Monday, 3 February 2014

Short and Curlies : The Short Films of Mike Leigh

In 1975, Mike Leigh made five films lasting five minutes in length each. They were shot as a pilot for a potential series of films that he hoped would stretch into 50 or so, which would feature characters who would reoccur throughout. Often they would take centre stage, whilst at other times they would appear as walk ons. It's a great idea, very bold and intrinsically 'televisual' but alas it was not to be, and these five Five Minute Films (as they were subsequently called) are all that we have.

It's very hard to review a five minute film, but as this series comes from Mike Leigh, you know it's good. All of the films feature on the DVD boxset Mike Leigh at the BBC



The Birth of the Goalie of the 2001 FA Cup Final

An amateur goalie (Richard Ireson) persuades his wife (Celia Quirke) to come off the Pill and get pregnant "in time for Christmas". When she eventually gives birth, he arrives too late, having played in a match in which he conceded five goals. The baby is a boy and the film concludes some years later showing him as an infant having a kick about with his old dad.

I like the reversal of gender roles/expectations and stereotypes in this; in that it is the male who wants a baby and his wife to come off the Pill and that equally, the male is shown to have clearly hoped for a girl.

The economy of the piece is brilliant and adds to the humour, with Ireson's character's 'catchphrase' of "Triffic" signifying each key moment; "Come off the Pill", "OK", "Triffic"/ "I'm pregnant", "Triffic"/ "It's a girl", "Triffic"

Sweet performances from Ireson and Quirke too.


Old Chums

A disabled man, Brian (Tim Stern) is trying to get into his car to go and see 'The Blazing Inferno' at the pictures. His task is hampered by an acquaintance Terry (Robert Putt) who is determined to chat about old times and sexual conquests. 

The irony of this one is wonderfully implicit as its clear that these are anything but 'old chums', their union is solely based on the fact they grew up together on a council estate and mixed in the same circles. The key here is how different they are and how Terry is so ignorant of the fact; for example, as he boasts about cars and getting girls into the back of them he clearly never for one moment thinks of Brian's feelings and how, as a disabled man he probably hasn't the ability to get it on in the back of a car, certainly with any ease that's for sure.

Wonderfully naturalistic acting from Putt (an actor who is instantly recognisable though it's not always easy to put one's finger on where from) and Stern, who is most famous for playing the hapless Laurence in Abigail's Party.  I've always really liked Stern so it's good to see him shine here in another Leigh feature, however brief.


Probation


A black youth (Herbert Norville) appears for his first probation appointment. He's been in a minor fight with a police officer after failing to pay for a cup of tea. The probation officer (Antony Carrick) explains the procedure and how he has to write a report for the lad's court appearance. The film ends with the officer leaving the room to make a cup of tea to remark "Don't nick the silver while I'm gone"

Having worked in probation offices this is actually quite a realistic depiction of what goes on. In fact it feels like a fly on the wall it's so natural. You could argue that the PO is a bit ignorant and cynical and also possibly racist himself, but I feel it's just as likely that he just has the dry gallows humour you need to have to survive in that job.


A Light Snack

A lady (Margaret Heery) lets the window cleaner (Richard Griffiths) in to do her windows and as a reward gives him a cuppa and a sausage roll. Intercut with these scenes we see the process of just such a snack being made in a factory by a motormouth scouser (Alan Gaunt) and his long suffering mostly silent colleague (David Casey) who eventually blows up and tells him to shut it.

I admire the aim with this one. Leigh is clearly fascinated by the relationship and journey between manufacture and consumerism. It's  a neat idea to explore.


Afternoon

Two women (Pauline Moran and Rachel Davies) spend the afternoon smoking, drinking whisky and indulging in humourously jaded 'all men are bastards' based conversations whilst a baby sleeps upstairs. A younger woman (Julie North) arrives, settles down, but doesn't want whisky, she wants coffee. Immediately at odds, she is clearly in a honeymoon period and doesn't understand the other girls cynical remarks. "Don't you love your husband?" she asks, causing the pair to laugh.

I think the significance of this was has been a bit lost over time. In 1975 it was perhaps daring to show what 'the women' get up to of an afternoon and to show them drinking and telling jokes just like the perceived view of men. But now we're a little more equal (don't start me on that subject - 'Blurred Lines' and 'Cumberbitches' alone tells you how less equal we're becoming than say, a couple of years ago) it's perhaps less insightful. Great actors though; Davies is a regular character actor who has graced many a programme over the years and always convinces, whilst Moran is now best known as Poirot's Miss Lemon in the David Suchet ITV adaptations.

Leigh would return to the short film medium later in his career (notably his unusual role as a director for hire with Jim Broadbent's A Sense Of History in 1992) with The Short and Curlies in 1987 and in 2012 A Running Jump



The Short and Curlies

Cheekily and wisely,  Mike Leigh's 18 minute cinematic short from 1987 manages to be multilayered and densely packed, as if to prove something about the short not having to be...well, short. Brief scenes come thick and fast covering quite a scope, specifically from boy meets girl to boy and girl prepare for marriage.

Sylvestra Le Touzel stars as Joy, a rather humourless young woman who works at a chemist. Its there that she meets Clive (David Thewlis) a walking compendium of corny jokes. Their burgeoning relationship is played out through Joy's visits to her hairdresser, Betty; a breathless bundle of nervous energy and ailments played by Alison Steadman. Betty's daughter Charlene (Wendy Nottingham)  is still at home and, as we see, his heavily pregnant. However, in a series of tragicomic moments, the perpetually itching Betty seems unable to engage with the dour Charlene other than to discuss the romances of others in real life (Joy included) or just those playing out on the TV the pair sit agog too. 

The short is full of, for want of a better word, clinical language. AIDS, constipation and laxatives and the various ailments of Betty are all discussed throughout the duration in a very unselfconscious matter of fact manner that makes the viewer cringe - a typical Leigh trademark at the time (long before Ricky Gervais and the like). I mean, who on earth discusses their constipation and their decision to try senokot on a date?! Joy does of course, leading to one of Clive's gags "Then the world will fall out of your bottom"

As the film ends, with Joy getting her new hairdo in advance of the wedding, one wonders what lies in store for the strange pairing of Joy and Clive, much like Leigh asked us to wonder about the odd ticking timebomb pairings in the likes of Abigail's Party the previous decade.



A Running Jump

Made as part of the Cultural Olympiad of 2012 and earning two broadcasts in July on both BBC2 and Channel 4 in the same week, Mike Leigh's A Running Jump acts as a stop gap between 2010's brilliant Another Year and the much anticipated JMW Turner biography, Mr Turner, due later this year.

Leigh assembled a brilliant cast including regulars Eddie Marsan and Sam Kelly as father and son, and newcomers Samantha Spiro as Marsan's wife and Lee Ingleby as a hapless customer just trying to buy one of Marsan's many bargain motors - just not necessarily the one he had his eye originally on.

 I love the kinetic energy of this, the bumblebee attack of the piano keys on the soundtrack and Eddie Marsan's bouncy wideboy walk. I love how, when Leigh approaches a short film - like The Short and Curlies before it - he invariably packs in so much, it's like he's giving you tremendous value for money!  The plot or more specifically Marsan's character and his family life reminds me a little of the old ITV series Frank Stubbs which starred Leigh regular Timothy Spall in the titular and seemed to be somewhat styled after Leigh's work. Eddie is brilliant, as per usual and it's always nice to see him play what is essentially a nice guy instead of the villains he so often plays and excels in, but equally Sam Kelly gives a great performance as the mouth breathing, boring factoid spouting ageing cab driver.

The familiar Leigh fascinations are in attendance; motormouth families scratching around for a living, and Ingleby's character having an almost Johnny like obsession with theories like the Mayan prophecy (except unlike Naked's central character he's far more innocent and well meaning)  there's also more than a hint of Alison Steadman's keep fit class mum in Spiro's yoga instructor.  It's actually quite amusing how much Leigh's usual preoccupations take centre stage in a short film supposedly intrinsically linked to the Olympics, which barely get a mention. 

A Running Jump a wonderfully vibrant short with a cast and director clearly giving it their all.

The Five Minute Films are available to watch on Youtube, The Short and Curlies can be found on Vimeo and A Running Jump is on 4OD.

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