Mike Leigh. Ground-breaking maverick or pretentious miseryguts? To ask the man himself isn’t perhaps the best way to secure an impartial verdict, but the personality that emerges in this series of interviews (composed with superb fluency by Amy Raphael) is an articulate, engaging, generous, highly original and occasionally peppery creative spirit. No British film-maker since Hitchcock has had Leigh’s array of talent. He can act, write, design and direct and he could easily have become one of the industry’s most bankable players had he not doggedly pursued his peculiar working method. He doesn’t use a script. Each film is built up through months of painstaking research and improvisation which he likens to the creation of ‘cartoons in the Raphael sense’. There’s a cultish air to the process. Rules, rituals and prohibitions abound. Actors must refer to their character in the third person. No one may discuss their character with anyone other than Leigh. When actors return home they must watch the TV programmes their characters would watch. Leigh admits to finding it frustrating and tedious in the early stages. Quite often he naps during the improvisations and at other times he ‘scuttles about like a little movie camera.’ He is essentially a religious mystic who seems reluctant to share the secrets of his priestcraft with the laity. How, for example, do actors playing lovers explore their sexual relationship without physically mounting one another in the rehearsal room? No comment. But in the book’s introduction Timothy Spall lets the cat out of the bag. ‘You kneel down in front of one another and make contact through your hands.’ Let’s hope that doesn’t get him excommunicated.
Actors adore Mike Leigh — and no wonder. He elevates their lowly mummer’s trade onto the plane of the sacerdotal, the alchemical.