologist, and if he wishes to, surely he is entitled to bend the coordinates to get the artistic effects he is after. Where he really excels though, is with people painfully on the edge, such as needy hopeless Gloria, or the seriously disturbed driving instructor Scott played brilliantly by Eddie Marsan (born 1968) in the 2008 Happy Go Lucky, or photographer Timothy Spall’s fragile and childless  Scottish wife in Secrets and Lies (1996) or most powerfully of all with Johnny the Mancunian vagabond (the virtuoso David Thewlis, born 1963) jabbering his apocalyptic obsessions, as he wanders round London looking for who knows what, in that remarkable 1993 film Naked. It is an undeniable fact that Leigh specialises in making us feel thoroughly uncomfortable, indeed has us comically squirming in our chairs, as we recognise those sad and appalling and periodically hilarious folk, who are remarkably like ourselves, and those we know, at our worst. Reflect that no one seriously criticised Harold Pinter (1930-2008) for conveying disturbed and damaging eccentrics in hypertrophied form on the stage, and ditto with the subversive Joe Orton (1933-1967) if only because their bizarre protagonists were by and large classless and rootless and far from realistic flesh and blood individuals. Leigh achieves the same unhinging effects, but with extremely credible café skivvies in Grown Ups, and very ordinary London postmen in the 1982 Home Sweet Home, and ditto the unfeeling Manchester nightwatchman, and the convincingly callous Asian taxi driver (a very young Ben Kingsley) in Hard Labour. He presents them quite so unflatteringly and inevitably uncomfortably, just possibly because he sees the notional aesthetic of the audience’s  ‘comfort’, as ultimately bogus and the consequent enemy of dramatic truth.

 

 

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