Alison Steadman: ‘I never thought I would live in such strange and scary times’

The actor is back from lockdown with two new dramas. She talks about her 50-year career, Boris Johnson and the joy of miaowing at John Cleese, while James Corden, Julia Davis and Mike Leigh pay tribute

It took less than a week of lockdown for Alison Steadman to start making puppets. Supplies weren’t a problem; this is a woman so anti-waste she thinks supermarkets should charge a fiver for plastic bags and donates her old hair to the birds. “It’s very good for nests; it’s soft and it complements the grass and sticks.”

So, come late March, she decided to knock together a Mr Punch to entertain her grandson on FaceTime. “I’d got all the stuff: toilet roll holder, newspaper, flour, plasticine, Christmas decorations, an old cushion.

“I love Punch and Judy. When I was a child, we’d sometimes go shopping in Liverpool city centre and my treat, if I behaved, was to watch it outside St George’s Hall. People say: ‘Oh, but he used to beat his wife with a stick.’ But as a kid you don’t know that. It’s just fun.”

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Bill Antoniou takes a look at the films of British master filmmaker Mike Leigh

Whenever people tell me that Mike Leigh is one of their favourite filmmakers, I’m always surprised to hear it.  Even though he’s also one of mine, I forget to think of him as an actual filmmaker.

His brilliant work is derived from his achievements in theatre and it bears those origins on screen, though I don’t mean that as criticism. He returns to some character archetypes frequently (the soulful homeless man, the hopelessly chirpy working-class woman) and the conflicts he puts his characters through feel like the stuff of stage drama. He makes them relevant in cinema from the beginning, then as he goes along, directing more films and making his multi-levelled narratives feel more cinematic. (Meantime just feels like watching people, while Another Year plays almost like a thriller.)

A common mistake people make about Leigh’s work is saying that it is improvised. It’s absolutely not, but is rather a script created from work that he does with his actors, creating characters from birth to death and putting them in situations together in which their improvised interactions eventually result in a finished work. In the eighties, he revolutionized the kitchen-sink melodrama. These films were celebrated for nailing the anxieties of the less fortunate under Thatcher’s conservative reign. In the nineties, he applied his observations of simple lives in the less glamorous parts of London to high concept dramas (and in the case of his Palme d’Or-winning Secrets & Lies, created his masterpiece). Continue reading

Left-wing British film and television producer Tony Garnett dead at 83

Garnett’s career spanned 50 years, but he is identified above all with one of the most significant and creative periods in the history of television drama in the UK.

The highly respected film and television producer, writer and director Tony Garnett died on January 12 after a short illness, aged 83.

Garnett was born Anthony Edward Lewis on April 3, 1936, into a working-class family in Birmingham. His mother died when he was just five years old, of septicaemia two days after a backstreet abortion during the Second World War. His father, a munitions worker, committed suicide 19 days later.

Tony Garnett
Tony Garnett

Garnett’s career spanned 50 years, but he is identified above all with one of the most significant and creative periods in the history of television drama in the UK.

Originally an actor, he appeared in television’s The Boys (1962) and Z Cars (1962) and played several small parts in An Age of Kings (1960), the BBC’s influential production of Shakespeare’s history plays.

He moved behind the camera when he was hired as an assistant story editor at the BBC working on The Wednesday Play, which ran from October 1964 to May 1970 and aired more than 170 plays.

This famed series, which addressed social issues before an audience of millions, included the likes of Up the Junction (1965, about abortion), Cathy Come Home (1966, about homelessness), The Lump (1967, about casualised labour in the building industry), In Two Minds (1971, about mental illness as a social problem) and The Big Flame (1969, about a workers’ revolt on the docks), all produced by Garnett. During this period he began long associations with writer Jim Allen, dramatist David Mercer and, most notably, director Ken Loach.

His producing credits include Loach’s Kes (1969), After a Lifetime (1971), Family Life (1971—the film version of In Two Minds), Days of Hope (1975), The Price of Coal (1977) and Black Jack (1978), as well as Roy Battersby’s The Body (1970), Mike Leigh’s Hard Labour (1973), Julien Temple’s Earth Girls Are Easy (1985), Roland Joffe’s Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Hettie Macdonald’s Beautiful Thing (1996).

Garnett came into contact with Gerry Healy and the Socialist Labour League, the British Trotskyists, in the late 1960s. Although he never joined the Trotskyist movement, he was instrumental in organising discussions among actors, writers and directors, including Loach, Mercer, Roy Battersby and Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, that led to important gains within these circles. Playwright Trevor Griffiths depicted those meetings in his play, The Party (1973).

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Lesley Manville: ‘I want to go dancing and drink too much – and I’m over 60’ 

The Bafta nominee has been discovered by Hollywood after 47 years as an actor. She talks about ageism, losing her anonymity and spa trips with her Mum co-stars

Lesley Manville was at the bus stop the other day when the comedian Simon Amstell spotted her and came up for a chat. He wanted to know what she was doing there. Manville affects bewilderment. “I said: ‘Well, why? I’m going to get the bus.’ He said: ‘I don’t imagine you getting the bus.’” He could see her on a bus, but not actually waiting for it, perhaps because she seems both grounded and grand. “I said: ‘I love a bus. I don’t want my life to be about taking taxis.’”

But buses are becoming trickier for Manville. It’s not just the “oomska oomska oomska” of tinny music emitted by other people’s headphones, which “irritates the fuck out of her” and is turning the public space into a private entertainment zone and spoiling the opportunity for earwigging. She can also hear her fellow passengers whispering: “It’s her off Mum! It’s her off Mum!”

The BBC Two sitcom was nominated in four categories at the TV Baftas on Sunday, one of which was Manville for female performance in a comedy, while Mum is about to return for its third and final series. No wonder Manville’s quietly devastating performance as Cathy, a recently widowed mother of one who is falling in love with her late husband’s best friend, is making it hard for her to pass unnoticed. Many bus rides are now spent clocking the furtive glances and wondering whether she will have to get off before her stop.

“I’m clinging on to it,” she says – the “it” being the bus, but also the anonymity she has avidly protected during a 47-year career across stage, TV and film that has won her a reputation not as a glittering national treasure, but as “a stalwart”.

The days of this reputation are numbered. Last year, she was nominated for an Oscar for her potently austere portrayal of Cyril Woodcock, the sister of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Reynolds in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. We meet in the ballroom of the Langham hotel in London as she is preparing to fly to Canada to shoot Let Him Go with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. Hollywood has discovered her, while the acclaim for Mum and Phantom Thread, on the heels of an Olivier award for Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts in 2014, have turned her into a sort of poster girl for the older female actor. Continue reading

For a movie about a famous massacre, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is very dry

Mike Leigh’s films have always been first and foremost about people. He makes incredibly rich and detailed character studies, famously conducting his actors through months of improv work before he even sits down to write a screenplay. Somehow, that’s been the case even when he’s occasionally tackled famous historical subjects, like 19th-century Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. Topsy-Turvy recounts the creation of The Mikado, but everybody on screen, from Gilbert and Sullivan themselves down to the smallest member of the ensemble, registers just as vividly as do the wholly invented characters in Naked or Secrets & Lies.

That’s what makes Leigh’s latest effort such an anomaly. Peterloo doesn’t deliberately skimp on character, but it’s the first of his movies in which no inividual makes much of an impression, and each one is fundamentally subordinate to the larger event being painstakingly chronicled. “Peterloo” is the nickname given to a massacre of unarmed civilians by cavalry soldiers that occurred on August 16, 1819, at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester. (Just as we now strip the “Water” from Watergate for every similar scandal, they stripped the “Water” from Waterloo, suggesting an equivalent to Napoleon’s then-recent bloody defeat.) Eigtheen people were killed in the melee, with hundreds more injured; the movie builds to the horror, eventually showing just what happens when men on horseback charge into a crowd with their swords drawn and start indiscriminately slashing at people who are just trying to get out of the way.

To his credit, Leigh is less interested in the massacre itself than he is in the series of political machinations that inexorably led to it. His challenge: That’s an incredibly dry subject—England’s equivalent of Ben Stein droning on to Ferris Bueller’s classmates about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. Here, the proximate cause of all the trouble is tariffs imposed on imported grain, known as the Corn Laws; widespread dissatisfaction with these laws, which benefited wealthy landowners at the expense of everyone else, resulted in demands for parliamentary reform.

Peterloo makes an effort to demonstrate how this affected a typical Manchester family, opening with one weary soldier (David Moorst) returning home from Waterloo and subsequently becoming semi-radicalized as a result of the deprivation. Mostly, though, the film consists of public meetings at which organizers bellow things like “The object of Parliament ought to be the general good, the equal protection, the security of the person and property of each individual, and therefore labor—the poor man’s only property—ought to be as sacred as any other property!” That sort of rhetoric almost always gets exhausting in a hurry (even MAGA-heads who wait in line all day to see Trump free-associate often leave early), and it represents a sizable chunk of this lengthy film’s first hour [ . . . ]

Read more at AV CLUB: For a movie about a famous massacre, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is very dry