Mike Leigh has been sometimes regarded as one of the great mavericks of British arts world, a man whose work in theatre, cinema and television has always been provocative and inventive.
He is also regarded as one of the cinema world’s most creative geniuses – winning international honours for his profoundly humanistic approach to portraying the world through his art.
As a mark of his country’s thanks he was awarded an OBE in 1993, and France honoured him with the Order des Artes et Lettres in 1996.
Additionally, he has been nominated for numerous Oscars and BAFTA awards.
His first film was released in 1970, and one film critic wrote the title of this first film, "Bleak Moments, could sum up his work as a whole: it's full of bleak moments, which more often than not contribute to a well-rounded picture of working-class life…. Pessimism runs all through Leigh's early work. He himself has admitted that 'there's not one of my pieces before High Hopes that isn't somewhere along the way a lamentation for the awfulness of life.'
Born and bred in Salford, Leigh was raised in a cultured and committed household – his grandfather being a Russian émigré with a talent for miniature portraiture. His father was a doctor. He was to say years later that being brought up in a gritty yet noble Victorian city such as Manchester was a useful influence, providing him with images, ideas, and a strong sense of the contradictions within culture and society – very strongly seen in his highly acclaimed "Topsy Turvy" which explored the Victorian world of Gilbert and Sullivan. "
Mike Leigh once said. "As a kid in the '40s and '50s, I would sit in movies endlessly -- and that's mostly Hollywood and British films - we didn't see any other films - and think wouldn't it be great if you could see people in films like people actually are." That passion in his youth was to give him a clear sense of direction for the rest of his life.
Mike Leigh started off studying as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but changed course and went on to study film at the London Film School, as well as studies at Camberwell School of Art and Central School of Art and Design.
By the mid sixties he was already a director and designer for stage productions. He worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late sixties and began directing films in 1971. His work at East 15 Acting School provided both him and his collaborators with a unique opportunity – to explore news ways of creating theatre. Since the sixties, he has produced many successful stage productions as well as films and TV.
"His method is famous: he begins with only a sketchy idea, gathers his actors together, and discovers his characters and scripts through extensive improvisation. The advantages of his approach are there on the screen: actors do some of their best work in Leigh's films, capable veterans like Brenda Blethyn and Tim Spall and Jim Broadbent and Alison Steadman, talented up-and-comers like David Thewlis and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, all bringing their craft to a higher level. This technique provides an immediate, rough-hewn quality which is part of what makes them Mike Leigh films, and not anyone else's. Leigh's great strength is as a social realist, as an observer and chronicler, and if some critics say that his films are not perfect, the dramatic structure loose, the narrative untidy, well, life is imperfect, is loose, is untidy. He shows us what he sees, and for the most part he sees true."
His approach shows great care for both his subject and his actors. He and his team do extensive research, exploring the minutiae of the world which they intend to portray. This profound respect for the art of the actor and for the need to seek truth set him aside from most other directors in either theatre, film, or television today.
"They say that there are no births or deaths or weddings in the films of Mike Leigh. There is one funeral, but we only see its tail-end. He leaves out the things that drive other movies, the foundations on which they build. He leaves out beginnings and endings, and leaves in the middle, the muddle, the small joys and niggling frustrations of the everyday. The term "slice of life" is much over-used, but it could not be more appropriate for Leigh's work, because it is exactly that: a slice, a portion, a part of a larger whole, cleanly separated and minutely observed."
For more than 35 years, Mike Leigh has championed new voices in theatre, film, and TV. Whilst he has won many awards himself – he has created the context in which his actors have won even more honours across the world – at one festival in Italy, the award for best actor went to the entire cast of his film "Life is Sweet."
His observation of life’s mysteries and contradictions have chronicled our times – with works such as "Abigail’s Party" and "High Hopes" helping to define their time.
He sets standards for himself and for his art which are uncompromising. Whilst his work takes him around the world, he still finds time to take care about the future of his art, recently taking on the challenging role of Chairman of Governors of the London Film School, where he will help to groom another generation of committed film makers.