Mike Leigh’s Meantime (1983): An Interview With Producer Graham Benson

There definitely seems to be something in the London air this summer. The Grenfell Tower tragedy and various other events have brought some deeply unpleasant issues to light (again).

Revisiting Mike Leigh’s 1983 TV film ‘Meantime’ recently, it seemed eerily relevant. A withering portrait of Thatcher’s Britain featuring a brilliant cast, it’s still a striking piece of work, at times very difficult to watch but also possibly offering cause for hope. Its essential Englishness also echoes through the work of Suede and Blur; an alternative soundtrack might include ‘My Insatiable One‘ or ‘Bank Holiday‘.

Mainly set and shot in Haggerston, East London, ‘Meantime’ focuses on two generations of the Pollock family: parents Frank (Jeffrey Robert) and Mavis (Pam Ferris); their sons Colin (Tim Roth) and Mark (Phil Daniels); Frank’s sister Barbara (Marion Bailey) and her husband John (Alfred Molina). Frank, Mavis, Colin and Mark live in a rundown council high-rise (Bryant Court in Whitston Road, where a two-bedroom flat now goes for £330,000) while Barbara and John have escaped to middle-class ‘respectability’ in Chigwell, Essex.

From Uncle John’s condescending opening line – ‘Barbara, the boys can take their shoes off and leave them in the kitchen, all right?’ (note that he doesn’t tell Colin and Mark himself) – we know we’re deep in Leighland. The performances are uniformly superb, with Roth, Daniels and Bailey possibly never better. Oldman delivers a remarkable turn as the skinhead Coxy, smashed on the Special Brew, looking for trouble but also deeply vulnerable, while Peter Wight is excellent as the insouciant, blithely idealistic estate manager.

Gary Oldman as Coxy

Mark, Colin, Coxy and Frank are stuck in a grim, sometimes demeaning cycle of unemployment, but there seems to be glimmer of hope when Auntie Barbara offers Colin a painting job in her home. Mark has other ideas. Anyone growing up in London during the early 1980s knew kids like Colin, Mark and Coxy. The latter two are quick-witted and sharp but totally wasted, with no structure in place for them to thrive.

Andrew Dickson’s soundtrack – a duet for tack piano and soprano sax – is unforgettable. And, for a director known more for his characters and situations than a visual sense, Leigh comes up with many striking images: Mark and Coxy dodging the falling detritus from a freshly-bulldozed block of flats; Colin wandering uncertainly in front of the Winston Churchill statue at Woodford Green; Coxy rolling around a giant, hollow metal canister, attacking its insides impotently with a stick; Mark chucking darts at a poster of a pouting Kim Wilde.

I asked legendary TV producer Graham Benson about his memories of working on ‘Meantime’. You can watch the whole film below.

MP: How did you come to the project and what was its genesis? I gather it was your first (and only) experience working with Mike Leigh.

GB: Yes, it was my one and only time working with Mike and a very enjoyable, rewarding time. The producer’s job is very much one of support, encouragement and of being there when needed in various aspects of the films progress. We initially wanted to make a feature film when I was running Robert Stigwood’s European film and TV company. We nearly got a deal with Warner Bros but the lack of script (Leigh famously develops his scripts through intensive improvisations in collaboration with the actors – Ed) scared the moguls. Eventually a combination of Channel 4 and David Rose together with Central Productions and Margaret Matheson delivered the commitment and budget. I am pleased and proud to have been a part of Mike’s journey and have to say that producing a Mike Leigh film was an example in my career of working with a supremely professional, responsible, collegiate and multi-talented film-maker, and a good-humoured, decent bloke to boot!

‘Meantime’ was made for Channel 4. It’s hard to imagine such a hard-hitting feature-length film getting shown on a terrestrial station today. Do you see that period as a golden age for British TV?

Well, Channel 4 were Mike Leigh enthusiasts as they remain now. He’s always had them and the BBC. I don’t see why it couldn’t be made now really. These days he has other places in Europe to go and get additional monies – for now, anyway…

The film showcases an incredible array of Brit acting talent: Marion Bailey, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Peter Wight, Pam Ferris, Alfred Molina, etc etc. Did you have any casting input?

We discussed the casting as we went along. It was a stunning cast but they were all much less well-known then. Like so many others, they were cutting their teeth on hard-hitting UK dramas.

Though often a difficult watch, the ending arguably shows chinks of light – Barbara finally stands up to John and the two brothers seem to come to a new understanding. Is that how you see it?

Yes. Though it’s a bleak and critical view of Thatcher’s Britain, it is a hopeful film. The human spririt will win through. But we must be watchful, as we see today.

What do you think is the legacy of the film, if there is one?  

Oh, it proved Mike could handle a wider canvas and could deal with a slightly bigger budget. It solidified his method of working as a successful one and a genre all of its own. Soon afterwards he’d get his opportunity on the bigger screen.

Whitney Houston: Can I Be Me?

Whitney is seldom mentioned in the list of ’80s biggies (Prince, Bruce, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Jacko, Hall & Oates etc.) – strange considering her 1985 debut album sold 22 million copies, her second 25 million and she’s still the only artist in history to have seven consecutive US number one singles (one more than the The Beatles).

Her death in 2012 at the age of just 48 followed decades of worldwide success but also attendant tabloid speculation and a multitude of legal problems (her father John sued her for $100 million in 2002). Her marriage to R’n’B ‘badboy’ Bobby Brown was endlessly analysed, as was her close friendship with Robyn Sampson.

Nick Broomfield’s ‘Can I Be Me?’ (Rudi Dolezal gets a co-director credit for the inclusion of his scintillating 1999 concert/backstage footage) is the first Whitney doc out of the blocks – another ‘authorised’ film is apparently on the way shortly – and it’s a significant change of style for Broomfield. He dials down the quirkiness, resists any on-screen cameos and cranks up the gravitas, seeming far more affected by Whitney’s demise than he was by the deaths of Biggie, Tupac, Kurt Cobain or Aileen Wuornos. There are certainly no obvious ‘laughs’ in this one and it’s by far his most commercial film, possibly reflecting the influence of Asif Kapadia’s similarly-themed ‘Amy’.

But other things haven’t changed – Broomfield’s impressive range of interviewees (including Whitney’s brothers, friends, bodyguard, hair stylist, drug counselor, musical director and backing singers) are shown in unflattering close-up, but all speak with sometimes breathtaking candour. The only notable no-shows are Bobby Brown and best friend Robyn Crawford, for reasons which become abundantly clear.

We get a strong sense of Whitney’s childhood in Newark, New Jersey – ‘the hood’ – when ‘Nippy’ was a lovable, caring, somewhat mischievous kid brought up singing gospel in church and mucking around with her brothers. Inheriting a formidable set of pipes from her mum Cissy Houston, legendary impressario Clive Davis signed Nippy as a charming, cheeky 20-year-old and demanded a debut album that would appeal to White America; as an Arista A&R man says on camera, ‘He DIDN’T want George Clinton music.’

Broomfield analyses this as the crux of the problem, in the sense that Whitney achieved her huge early success without ever referencing the sort of music she was passionate about. The title of the film comes from her catchphrase developed when touring in the late ’90s when she would insist on bringing in elements of gospel, jazz and R’n’B (presumably against the wishes of her record company).

Broomfield doesn’t fudge the drug issue, and finds plenty of self-criticism from Whitney as well as corroboration from various sources. Bobby Brown comes across as somewhat of a loose cannon but essentially harmless. Despite his posturing, the intimate backstage footage demonstrates that he certainly loved Whitney and vice versa. Their Ike and Tina ‘abuse’ skits are amusing, though may offend some. More troubling was Brown’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, who allegedly was having an affair with Whitney throughout much of her career.

Broomfield hasn’t been able to secure the rights to any of Houston’s recorded catalogue, so the film arguably relies too much on Nick Laird-Clowes’ mournful, somewhat clichéd original score. But Rudi Dolezal’s concert footage is evocative and moving. Love or hate ‘I Will Always Love You’, it’s hard not to be affected by Houston’s mesmerising live performance during a 1999 gig in Germany, one of many great musical moments in the film.

Michael Baker’s yin/yang bass-drum skin from that 1999 tour says it all – ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ is finally another desperately sad music-biz story. But it’s well worth catching even if it (understandably) lacks the anarchic zeal of Broomfield’s best work.

One interviewee who might have been worth tracking down is Bill Laswell, who to the best of my knowledge was the first producer to tap into Whitney’s potential when he helmed this early gem, recorded when she was just 19 years old.

Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

Reading obituaries of director Jonathan Demme, who has died from cancer aged 73, it struck me how many memorable scenes his films spawned.

Born in Baldwin, Long Island, his early career was mentored by B-movie pioneer Roger Corman. When Demme broke into Hollywood he never lost sight of his early exploitation influences and zany sense of humour; even ‘serious’ fare like ‘Silence Of The Lambs’ and ‘Philadelphia’ was hijacked by sundry in-jokes and bizarro guest stars including Corman, Chris Isaak and George A Romero.

Demme’s sets were famous for being fun places to work, and that’s borne out by the bonhomie and improvisatory vibe present in many of his films. He was clearly a friend of musicians, frequently using music in his movies as symbol of collaboration or even spiritual release (writer David Bowman memorably described ‘Stop Making Sense’ as ‘a three-act play documenting the spiritual journey of a hapless white guy trying to “get down”’!).

Apparently Demme sat down with each original member of Talking Heads before filming ‘Stop Making Sense’ and asked them, ‘How do you see me doing this?’ It’s hard to imagine Brian De Palma doing that. As a live-music documentarian, Demme let the viewer get to know each performer as if they were a character in a movie with the use of long, lingering shots, a world away from the clichéd, fast-cutting MTV style.

So, in tribute to a modern master, here are a few memorable moments from Demme films, in chronological order:

‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

‘Something Wild’ (1986)

‘Swimming To Cambodia’ (1987) (swearing alert)

‘Married To The Mob’ (1988)

‘Philadelphia’ (1993)

‘Heart Of Gold’ (2006)

‘Rachel Getting Married’ (2008)

11 Great 1980s Movie Taglines

Movie taglines: you know the drill (actually the tagline for a dental-themed slasher pic whose name escapes me…). One, two or three sentences that sum up a film’s flavour or sometimes entire plot. To cineastes of a certain generation, a tagline can be as memorable as the movie itself. Some even become part of the modern lexicon.

But what makes a good tag? Perhaps it’s common words uncommonly used. Horror and sci-fi films seem to lend themselves to memorable tags. Is it because of their promise of the perverse, the uncanny, the unexpected, the taboo?

Quotable taglines are scarce these days. Perhaps the proliferation of films as ‘lists’ on Netflix, YouTube and Lovefilm has snuffed them out. Walk into your local multiplex and you’ll see some extremely lame offerings. But the 1980s threw up a fair few humdingers, prompted by a need for eye-catching posters and proliferation of horror movies. Here are some of the best:

11. ‘The Shining’ (1980): The tide of terror that swept America is HERE.

A spine-tingler whose possible meaning is explored in excellent recent documentary ‘Room 237’.

10. ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ (1986): One man’s struggle to take it easy.

Does the job perfectly in just seven words.

9. ‘Scarecrows’ (1988): When it comes to terror, they’re in a field of their own.

8. ‘The Fog’ (1980): Bolt your doors. Lock your windows. There’s something in the fog!

Does what it says on the tin, but terrified me looking at the video cover in my local rental shop circa 1983.

7. ‘The Burning’ (1981): Don’t look, he’ll see you. Don’t breathe, he’ll hear you. Don’t move…you’re dead.

Only really comes into its own when heard in the original cinematic trailer.

6. ‘The Fly’ (1986): Be afraid. Be very afraid.

What does it have to do with the movie? Not a lot, but has entered the lexicon with ease.

5. ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ (1987) This time it’s personal.

See above.

4. ‘Poltergeist’ (1982): They’re here.

Simple. Chilling. Timeless.

3. ‘The Prey’ (1984) : It’s not human and it’s got an axe!

Silly, tasteless and great.

2. ‘Maniac Cop’ (1988): You have the right to remain silent…forever.

See above.

1. ‘The Thing’ (1982): Man is the warmest place to hide.

Brilliantly evokes the movie’s underlying theme: what makes us human?