FOLLOW US ON: follow us in feedly
Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’: The 70s British cult TV inspiration for Louis CK’s ‘Horace and Pete’
09:39 am

Louis CK seems to have an inordinate appetite for risk, and his remarkable TV series Horace and Pete, a self-financed, ad-free project Louis uploaded to his website with zero fanfare from the end of January to early April, is a noble attempt to introduce a little fiber into the diet of the American television consumer.

Having put his FXX show Louie on hiatus for a time and with a new contract ready to be signed at that same network, Louis developed an appetite for a TV project that just could not possibly appear on FXX—or anywhere else in the current TV landscape, for that matter. So Louis developed Horace and Pete, a grim, uncompromising 10-episode filmed tragedy of sorts that wouldn’t feel out of place on New York’s Barrow Street. Set in a bar that has seen better days, Horace and Pete was to feature bracing racism, characters that were stubbornly difficult to warm up to, and a dogged insistence on forging its own very stagelike rhythms.

If you haven’t seen the show, it’s worth paying for an episode or two at Louie’s website to get a notion of just how bracing Horace and Pete is. The show features a lengthy roster of America’s top TV actors (Alan Alda, Edie Falco, Steve Buscemi, Jessica Lange) doing some of their best and most serious work in quite some time.

It’s well known that Louis CK put himself in a bit of a financial hole with the Horace and Pete project—such are the ramifications of dispensing with advertising—but CK will probably be OK. The guy seems to function best without a safety net, and he knows it.

At the end of every show, Louis stuck the names Mike Leigh and Annie Baker in his terse list of thank-yous. Baker recently won the Pulitzer for play The Flick and actually assisted with Horace and Pete, but Mike Leigh’s role was more broadly inspirational.

As Louis recently explained on Marc Maron’s WTF? podcast, the whole idea for Horace and Pete came when Louis happened to see a televised version of Leigh’s jaw-dropping 1977 evisceration of suburban banality, one of the classics of British drama of the 1970s, a play called Abigail’s Party.

Horace and Pete is a long and tangled story centering on a bar that has been in existence for 100 years—Abigail’s Party is far more direct, depicting a single disastrous gathering for drinks in some bland suburb of London. Here’s Louis on WTF? explaining how the play sparked his creativity in such fruitful ways (this starts about 14:30 in; I’ve edited out a few superfluous comments for clarity):

I watched a thing called Abigail’s Party. ... Michael Leigh, the filmmaker from England, amazing filmmaker. Largely an improvisational filmmaker. ... like Secrets and Lies, incredible movies. Even Mr. Turner, the more recent one that nobody gave a shit about. ... Naked.

So he was a playwright in the 1970s. ... He wrote a play called Abigail’s Party, and all it is is about four people in the suburbs of London or wherever in England. They’re neighbors, don’t know each other, and they have drinks. Two hours of one scene—four people having drinks. ...

They did a TV version of the play, and this was 1973, and it looked like All in the Family—any show that was shooting back then, Maude or something? ... It looked like a sitcom in that it was shot with multi-camera, you can tell there was somebody live-switching the cameras, and you have four characters talking. ... No audience. That was the thing, and it was funny! I was laughing out loud, and there’s silence. But it’s not silence, it’s a sound stage, there’s a living feeling to it. ...

So when I watched that, I was like, “This doesn’t exist in the American TV diet. It doesn’t exist anywhere.”

And Louis set out to rectify that, post-haste. As he says later, Horace and Pete was to be a “hybrid” in that it would be “episodic like television, but the medium feels like a play, and yet also like a sitcom, in that it will look robust ... multi-cameras, a decent set.”

Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh premiered Abigail’s Party in April 1977, and in November of the same year—two cheers for government-funded television—a recording of the play appeared on the BBC TV program Play for Today. The stage play and the TV play had the same cast, so both centered around a remarkable performance in the key character of Bev, played by the brilliant actress Alison Steadman, who also happens to have been Leigh’s wife at the time (she has appeared in several of his films; the couple got divorced in 2001).

Continues after the jump…

Posted by Martin Schneider
09:39 am
‘A Sense of History’: Mike Leigh and Jim Broadbent’s eviscerating class satire skews the 1%
09:54 am

I saw Mike Leigh’s 1992 short film “A Sense of History” twenty years ago on Austrian TV; you wouldn’t ever expect such a thing to pop up on American TV, after all. At that time I thought it was very well executed but a bit obvious as far as satire goes; my more superannuated incarnation of the present moment thinks more highly of it. Leigh’s career has always been a kind of war between red-hot, class-based anger and nuanced, compassionate insight into human nature, and if there’s any truth to that, then “A Sense of History” is about as representative a clip of Leigh’s career as you could ever find.

A side note: Leigh’s 1993 movie Naked is my favorite movie of all time; actually, that and Altman’s Nashville share the top slot. Not long after I saw Naked, in my first “proper” journalistic endeavor, I conducted a… well, incompetent interview with Leigh, who was visiting Vienna for some film festival or other. I recorded our conversation, during which I posed a few admittedly pretentious questions about his unique style of collaborative composition, and the seemingly avuncular Leigh became quite snippy, rejecting the premise of every question and calling every other thing I said “pat thinking.” It was bizarre; he wasn’t opting out of the interview in any way but simply refused to be limited or pigeonholed—not that I blame him for this. (It was a balm to read, years later in The Village Voice, a reference to Leigh’s outsize sternness in a different context; apparently that’s just how he is!) Hilariously, once I was finished with my questions, I turned the recorder off, and we chatted for a little while, and our conversation began to flow more naturally; at one point he kindly gestured towards the recorder as if to say, “Do you want to turn that on?” but I was too stupid, timid, or misguidedly polite to do it. Ah well, lesson learned. I never did transcribe that tape, and somewhere or other I still have the business card that Leigh gave me. 
A Sense of History
Anyway: While England’s clueless landed gentry are the ostensible target of “A Sense of History,” one might well wonder if the stuffy “Heritage film” of the 1980s and after was just as much an object of his ire. I keep referencing Leigh but after all Broadbent wrote the damn thing; I believe it remains the only movie of Leigh’s in which he does not have a writing credit. Apparently Broadbent wrote it as a radio play and then he and Leigh joined forces to make a short movie; it ended up in the exceedingly curious 1993 omnibus film Two Mikes Don’t Make a Wright alongside Michael Moore’s “Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint” and Steven Wright’s “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings.” It was also nominated for Best Short Film at the 1993 BAFTA Film Awards. Even if one disregards the satire as ineffective, the writing as such is first-rate.

Somebody once said, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime” (the question of who, exactly, said it is pretty interesting), and “A Sense of History” is a literalization of that maxim. Broadbent, familiar to American moviegoers from the Harry Potter series, Moulin Rouge!, Gangs of New York, and several of Leigh’s movies, plays the 23rd Earl of Leete, inheritor of a massive rural estate that has been in the family for 900-odd years. An early reference is made to the sacrifices the previous Earls of Leete made in order to secure and maintain the land, and damned if the 23rd Earl is going to let them down. The Earl has a veneer of doddering gentility that masks a beating heart of ruthless steel.

I’ll say this: the movie holds up much better after several years of protest against the rapacious 1%. At this point, devastating though it may be, I’m not sure it’s even a satire.

via Tombolare

Posted by Martin Schneider
09:54 am
‘Little Malcolm’: George Harrison’s lost film starring John Hurt and David Warner

A “lost” film produced from “top to bottom” by George Harrison, has been rediscovered and released on DVD by the British Film Institute. Little Malcolm was made in 1973, and starred John Hurt, David Warner,  John McEnery, Raymond Platt and Rosalind Ayres. Based on the play Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs by David Halliwell, it was Harrison’s first film as producer, and one that was thought long lost, as director by Stuart Cooper explained in an interview with the Guardian:

“George never said this to me,” says Cooper, “but I definitely got the feeling that Little Malcolm may have been the first and last time George ever went to a play. But he was a big, big fan of it and also a big fan of [its star] Johnny Hurt, so he was in our corner already. Also, at the time, the other Beatles all had a film gig, John had done Imagine, Paul, I guess, directed Magical Mystery Tour, and Ringo was in Candy and The Magic Christian. So the only one without a film gig was George. He financed Malcolm through a company called Suba Films, which existed solely to receive profits from the animated Yellow Submarine. It was financed entirely by Yellow Submarine! It wasn’t a big budget, somewhere around a million, million and a half pounds – not expensive. He financed it top to bottom. He stepped up, wrote the cheque, and we made the movie.”

Little Malcolm is the story of Malcolm Scrawdyke (Hurt), a delusional Hitlerite revolutionary, who plots his revenge after his expulsion form college, by forming the Party of Dynamic Erection, with fellow slackers, Wick (McEnery), Irwin (Platt) and Nipple (Warner). Malcolm’s battle is against an unseen enemy, and the film is a mix of Young Adolf meets Baader-Meinhof via Billy Liar.

Halliwell wrote Little Malcolm in 1965, it was his first and most successful play. Directed by Mike Leigh, the role of Malcolm was originally played by Halliwell, who explained his thoughts behind the drama at the time:

“The Nazis made a big impression on people of my age, they almost destroyed Europe. But as well as being pretty threatening they were also seen as a laughing stock even during the war.”

The play’s director, Mike Leigh had a different view of Halliwell and the production, as he wrote for Halliwell’s obituary in 2006:

David Halliwell was a loner. He lived alone and, typically, it seems he died alone. Indeed, his eponymous loner, Little Malcolm Scrawdyke, was in many ways a self-portrait, although David always denied this. Having met at Rada and become close friends, he and I founded Dramagraph with Philip Martin in 1965, and I directed and designed our original production of Little Malcolm at Unity Theatre. David played Scrawdyke. He was impossible to direct, resisted cuts, and the production was famously overlong and unwieldy. But it was and remains a magnificent piece of writing, and it is truly tragic that this quite brilliant and original dramatist procrastinated for the remaining 40 years of his life.

Halliwell didn’t really procrastinate, he was a prolific writer, who, as Michael Billington also pointed out:

...pioneered the idea of lunchtime theatre and multi-viewpoint drama and left his mark on several close collaborators, including Mike Leigh.

Unfortunately, through his determination to do things his way, Halliwell never fully developed his ideas, and as Billington noted, “Halliwell suffered the fate of the pioneer whose ideas are refined and improved by later practitioners”.

Originally Little Malcolm ran for 6 hours, but after subbing by Leigh, it transferred to London’s West End, where John Hurt took over the title role - it was a career defining performance - one of many in Hurt’s case - and after a short run, moved to Dublin and New York. The play won Halliwell a Most Promising Newcomer Award, and also attracted Harrison’s interest, enough for the Beatle to bank roll the movie. But once made, the film was caught up in The Beatles’ acrimonious split, as Cooper explained:

“In the end, we got hung up by the Beatles’ breakup, when all of the Apple and Beatles assets went into the official receiver’s hands. So Little Malcolm just basically sat there for a couple of years. Whatever heat and buzz we generated was all lost. It didn’t diminish the movie but it stopped the momentum. George had to fight to get it back.

“Berlin was the first airing we managed, but it won best direction and the response was incredible. We got great reviews from Alexander Walker and Margaret Hinxman, but by then it really didn’t have any legs. It was a film that got lost, and I had to put it on a shelf and say to myself, well, there might be a day for that one day – and here we are now, after so many years.”

In 1974, Little Malcolm won the Silver Bear at Berlin Film festival. It was Cooper’s first, he won a second in 1975 with Overlord before directing Hurt, Warner and Donald Sutherland in the film version of Derek Marlowe‘s The Disappearance in 1977.

Harrison was certainly an innovator as Little Malcolm and his later movies Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and The Long Good Friday proved. Now, nearly forty years after its first screening, Harrison’s “lost” first film as producer is available at last.


Posted by Paul Gallagher
05:18 pm