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Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh.jpg
Leigh in 2015
Mike Leigh

(1943-02-20) 20 February 1943 (age 81)
Alma mater
Occupation Director, screenwriter, producer, actor
Years active 1963–present
Notable work
Life Is Sweet (1990)
Secrets & Lies (1996)
Topsy-Turvy (1999)
Vera Drake (2004)
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
Another Year (2010)
Mr. Turner (2014)
Alison Steadman
(m. 1973; div. 2001)
Children 2

Mike Leigh OBE FRSL (born 20 February 1943) is an English writer-director with a career spanning film, theatre and television. He has received numerous accolades, including prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, the Venice International Film Festival, three BAFTA Awards, and nominations for seven Academy Awards. He also received the BAFTA Fellowship in 2014, and was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1993 Birthday Honours for services to the film industry.

Leigh studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), the Camberwell School of Art, the Central School of Art and Design and the London School of Film Technique. His short-lived acting career included the role of a mute in the 1963 Maigret episode "The Flemish Shop". He began working as a theatre director and playwright in the mid-1960s, before transitioning to making televised plays and films for BBC Television in the 1970s and '80s. Leigh is known for his lengthy rehearsal and improvisation techniques with actors to build characters and narrative for his films. His purpose is to capture reality and present "emotional, subjective, intuitive, instinctive, vulnerable films".

Leigh's early films include Bleak Moments (1971), Meantime (1983), and Life Is Sweet (1990). He received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Secrets & Lies (1996). He received further Oscar nominations for Topsy-Turvy (1999), Vera Drake (2004), and Another Year (2010). Other notable films include All or Nothing (2002), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), Mr. Turner (2014), and Peterloo (2018). His stage plays include Smelling A Rat, It's A Great Big Shame, Greek Tragedy, Goose-Pimples, and Abigail's Party.

Early life

Leigh was born to Phyllis Pauline (née Cousin) and Alfred Abraham Leigh, a doctor. Leigh was born at Brocket Hall in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, which was at that time a maternity home. His mother, in her confinement, went to stay with her parents in Hertfordshire for comfort and support while her husband was serving as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Leigh was brought up in the Broughton area of Salford, Lancashire. He attended North Grecian Street Junior School. He is from a Jewish family; his paternal grandparents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who settled in Manchester. The family name, originally Lieberman, had been anglicised in 1939 "for obvious reasons". When the war ended, Leigh's father began his career as a general practitioner in Higher Broughton, "the epicentre of Leigh's youngest years and the area memorialised in Hard Labour." Leigh went to Salford Grammar School, as did the director Les Blair, his friend, who produced Leigh's first feature film Bleak Moments (1971). There was a strong tradition of drama in the all-boys school, and an English master, Mr Nutter, supplied the library with newly published plays.

Outside school Leigh thrived in the Manchester branch of Labour Zionist youth movement Habonim. In the late 1950s he attended summer camps and winter activities over the Christmas break all round the country. Throughout this time the most important part of his artistic consumption was cinema, although this was supplemented by his discovery of Picasso, Surrealism, The Goon Show, and even family visits to the Hallé Orchestra and the D'Oyly Carte. His father, however, was deeply opposed to the idea that Leigh might become an artist or an actor. He forbade him his frequent habit of sketching visitors who came to the house and regarded him as a problem child because of his creative interests. In 1960, "to his utter astonishment", he won a scholarship to RADA. Initially trained as an actor at RADA, Leigh started to hone his directing skills at East 15 Acting School where he met the actress Alison Steadman.

Leigh later attended Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (in 1963), the Central School of Art and Design and the London School of Film Technique on Charlotte Street. When he had arrived in London, one of the first films he had seen was Shadows (1959), an improvised film by John Cassavetes, in which a cast of unknowns was observed 'living, loving and bickering' on the streets of New York and Leigh had "felt it might be possible to create complete plays from scratch with a group of actors." Other influences from this time included Harold Pinter's The Caretaker—"Leigh was mesmerised by the play and the (Arts Theatre) production"— Samuel Beckett, whose novels he read avidly, and the writing of Flann O'Brien, whose "tragi-comedy" Leigh found particularly appealing. Influential and important productions he saw in this period included Beckett's Endgame, Peter Brook's King Lear and in 1965 Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, a production developed through improvisations. The visual worlds of Ronald Searle, George Grosz, Picasso, and William Hogarth exerted another kind of influence. He played small roles in several British films in the early 1960s, (West 11, Two Left Feet) and played a young deaf-mute, interrogated by Rupert Davies, in the BBC Television series Maigret. In 1964–65, he collaborated with David Halliwell.

Leigh has been described as "a gifted cartoonist ... a northerner who came south, slightly chippy, fiercely proud (and critical) of his roots and Jewish background; and he is a child of the 1960s and of the explosion of interest in the European cinema and the possibilities of television."



In 1965, he went to work at the Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham as a resident assistant director and had the opportunity to start experimenting with the idea that writing and rehearsing could potentially be part of the same process. The Box Play, a family scenario staged in a cage-like box, "absorbed all sorts of contemporary ideas in art such as the space frames of Roland was visually very exciting," and two more 'improvised' pieces followed.

After the Birmingham interlude he found a flat in Euston, where he lived for the next ten years. In 1966–67, he worked as an assistant director with the Royal Shakespeare Company on productions of Macbeth, Coriolanus, and The Taming of the Shrew. He worked on an improvised play of his own with some professional actors called NENAA, (an acronym for the North East New Arts Association), which explored the fantasies of a Tynesider working in a café, with ideas of founding an arts association in the northeast.


Leigh wrote, in 1970, "I saw that we must start off with a collection of totally unrelated characters (each one the specific creation of its actor) and then go through a process in which I must cause them to meet each other, and build a network of real relationships; the play would be drawn from the results." After Stratford-upon-Avon, Leigh directed a couple of London drama school productions that included Thomas Dekker's The Honest W... at E15 Acting School in Loughton – where he met Alison Steadman for the first time. In 1968, wanting to return to Manchester, he sub-let his London flat and moved to Levenshulme. Taking up a part-time lectureship in a Catholic women teachers training college, Sedgley Park, he ran a drama course and devised and directed Epilogue, focusing on a priest with doubts, and for the Manchester Youth Theatre he devised and directed two big-cast projects, Big Basil and Glum Victoria and the Lad with Specs.

As the decade came to a close, Leigh knew he wanted to make films, and that "The manner of working was at last fixed. There would be discussions and rehearsals. Plays or films would develop organically with actors fully liberated into the creative process. After an exploratory improvisation period, Leigh would write a structure, indicating the order in which scenes happened, usually with a single bare sentence: Johnny and Sophie meet; Betty does Joy's hair; [etc.]. And it was rehearsed and rehearsed until it achieved the required quality of 'finish'."

In the 1970s, Leigh made nine television plays. Earlier plays such as Nuts in May and Abigail's Party tended more towards bleakly yet humorously satirising middle-class manners and attitudes. His plays are generally more caustic, stridently trying to show the banality of society. Goose-Pimples and Abigail's Party both focus on the middle class in a convivial party setting that spirals out of control. The television version of Abigail's Party was made at some speed, Steadman was pregnant at the time, and Leigh's objections to flaws in the production, particularly the lighting, led to his preference for theatrical films.


There was something of a hiatus in Leigh's career following the death of his father at the end of February 1985. Leigh was in Australia at the time – having agreed to attend a screenwriters' conference in Melbourne at the start of 1985, he had then accepted an invitation to teach at the Australian Film School in Sydney – and he then 'buried his solitude and sense of loss in a busy round of people, publicity and talks.' He gradually extended 'the long journey home' and went on to visit Bali, Singapore, Hong Kong, China. He said later, " The whole thing was an amazing, unforgettable period in my life. But it was all to do with personal feelings, my father, where to go next, and my desire to make a feature film. I felt I was at the end of one stage of my career and at the start of another."

His 1986 project codenamed 'Rhubarb', for which he had gathered actors in Blackburn, including Jane Horrocks, Julie Walters and David Thewlis, was cancelled after seven weeks' rehearsals and Leigh returned home. "The nature of what I do is totally creative, and you have to get in there and stick with it. The tension between the bourgeois suburban and the anarchist bohemian that is in my work is obviously in my life, too...I started to pull myself together. I didn't work, I simply stayed at home and looked after the boys." In 1987 Channel 4 put up some money for a short film and, with Portman Productions, agreed to co-produce Leigh's first feature film since Bleak Moments.

In 1988, Mike Leigh and producer Simon Channing Williams founded Thin Man Films, a film production company based in London, to produce Mike Leigh's films. They chose the company name because both founders were the opposite of it. Later in 1988, he made High Hopes, about a disjointed working-class family whose members live in a run-down flat and a council house. Leigh's subsequent films such as Vera Drake are somewhat starker, more brutal, and concentrate more on the working-class. His stage plays include Smelling A Rat, It's A Great Big Shame, Greek Tragedy, Goose-Pimples, and Abigail's Party.


Throughout the 1990s, Leigh enjoyed his share of critical successes including such films as the comedy Life is Sweet (1990) starring Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, Claire Skinner, and Jane Horrocks. The film was his third feature film which follows a working-class North London family over a few weeks one summer. Film critic Philip French in The Observer defended the film against criticism that it was patronising: "Leigh has been called patronising. The charge is false. The Noël Coward/David Lean film This Happy Breed, evoked by Leigh in several panning shots across suburban back gardens, is patronising. Coward and Lean pat their characters on the back...Leigh shakes them, hugs them, sometimes despairs over them, but never thinks that they are other than versions of ourselves." The film was nominated by the Independent Spirit Awards for Best International Film.

Leigh's fourth feature film was the black comedy Naked (1993), starring David Thewlis as an intellectual and conspiracy theorist. The film premiered at the 46th Cannes Film Festival where it competed for the Palme d'Or and received wins for Best Director for Leigh and Best Actor for Thewlis. Derek Malcolm of The Guardian noted that the film "is certainly Leigh's most striking piece of cinema to date" and that "it tries to articulate what is wrong with the society that Mrs Thatcher claims does not exist."

In 1996, Leigh directed his fifth feature film the drama Secrets & Lies (1996). The film's ensemble featured a cast of Leigh regulars including Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn, Phyllis Logan, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. The film premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival where it received the Palme d'Or and the Best Actress award for Blethyn. The film was both a financial and critical success. Influential film critic Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, gave Secrets & Lies four out of four stars. He wrote that "moment after moment, scene after scene, Secrets & Lies unfolds with the fascination of eavesdropping". He called the film "a flowering of his technique. It moves us on a human level, it keeps us guessing during scenes as unpredictable as life, and it shows us how ordinary people have a chance of somehow coping with their problems, which are rather ordinary, too." In 2009, he added the film to his "Great Movies" list. The film received five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, and Best Director.


The anger inherent in Leigh's material, in some ways typical of the Thatcher years, softened after her departure from the political scene. 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.

In 2002, Leigh became chairman for his alma mater, London Film School. Leigh remained chair until March 2018, where he was succeeded by Greg Dyke.

In 2004, he directed ninth directorial feature film, Vera Drake, a British period film about a working-class woman (Imelda Staunton). The film premiered at the 61st Venice International Film Festival to rapturous reviews where it won the Golden Lion for Best Film, and the Volpi Cup for Best Actress for Staunton. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an approval rating of 92%. The film received 11 British Academy Film Award nominations winning 3 awards for Best Director, Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Costume Design. The film was also nominated for 3 Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.

In 2008, Leigh released his a modern-day comedy, Happy-Go-Lucky starring Sally Hawkins where it debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival where she won the Silver Bear for Best Actress. The film was a critical success with many praising Hawkins for her lead performance. She received many Awards including a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical. That same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2008.


Mike Leigh Cannes 2014
Leigh at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival

In 2010, Leigh released his film, Another Year starring Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, and Lesley Manville. It premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival in competition for the Palme d'Or. The film was shown at the 54th London Film Festival before its general British release date on 5 November 2010. The film was also a success in the United States with film critic Roger Ebert giving the film his highest rating, four out of four stars writing, "Not quite every year brings a new Mike Leigh film, but the years that do are blessed with his sympathy, penetrating observation, and instinct for human comedy...Leigh's "Another Year" is like a long, purifying soak in empathy." At the 83rd Academy Awards, Leigh was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay losing to The King's Speech.

In 2012, Leigh was selected to be jury president of the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival.

Leigh released his twelfth feature film, the biographical period film Mr. Turner (2014) based on the life and artworks of J. M. W. Turner portrayed by Timothy Spall. The film premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival where it competed for the Palme d'Or and won rave reviews, with many critics praising Spall's performance as the talented artist. Spall received the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor Award and the film won the Vulcan Award for its cinematography by Dick Pope. Observer critic Mark Kermode described the film as a "portrait of a man wrestling light with his hands as if it were a physical element: tangible, malleable, corporeal". That year, Leigh joined The Hollywood Reporter for an hourlong roundtable discussion with other directors who had made films that year Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), Angelina Jolie (Unbroken), and Christopher Nolan (Interstellar). The film received four Academy Award nominations for its Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, and Costume Design.

In 2015, he accepted an offer from English National Opera to direct the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance (cond: David Parry, design: Alison Chitty, starring: Andrew Shore, Rebecca de Pont Davies and Jonathan Lemalu). The production then toured Europe, visiting Luxembourg (Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg), Caen (Théâtre de Caen) and Saarländisches Staatstheater.

In 2018, Leigh released another historical feature, Peterloo, based on the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. The film was selected to be screened in the main competition section of the 75th Venice International Film Festival. The film was distributed in the UK by Entertainment One and in the US by Amazon Video. The film received mixed reviews with The New York Times called it a "brilliant and demanding film".


In February 2020, it was reported that Leigh would begin shooting his latest film in the summer. After a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was announced that the film would go into production in 2023.


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 personal motivation. When an improvisation needs to be stopped, he says to the actors: 'Come out of character,' before they discuss what's happened or what might have happened in a situation.

Leigh begins his projects without a script, but starts from a basic premise that is developed through improvisation by the actors. Leigh initially works one-to-one with each actor, developing a character who is based, in the first place, on someone he or she knows. 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. "The world of the characters and their relationships is brought into existence by discussion and a great amount of improvisation ... And research into anything and everything that will fill out the authenticity of the character." It is after months of rehearsal, or 'preparing for going out on location to make up a film', that Leigh writes a shooting script, a bare scenario. Then, on location, after further 'real rehearsing', the script is finalized; "I'll set up an improvisation, ... I'll analyse and discuss it, ... we'll do another and I'll ... refine and refine... until the actions and dialogue are totally integrated. Then we shoot it."

Leigh's characters often struggle, "to express inexpressible feelings. Words are important, but rarely enough. The art of evasion and failure in communication certainly comes from Pinter, whom Leigh acknowledges as an important influence. He especially admires Pinter's earliest work and directed The Caretaker while still at RADA."


Leigh has cited Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray among his favourite film makers. In addition to those two, in an interview recorded at the National Film Theatre at the BFI on 17 March 1991; Leigh also cited Frank Capra, Fritz Lang, Yasujirō Ozu and even Jean-Luc Godard, "...until the late 60s." When pressed for British influences, in that interview, he referred to the Ealing comedies "...despite their unconsciously patronizing way of portraying working class people" and the early 60s British New Wave films. When asked for his favorite comedies, he replied, One, Two, Three, La règle du jeu and "any Keaton".

Favourite films

In 2012, Leigh participated in that year's Sight & Sound film polls. Held every ten years to select the greatest films of all time, contemporary directors were asked to select ten films. Leigh named the following ten:

  • American Madness (USA, 1932)
  • Barry Lyndon (USA, 1975)
  • The Emigrants (Sweden, 1970)
  • How a Mosquito Operates (USA, 1912)
  • I Am Cuba (Cuba, 1964)
  • Jules and Jim (France, 1962)
  • Radio Days (USA, 1987)
  • Songs from the Second Floor (Sweden, 2000)
  • Tokyo Story (Japan, 1953)
  • The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Italy, 1978)

Leigh participated again in the 2022 poll, selecting the following ten films:

  • How a Mosquito Operates (USA, 1912)
  • Tokyo Story (Japan, 1953)
  • The 400 Blows (France, 1959)
  • Some Like It Hot (USA, 1959)
  • The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Italy, 1964)
  • Loves of a Blonde (Czechoslovakia, 1965)
  • Here Is Your Life (Sweden, 1966)
  • Barry Lyndon (USA, 1975)
  • Songs from the Second Floor (Sweden, 2000)
  • The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Romania, 2005)

Personal life

In September 1973, Leigh married actress Alison Steadman. They have two sons. Steadman appeared in seven of his films and several of his plays, including Wholesome Glory and Abigail's Party. They divorced in 2001. Leigh then lived in central London with the actress Marion Bailey.


Year Title Director Writer Distribution
Bleak Moments Yes Yes BBC Films
Meantime Yes Yes BBC Films
High Hopes Yes Yes Skouras Pictures
Life Is Sweet Yes Yes Palace Pictures
Naked Yes Yes Fine Line Features
Secrets & Lies Yes Yes October Films
Career Girls Yes Yes Film4 Productions
Topsy-Turvy Yes Yes Pathé Distribution
All or Nothing Yes Yes UGC Films
Vera Drake Yes Yes Fine Line Features
Happy-Go-Lucky Yes Yes Momentum Pictures
Another Year Yes Yes Sony Pictures Classics
Mr. Turner Yes Yes
Peterloo Yes Yes Entertainment One/Amazon

Accolades and honours

Leigh has been nominated at the Academy Awards seven times: twice each for Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake (Best Original Screenplay and Best Director) and once for Topsy-Turvy, Happy-Go-Lucky, and Another Year (Best Original Screenplay only). Leigh has also 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 was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1993 Birthday Honours, for services to the film industry.

In 2002 he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Essex.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Mike Leigh para niños

  • Kitchen sink realism
  • Angry young men
  • Working class culture
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