The award-winning director remembers Finney’s unique bonhomie, from his shining legacy at Salford grammar school to his support of Leigh’s film debut Bleak Moments
By Mike Leigh | THE GUARDIAN February 15,2019
When I arrived at Salford grammar school in 1954, Albert Finney had just left for Rada, the glittering star of the school’s dramatic society. My school friend and future colleague Les Blair, a year my senior, witnessed his legendary performance as Sweeney Todd. Albert’s legacy shone its light on all of our productions and we tracked his meteoric progress in awe. My final-year production of a very forgettable play won the brand new Albert Finney cup, donated by his parents.
By the time I followed him to Rada in 1960, Albert had become an RSC star, understudying and going on for Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus; he had toured with Charles Laughton, had just completed Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and was appearing in the West End as Billy Liar. There, my Rada classmate and fellow Mancunian Ian McShane and I sheepishly visited him in his dressing room after a performance, to be greeted by his characteristically convivial generosity.
This generosity of spirit drove him to support films by young directors. He had opted for a percentage rather than a fee for his appearance in Tony Richardson’s award-winning Tom Jones; with the proceeds, he and Michael Medwin formed Memorial Enterprises. (“Albert Memorial” – joke.)
Finney and Medwin took on Bleak Moments sight unseen. There was, of course, no script. The film was an expansion of my play of the same name at the Open Space theatre – but neither Albert nor Michael had seen it.
As a backer, Albert’s behaviour was impeccable. No interference of any kind, only full support and warm enthusiasm. He would visit the rehearsals occasionally, quietly watching improvisations, murmuring with excited amusement. Similarly, he would show up now and again on location, spreading his unique bonhomie and goodwill to a tired and overstretched young cast and crew. In post-production, he was gently encouraging at all times.
I regret not having had more to do with Albert over the years. We did discuss working together once but it never came to anything. He was a unique, positive force and I owe him an enormous debt, as does Les Blair. Had he not backed Bleak Moments, our whole subsequent careers could well never have happened.
Cynics will tell you that he backed my first feature film, Bleak Moments, produced by Les Blair, because we were all Salford grammar boys. But our bedfellow fledglings were Stephen Frears, with his hilarious Gumshoe, and the late Tony Scott, who made the moving Loving Memory.