Happy days

Shedding the miserabilist tag, Mike Leigh has cheered up on film and in person.

Although Mike Leigh is generally considered to be one of Britain's finest film-makers, his work is frequently labelled "miserabilist", and his blunt, no-nonsense manner has also gained him a reputation for being "difficult" in interviews. So it comes as quite a shock that his latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky, is a joyous, life-affirming affair, full of energy and shot in vivid, almost impossibly sunny colours. Leigh himself seems to be on fine form, too. When we meet, he is relaxed, amicable and decidedly optimistic.

Not only is he very proud of Happy-Go-Lucky, but this year marks the re-issue of many of his older feature and television films, some of which have never before been available on DVD in the UK. He has also collaborated on a book about his career, Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh (published by Faber & Faber). This, he hopes, will go some way towards curing the "collective amnesia" that he holds responsible for his cinematic reputation for gloom. "None of my films has been completely grim," he says, "not even Vera Drake [about a backstreet abortionist in 1950]. People never fail to come out of Secrets and Lies [about a white mother who discovers she has a black daughter] without feeling warm and hopeful, and Topsy-Turvy [about the Savoy Opera collaborators Gilbert and Sullivan] was packed full of song and dance routines. My films are rooted in the real world and in real life, where all sorts of things can happen, good and bad, so it's never as simplistic as being just happy or just sad."

His reputation has not come from nowhere. Most of Leigh's films feature working-class families struggling to come to terms with everyday hardships. His first, Bleak Moments (1971), was true to its title and focused on a woman looking after her mentally disabled sister. Other topics he has tackled include racism, unemployment, rape, bulimia, infertility, marital breakdown and death. The films often use humour as a coping mechanism; as Brenda Blethyn's character says in Secrets and Lies, "You have to laugh, otherwise you'd cry." In Happy-Go-Lucky, this is taken to the next level: some critics have found the relentless chirpiness of the central character, Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins), almost grating. "She's just a lovely, warm, caring person. I can't see what there is to be irritated by," Leigh says. "It makes me think the people who dislike her are fucked up, not the film."

Leigh's characters often verge on caricature. There was Timothy Spall's affected gait in Life Is Sweet, Brenda Blethyn's recurrent use of the phrase "You all right, sweetheart?" in Secrets and Lies. They are, however, always instantly recognisable, reflecting the time and social setting in which they exist. Viewers see aspects of these characters in themselves and people they know, and it is this that makes Leigh's films so poignant - at times uncomfortably so.

Hawkins has worked with Leigh before (on All or Nothing and Vera Drake) and Happy-Go-Lucky is likely to be her ticket to stardom, having already won her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at this year's Berlin Film Festival. "Because of the way I work, nobody interferes with the casting, which leaves me free to take risks on relatively unknown people, and I love doing that," says Leigh. "I expect them to put everything into the performance, and they always do." He has a strong record of casting women in meaty leading roles. "It is part of my remit to create interesting female characters. There are very few good parts for actresses and even the good parts are usually subservient to the male character."

Leigh has been creating his films using the same unusual and intense rehearsal method for 40 years. First, he works with individual actors, developing their character and their character's backstory. Then the characters are gradually brought together, reacting to one another and improvising the dialogue. After several months, the best lines are incorporated into the final script. As the director says: "I realised that the natural thing to do would be to combine the solitary writing process and the rehearsal process into one. I'm a gregarious person and I don't like sitting by myself and writing. I am a writer and my writing skills are there in all my films, but what I write on my own is never as good as what I can come up with [working] with the actors."

Born in 1943 to a Jewish immigrant family, Leigh grew up in Salford, and says he was always destined to become an entertainer. He first realised he wanted to make films while analysing the cinematic potential of his grandfather's funeral one snowy morning at the age of 12. In 1960 he left home for London and Rada (which he found "repressive and uncreative") and, after spending time at art and film school, began to devise plays, one of which became Bleak Moments. Since then he has made ten feature films and accumulated an impressive collection of awards, though he has yet to win an Oscar. He bagged the top prizes at the Cannes and Venice film festivals for Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake, but failed to conquer Berlin with Happy-Go-Lucky in February. Only three other directors - Robert Altman, Michelangelo Antonioni and Henri-Georges Clouzot - have ever managed to win all three major European awards and, had Leigh won the Golden Bear, he would have been the only film-maker still living to wear the triple crown. "It would have been fun to get the hat-trick," he admits. "But it could still happen."

In fact, despite being old enough to retire, Leigh has absolutely no intention of doing so any day soon. He plans to start work on another film next year and also hopes to find time to return to the theatre at some point. In fact, he seems to be as enamoured with both life and work as the lead character in his film, and is eager to share this with the rest of the world: "I want Happy-Go-Lucky to make people feel that life's worth living in a world that it's often easy to feel depressed about. And, if that sounds corny, so be it." Mike Leigh, miserable? Not in the least.

"Happy Go Lucky" (15) is released on 18 April

Ryan Gilbey reviews "Happy-Go-Lucky" in Film

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Food crisis