It was the 1970's largely amateur stage production of Brecht's The Life of Galileo for the Bermuda Arts Festival that Mike Leigh deemed such an 'atrocious experience' that he vowed never to direct anything other than his own material ever again.
He broke that vow just the once in 1992 with A Sense of History, the Bafta nominated short from 1992, written by and starring his long time collaborator Jim Broadbent. As such it remains something of a rarity in Leigh's body of work and is perhaps a testament to Leigh's friendship, respect and appreciation for Broadbent.
Broadbent's script is a very clever satire of the upper classes and of the kind of biographical talking head short documentary film that seemed to be in constant circulation at the time, such was the fascination for the previous generation of 'betters' and their going down of the sun on the British Empire.
It's essentially a one man show (though we do see two children and an estate worker during the film) in which Broadbent stars as the fictional 23rd Earl of Leete, a true British eccentric who takes the viewer on a tour of his estate and tells of the progress of over 900 years of family history. A Sense of History's look and - on first inspection at least - script is a beguiling recreation of those then popular documentary films that instantly puts the viewer on the back foot in terms of what to expect. It's only when Broadbent's character begins to reveal not only obnoxious, offensive and outmoded beliefs but more importantly, and more surprisingly, homicidal chapters in his life that we realise what we're in for; a darkly funny piece of satire and a character piece to utterly cherish.
I do believe Jim Broadbent is an amazingly underrated character actor - yes that's right, Jim Broadbent the Oscar winning, multi-BAFTA nominated actor is, I feel, underrated. This performance, from his own script (he came across the idea when improvising a monologue to himself on a walk in the Fens) shows just what a chameleon he is. For many British audiences at the time, certainly in the mainstream, Broadbent was known only for his occasional role in Only Fools and Horses as bent copper Roy Slater but this is such a marked difference, an astonishing performance that displays his quirky range and talents beautifully. It's a real shame he hasn't written more since.
Shot on location at Highclere Castle, Newbury in the middle of a freezing January 1992, Dick Pope's bright and crisp cinematography invokes a tangible chill in the viewer that it was clear Broadbent felt when filming. Leigh's perfect evocation of the visual and aesthetic aspect the kind of documentary they're mimicking employed is spot on and is perhaps a far better though just as broad a satirical depiction of the upper classes than his own films - High Hopes and Who's Who - could manage. A Sense of History is a joyous 22 minute film that demands repeat viewings that only serve to further appreciate the production.
But don't just take my word for it, do yourself a favour and watch it here...