Mike Leigh’s Five-Minute Films: A Revealing Look at the Director’s Early Cinematic Work (1975)

Mike Leigh works like few oth­er direc­tors. While most movies start with the script, Leigh devel­ops a sto­ry and char­ac­ters with his actors dur­ing long rehearsals. Leigh then assem­bles these exer­cis­es into a script. He will shoot some of that script and then rehearse some more. The result of this unusu­al style is that the actors know their char­ac­ters down to the mar­row. The film feels alive.

Back in 1975, just as Leigh was begin­ning to devel­op his famed method, the BBC com­mis­sioned him to make a series of five-minute movies. Leigh described the con­cept of the assign­ment to writer Sean O’Sullivan:

I thought it was a crack­ing idea, and I would have done forty of them or fifty – so you’d see them all the time, and some­times you might see a char­ac­ter you nev­er saw again, some­times you might see some­body pop­ping up for a moment and then be a main char­ac­ter in anoth­er one, or there’d be a cou­ple of ones that would run on to a nar­ra­tive. It would be a whole micro­cosm of the world. There was debate about whether they should be shown at the same time or they should be dot­ted around the chan­nel, like cur­rants in the pud­ding, as Tony Gar­nett, the pro­duc­er, called it.

The project, sad­ly, was can­celed before it even aired and only five movies were made. Those five were not broad­cast until 1982 when Leigh had already become a big name in British tele­vi­sion.

In some of his best works like Life is Sweet and Naked, Leigh focused on the small dra­mas of work­ing class life, min­ing the unar­tic­u­lat­ed sad­ness and anger sim­mer­ing just beneath the sur­face of mod­ern Britain. His Five-Minute Films show ear­ly glim­mers of his lat­er great­ness.

The plot of the first film, The Birth of the Goalie of the 2001 F.A. Cup Final, is sim­ple to an extreme. The short, which con­sists of ten vignettes span­ning a half-dozen years, is about a cou­ple decid­ing whether or not to have a baby. The name­less bloke repeat­ed­ly asks his reluc­tant part­ner, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a kid?” At the end of the movie, he’s kick­ing the ball around with his young son. The end. It is almost as if Leigh want­ed to see how lit­tle back­sto­ry and char­ac­ter psy­chol­o­gy he could get away with.

The sec­ond film, Old Chums, is the dia­met­ri­cal oppo­site to the first – it’s all about char­ac­ter. The sto­ry, which unfolds in real-time, shows Bri­an, who is dis­abled and in crutch­es, walk­ing to the car as he par­ries the con­ver­sa­tion­al onslaught of a boor­ish ex-school­mate, Ter­ry. The movie buries you in names and long past events that have lit­tle bear­ing on the sto­ry, but leaves cen­tral ques­tions like “what does Ter­ry actu­al­ly want?” tan­ta­liz­ing­ly vague.

A third film, Pro­ba­tion, appears above. You can watch the remain­der of Leigh’s Five-Minute Shorts here. We’ll also add them to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tim Burton’s Ear­ly Stu­dent Films:King and Octo­pus & Stalk of the Cel­ery Mon­ster

Mar­tin Scorsese’s Very First Films: Three Imag­i­na­tive Short Works

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of bad­gers and even more pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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