Mike Leigh on Abigail’s Party at 40: 'I was sure it would sink without trace'

In 1977, over an epic Chinese meal, Mike Leigh was persuaded to return to theatre. It was supposed to be a quick, forgettable job but became a hot ticket and triumphed on TV. He looks back at a play born from frustration with suburbia

It isn’t the done thing!” This neurotic mantra echoed mercilessly throughout my suburban childhood and teenage years. My parents were obsessed by it, as were so many well-meaning but misguided mums and dads of the stultifying postwar years. Of course, what we were unable to understand or consider at the time was the brutal chaos and insecurity the second world war had inflicted on their lives. They’d been to hell and back, and now they hung on relentlessly to an idea of an unshakeable order and material respectability. Behave! Conform! Don’t step out of line! Wear a tie! Use Brylcreem! And of course, we war babies, who were the repressed teenagers of the 1950s, became the generation of boys and girls who literally let our hair down in the “swinging” 60s.

But The Done Thing didn’t go away. By the late 70s that tame aspiration of the 50s to “Keep Up with the Joneses” had given way to an aggressive consumerism of a new and much uglier and more cynical strain. People hadn’t been inherently selfish in those postwar years. But now, many were becoming so. Enter Margaret Thatcher.

From time to time it has been suggested that Abigail’s Party is, or was, a “state of the nation” play. Maybe it could be called one; it’s not for me to say. Certainly, if I’d set out deliberately to create such a work in 1977, two years before Thatcher came to power, I’d have failed miserably. Instead the play came from my intuitive sense of the spirit and the flavour of the times, and from a growing personal fear of, and frustration with, the suburban existence.

Having, as best as I could, thrown off my suburban and provincial shackles at the tender age of 17, I’d enjoyed a healthy decade and a half or so of a relatively alternative and bohemian metropolitan existence. But now Alison Steadman and I had married, moved to a north London suburb, burdened ourselves with a mortgage, bought a semi-detached house (albeit a pleasant Victorian one), and were busy acquiring all the usual goods and chattels respectable Guardian-reading types acquired. Although we were hardly Beverly and Laurence, through this new kind of existence, involving values I was now having to be a part of, I inevitably felt, if subconsciously, that I had somehow taken a step backwards, into the dreaded world of The Done Thing. In fact, all my plays and films have, at one level or another, dealt with the tension between conforming or being your true self, between following the rules or breaking them, and with the problem of having to behave the way you think you’re expected to.

Anarchy versus respectability haunts my 1970 play Bleak Moments; Nuts in May (1976) pitches the hypocritical moral high ground against honest unpretentiousness, and my films Meantime (1983) and High Hopes (1988) both deal with intelligent young outsiders confronting those safe suburban values. The central protagonists of Naked (1993) and Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) are both questioning and anarchic, but whereas Johnny is burnt up with inward-looking frustration, Poppy is an optimist, who knows how to channel her feelings positively and responsibly. And the tragedy of Another Year (2010) is Mary’s horror of middle age, and the growing realisation that she can no longer live up to her received image of how to be gorgeous for men.

The same is true of my period films. Topsy-Turvy (1999), about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, is fundamentally about the pain behind the mask, while the eponymous Vera Drake (2004) is a very respectable woman, motivated by the highest of morals to break the law. And JMW Turner (Mr Turner, 2014) was the ultimate outsider’s insider, part of the establishment, yet breaking all the rules in the book.

Mike Leigh in 1981.
Abigail’s Party goes beyond being a comedy’ … Mike Leigh in 1981. Photograph: Ed Hamilton West/The Guardian

Although Abigail’s Party was by no means my first work, it does perhaps earn the status of being the mother of all my studies of The Done Thing.

Host Beverly is an aspirational working class girl who is totally preoccupied with appearances and received notions of behaviour and taste. A bundle of contradictions, she espouses the idea of people freely enjoying themselves, yet endlessly bullies everybody into doing what she wrongly thinks they’ll enjoy, or what is good for them. But, while she may be perceived as monstrous, she is in fact vulnerable, insecure and sad.

Is her husband Laurence from a working class or lower middle class background? If you met him, you might not guess, but I’d suggest it was the former. Now he and his prize-catch wife are on the way up, materially successful (with a struggle), sexually and spiritually unfulfilled, and at odds about pretty much everything. He yearns for the highbrow, but she just wants a good time – and goods.

Their guests Angela and Tony, both also working class, are essentially honest and unpretentious. Both have respectable jobs. But will they in time fall prey to The Done Thing? At the moment, they’re having that classic of tough times with their new house, the mortgage, acquiring their stuff and the rest of it, and they are inevitably a touch out of their depth in their new neighbourly roles.

Shyness and self-consciousness are responsible for Tony’s aggression, and underneath Angela’s apparent silliness is the tough, practical reliability of an experienced working nurse. One knows that before long they will become responsible loving parents, unlike Beverly and Laurence, who are locked into their loveless battle forever – or would be, if Laurence were not doomed to his sudden and untimely end.

The successful parent is Sue. Or is she? Her eponymous daughter is the crusading descendant of all us rebellious teenagers. Yet Sue, middle class, genuinely honest but fearfully polite, has seen better times, does not want to be at Beverly’s cosy get-together, and is battling bravely.

In his review for the Sunday Times, Dennis Potter accused Abigail’s Party of being “based on nothing more edifying than rancid disdain, for it is a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes”. This reveals Potter not only as understanding neither the play nor its world, but also of having no sense of humour – which is to say, no sense of humanity. For Abigail’s Party goes beyond being a comedy: it is a tragi-comedy. It is very much a play about “us”, not “them”. It is obviously sympathetic to all the characters, whatever their foibles, not least Beverly. And if it works, it does so precisely because the audience experiences them in a real, three-dimensional way. These are people we recognise and understand. The play is a lamentation, not a sneer.

Timothy Spall  Mr Turner
‘The ultimate outsider’s insider’ … Timothy Spall in Mr Turner (2014). Photograph: Allstar/Film4/Sportsphoto Ltd

Returning to my own feeling about suburbia, I feel obliged to confess to a whole other matter. In many of my films you might detect what, I have to admit, is undoubtedly a deep-seated nostalgia for quiet Saturday afternoons, silent back gardens, cars parked in empty streets, even twitching lace curtains. In the end, our native world is in our bones, like it or not – and, in truth, I do. (And I don’t!)

Early in 1977, I was planning a BBC Play for Today with the producer Margaret Matheson. (In due course, this would be Who’s Who.) Out of the blue, I was invited to have lunch with Michael Rudman, the artistic director of the Hampstead theatre in north London, and his general manager, David Aukin. But I didn’t want to meet them. I was preoccupied, not only with the film, but with doing up the house, as Alison and I had decided to try for our first baby. Besides, I wasn’t interested in making another theatre piece – I was now committed to film.

Nevertheless, I went. Apart from anything else, I am always on for a lunch, and this was to be in an excellent Chinese joint in Belsize Park. I hadn’t met Michael or David much previously, but we all hit it off immediately. They explained that they had a problem. They’d had a successful run of shows, so had accumulated an unprecedented surplus. But under the rules, if a theatre made such a profit, they were obliged to give it back to the funder, the Arts Council of Great Britain. So would I like to help them spend the money by doing one of my “improvised” plays? They could offer me 10 weeks’ rehearsal and a cast of up to five, the only proviso being that I had to say yes or no, here and now, before I left the restaurant.

Another Year Mike Leigh
The horror of middle age … Oliver Maltman, Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen in Another Year. Photograph: Publicity image from film company

I told them emphatically that it was quite out of the question. I was busy, and that was that. But these were persuasive men, and, course by Chinese course, they wore me down, and finally I agreed.

I went home. I’ll do it and get it out of the way, I told Alison. It’ll just be a stopgap. It’ll sink without trace. Then we’ll be able to concentrate on the things that matter. Then I suggested that Alison be in it. She hesitated. She really wanted to devote time to domesticity. But as it was to be a quick, forgettable job, she relented.

Abigail’s Party opened on 18 April 1977. It was a smash hit, the hottest ticket in town. So successful was it that Rudman and Aukin decided to revive it later in the year, over the summer. Again, it was a sellout. Now no less than seven West End managements wanted to transfer it.

But we had hit a snag. The nuisance was Alison’s and my other project. She was pregnant. No way could she do a West End run, and naturally I wouldn’t contemplate her being replaced. Our doctor said she could do four weeks, no more. But this was plainly no use to a commercial producer.

This seemingly intractable situation was suddenly solved by the inspired Margaret Matheson. On seeing the play, she simply said, “Let’s do it on television.” A drama she was producing about Northern Ireland had just been cancelled “for political reasons”, and she had an empty studio slot.

Abigail’s Party
Storms raged across the UK, so 16 million viewers stayed at home and watched Abigail’s Party. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Initially resistant to this good idea, being rather stupidly purist about theatre and television being quite different things, I was soon persuaded by just about everybody that it would be for the best. And so, immediately after its double run at Hampstead, Abigail’s Party was wheeled into the TV studios at White City, lock, stock and barrel – or nearly. For byzantine copyright reasons, the BBC insisted I change some of the live music integral to the action. Thus Elvis was replaced by Tom Jones, and José Feliciano by Demis Roussos.

This was of course a colossal compromise. Tom Jones just isn’t the same thing as Elvis Presley. (Elvis, incidentally, died during the Hampstead run, resulting in our having to rewrite the references to him.) But, replacement though he was, Demis Roussos became, after the TV broadcast, so inextricably associated with the play that I now allow stage revivals to feature him. (If you’re doing so, replace Laurence’s “that blind Spaniard” with “that fat Greek”.)

It was a great success on television. There were heated exchanges in the letter columns about whether you should or shouldn’t put beaujolais in the fridge, and as to whether Alison was pregnant.

The show was screened again, and yet again, always on BBC1. In those days there were only three television channels, and this third transmission coincided with an all-out strike on ITV, and with an esoteric highbrow programme on BBC2. Moreover, tempestuous storms raged throughout the British Isles that evening. So 16 million viewers stayed at home and watched Abigail’s Party. While it is gratifying that this unexpected exposure resulted in the play becoming celebrated as a classic, it is equally satisfying that it has enjoyed a healthy life as a stage play.

Forty years on, I reflect on this unintended “stopgap”, in which I had no interest, and which I was sure would sink without trace. Had I pondered it longer and more seriously, I might perhaps have attempted that “state of the nation” play. But good fortune intervened, and the world was mercifully saved from that unquestionably dreadful fate.

  • Abigail’s Party is published by Viking.


Mike Leigh

The GuardianTramp

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