Having been collaborating for 20 years, TIMOTHY SPALL and MIKE LEIGH are British oinema’s dream team. So what’s their secret? Words: Steve Cramer
role model. that's what he is. Amid the world of the lithe
and gorgeous that is the movie industry. Timothy Spall's
outstanding sttccess as a British actor is not. let's face it. based on floppy hairdos. big teeth and a chemically-fuelled glint in the eye. He's the prince of portly. the lord of lard-arse. truly the tiberfatboy. As a fellow sufferer. I salute him. The likes of us (you know who you are) no longer have to make excuses such as ‘a girl likes a boy with a hit of meat on him. it makes her feel thin.' We need only point at Spall. and live. contented. with a projected sense of achievement.
You need see only one close-up in Mike Leigh's All or Mir/ring to know the quality Spall has as an actor. [I is. quite simply. the close-up of the decade and it'll really ptrt the hook in you. As he watches an old man visit the grave of his wife. he creates a look that is at once far
away and specific to himself — it seems to cry for himself and all of
us. for the awful going on-and-on—ness of our existence. and the unbearable. burning pain of our love for each other.
His impoverished taxi driver. living with a troubled family on a south London estate is an astonishing achievement in an enormously powerful film. which speaks. not for the endless travails of middle class meeja yuppies which so much British film ohsesses over. but for the elegiac qualities of ordinary life. in a working class context. limotionally. it's quite different from the representation of the marginalised seen in the films of Ken Loach or early Terrence Davies. It's quintessentially Mike Leigh.
I'm excited to meet Spall and rush off in plenty of time to the lidinburgh Sheraton. where we meet and greet in an empty restaurant. But he's not quite as you'd expect. First. although stout and wee. quite to form. there's a sense of clean. dapper. polished good health about him. He appears in a light brown jacket and perfectly ironed white shirt. has a glowing. even. sun tan. and a certain sheen in the fiesh. And there's a sense of perfect. l‘elix linger-like fastidiousness there. as he shakes hands. then drums well—manicured lingers on the table before him and orders not a pint. but water. and adds that he doesn't want tap water. bttt a specific brand of bottled water.
There's something endearing about Spall's commitment. engagement and intelligence. His success — and that close-up — emerge from a rare understanding of craft. When asked about the close-up. he explains it completely in context. as good performers do. 'lt's about the whole process of making the film.' says Spall. who first worked with Mike Leigh in l982's Home Sweet Home before making his name in Arrf' ll'ier/erselierr. l’eI. kick-starting a career that extends right up to the recent 'l'V two-parter Bodily Harm. ‘The way you work with Mike is so detailed. You've worked so long on creating the character. not just the physical attributes. how he dresses and so on. but the whole psychological state. You've lived with the character in a parallel universe for six months. you know where he is at any given time so by the time you shoot. it's completely him.'
The sense of ‘in the present'. which is such an outstanding quality of Leigh's films. is explained by this attention to process. What emerges to each character comes as a complete surprise to the others as the narrative progresses. Leigh is interested in placing long-built characters in situations to see what arises. ‘Mike's a very sociable guy. and we all spend time together and talk about each other's lives. but there are certain rules that you must not break. You can discuss whatever you like. bttt you must never discuss your character. With some films. you might get an actor saying to you: "Listen. I don't think the director's any good. let's get together and work this scene out between us." but that doesn't
happen in a Mike Leigh film. which is why when you watch it. it can only be a Mike Leigh film. It grows the way it grows. He never tells you where it's going. there's no discussion. he's
just like an alchemist. cooking tip the ingredients we produce.'
Asked about the representation of working class characters in Leigh's films. Spall becomes animated. ‘lt's an opportunity to put people whose lives are never properly investigated in other people's work at the centre of the movie.' he says. ‘My character. a taxi driver. in a Hollywood movie or a romantic comedy would be someone who picks tip Will Smith or someone. There'd be this "hey man. you look a fucking mess" bit. then that'd be all you'd see of him.
‘l'm not on a crusade. bttt I did come from that world. I'm a working class bloke.' he says. 'Some idiot in a press conference said: "It's a working class council estate in south London. where are all the drugs?" I mean. have the f'ucking largesse of mind to see it's not a Channel 4 documentary f'or middle class audiences. You don't hear people complaining about people making films about the literati or dentists. What we're saying is we're all human beings. Tabloids accidentally patronise the people they sell their papers to. Patronise these people at your peril. this has the power of emotion of a tragedy about a king and queen.' d
S C U S S he strange thing about meeting both lead actress Leslie Mandeville and Mike Leigh
himself later in the day is that each sings from the same hymn sheet about the importance of process. Speaking almost word for word. they give the impression that you're dealing with a Moonie-esque secret cult. But I suppose. given the effect they produce. that's fair enough.
Leigh has the reputation among
journalists of being ‘difficult'. yet there's none of that here.
He sits. quite self contained. with a small pot of tea. a smallish grey-bearded man who might be an art teacher. His hands are folded in his lap. and he seems utterly unflappable. He's friendly. but detached. He's also. clearly. very smart.
I ask him about his background in the theatre. where after success with sttch pieces as Abigail's Parry. he moved. with conspicuous success into filrnrnaking. going from such early observations as Bleak Moments to a host of classic I’luy'jiir 'liuluv episodes for the BBC and onwards through Life Is Sweet onto the multi-award winning Seerers and Lies. The sense. so frequently present in his films. of small. tight ensemble casts still creates a feeling of theatre.
Leigh answers slowly and with care: '(‘ertainly. the whole thing of getting people together and building an ensemble is important. It's true that l have a theatre background. but I've always had a passion to make films. going way back to the o()s. In a way. though. artistically. I aspire to the condition of theatre. in that it's like creating a reality in the circus. where the girl is really there and she might fall off the tightrope. That sense of the real world. of something actually happening at the time is about what I'm trying to do.'
All or Nothing is on selected release from Fri 18 Oct.
whatever you Uke,butyou must never discuss your character'
On screen alchemy in All or Nothing with Spall and Leslie Mandeville (centre)
'1' .t'. (it?! l’l‘i)? THE LIST 21