Mike Leigh speaks to the NS

The Film Interview: why the director wants to make "epic" movies.

How did the idea for Another Year come about?
I have ongoing preoccupations of an emotional, social, personal -- and, if you like, political -- nature, which you can see in all of my films. And here we are looking again, I hope, in some way that digs a bit deeper than some of my films, at issues of family, of the relationship between work and the personal, responsibility, of isolation, of disappointment, of parents and children. So to talk about where the idea came from is not really appropriate. I felt I wanted to make a film that started from where we -- that is to say, we who are in our late sixties -- are.

You've said that you have reached a point in your career where you want to "paint on a bigger canvas".
Yes. If epic can be measured in terms of the emotional experience of the audience, then I hope this is an epic film, just as Naked is an epic film and, I would suggest, Vera Drake is an epic. In other words, my intention is to break through the apparent constraints of domestic life on to an epic or operatic scale emotionally. I think that's important.

Do you think that the "baby boomer" generation squandered the proceeds of economic growth from which it benefited?
That is a deeply suspect position. I'm slightly older than the baby boomers because I was born during the war. But the world they and I grew up in was one in which what had been fought for and won was a national health service, a very good state education system, on the whole free university education for people, and so on.

Of course, the sins that are implicit in what I've just listed - the abandoning of fundamental ideology - cannot be laid at the feet just of the coalition government. We go back to Thatcher, we go back to the fact that we had well over a decade of so-called socialist government that did nothing to correct any of the things I've just been talking about. So to bash the baby boomers just because they had it so good is obscene, because it can only be some kind of massive excuse for inequality.

Class seems to be back on the political agenda. What do you make of the way it is portrayed on screen in Britain today?
I don't know the answer to that. You absolutely cannot make a film about England or Britain that is not rooted in class -- in a way, you can't tell stories about anybody anywhere, because in the end class is an endemic part of the social human condition. But, despite everything, I have never consciously gone around thinking about class, as such.

I grew up in a very working-class part of Salford where my old man was a doctor. We lived over the surgery and I went to the local school. I therefore have a very, very clear sense of working class and middle class. But because that's my world and background, I take all this for granted.
The reason I can't get to the serious answer to your question is that there are very few British films that I think depict life accurately anyway, and I take it for granted that class is part of what's real.

Critics of your films say that they present caricatures of working-class life.
I take all this with a pinch of salt. If people start reacting to Another Year in that way, quite honestly they're so missing the wood for the trees that it's not really worth thinking about it. Life is complex. People are complex. That's what I do and what I've always done.

We normally ask this question at the end of the NS Interview, but it seems appropriate to ask it here, too: are we all doomed?
Well, let's put it like this: I find it very uncomfortable to think about the world in which my grandchildren and certainly my great-grandchildren will find themselves living.

You can read Ryan Gilbey's NS review of "Another Year" here

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times