Mike Leigh, world-renowned improvisational writer, director, and Officer of the Order of the British Empire, is best known around Samuel French for his critically acclaimed collection of plays including Abigail’s Party, Smelling A Rat, Two Thousand Years, and Ecstasy. But his story, like every great artist, starts long before his pen hit paper: overseas in the city of Salford, Lancashire, United Kingdom in 1943. Bred on drama, cinema, and the arts at Salford Grammar School, Leigh discovered at an early age a need for creative consumption, and thus preoccupied his childhood with various art forms from Picasso to the Manchester Symphony Orchestra.
In 1960, upon acceptance to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Leigh officially began his journey as an artist. Though an impressive feat to have been accepted to the Academy, Leigh unfortunately found the education and training at RADA to be too structurally contained and left the walls of the conservatory in search of artistic license. Subsequently he continued his streak of enrollment jumping from the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts to Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design and after that the London School of Film Technique. Honing his craft for film and stage, legendary artists such as Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Peter Brook, and Peter Weiss paved the road with inspiration for Leigh’s promising career.
Having sought what he could within the educational system, Leigh soon accepted an assistant director position with the Royal Shakespeare Company during their 1966/67 season. It was with the RSC that he began experimenting with improvisation and quickly discovered his passion for creating stories from little to no material. His first improvised work, NENAA (North East New Arts Association), took shape, and with it so did Leigh’s need to develop unrelated characters and build between them a network of real relationships.
Since then, his career as an improvisational writer and director has flourished exponentially to include 12 feature films, 3 short films, 11 television films, and 21 plays. And as such, the nominations and awards have grown in number as well – Naked (film) won the 1993 Best Director Award at Cannes. Secrets & Lies (film) won the 1996 BAFTA and Palme d’Or for Drama and earned Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Directing. The 25th anniversary revival of Abigail’s Party (play) was nominated for the 2002 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival. Vera Drake (film) won the 2004 Leone d’Oro for Best Film at the International Venice Film Festival and earned Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Directing.
Most recently, Leigh was honored in 2015 with the BAFTA Fellowship, a lifetime achievement award and the highest honor bestowed by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts “in recognition of outstanding achievement in the art forms of the moving image.” Accepting his award in front of decades of artists he’d worked with, Leigh had this to say: “How lucky we all are to happen to have been born in this magical age of cinema, and what a stimulating evening we’ve had celebrating this wonderful, diverse medium. To be able to capture life and to share it with audiences, not to mention the joy of the camera, of sound and the craft and technology, it is glorious, isn’t it?”