Mike Leigh’s oeuvre is always worth revisiting whether it’s his TV work or his feature films. Meantime (1983) was the eighth of nine features he made for British TV in the 1970’s and early 1980’s and the only one not for the BBC. This, the first of his overtly politicised films, was produced by Central television for Channel 4 and premiered at the London Film Festival in 1983 before it was shown on television in December the same year.
1983 was the fourth year of Margaret Thatcher’s reign and the similarities between her policy’s and these of the David Cameron right wing government following 2015’s General Election are uncanny with the blame for the counties ills being laid squarely in lap of the ordinary working people who have to suffer the austerity forced upon them whilst the real villains, Bankers, City of London and the rest of the rich establishment are not only let of scot free but are getting wealthier. The disaffection shown in the film is to a very great extent the same that is being shown via social media today and could quite easily erupt into something far more dangerous.
This was the first of three films by Leigh that came out of the Thatcher period and does a grand job of getting into the emotion of the times. The grim prospect of permanent unemployment looms large over the narrative. It was while Leigh was making a previous film that he heard about the suicide of two young kids who died together because they were both on the dole and felt they had no future. Although Meantime was not about this incident it did start the directors thought pattern with the main point of the film being unemployment and the work schemes that the government had produced which were for short time employment only and amounted to very little.
The movie, like many of Leigh’s films and plays, uses as its driving force the family unit. Our family live in a tower block, Bryant Court, Whiston Road in the East End of London, they are struggling to keep a float during the recession. Father Frank, (Jeff Robert) a man with responsibilities and a home, but because of the fact there is no work he is a man who has lost his dignity, leaving him bitter and frustrated. Frank is married to Mavis (Pam Ferris) who attempts to keep the peace between Frank and his two sons when there frustrations regularly erupt, all three men sign on at the Benefits Office together. The more outspoken of the two brothers is Mark (Phil Daniels), a very intelligent young man who under different circumstances should be able to make his own way out of cesspit created by Thatcher and her henchmen. The landscape of life at the time did not offer the Mark's of this world an opportunity to work and therefore building up their self-respect. His brother Colin (Tim Roth) is quite simple minded and at times easily led, but we can see quite easily right through Mark’s bravado that he loves his brother and tries to protect him, witnessed when Mark rescues him from the influence of the local bad boy, a skinhead called Coxy (Gary Oldman). The narrative underlines the contrast between the world of benefits, tower blocks and a poverty existence and Mavis' s sister Barbara (Marion Bailey) and her Bank Manager husband John (Alfred Molina) middle class existence. They live in a nice semi detached in Chigwell, an affluent part of north London, in what appears to be a rather loveless marriage.
Again we find that Mike Leigh has produced an excellent film with no written script, finding the actors and developing and producing the story. Each actor creating and researching his or her own backstory. Uncannily the members of the ‘family’ look like they could be related! It was Alan Clarke that had recommended Tim Roth who plays Colin in this his first feature film role, and was only Gary Oldman’s second feature film in what would become a long and distinguished career. Marion Bailey is Leigh real life partner and had worked with him before and since, recently as Sophia Booth in Mr Turner (2014).
The film is honest in its depiction of life in 1983 Britain and at spelling out the feelings and aspirations of the characters and their lives. None of the circumstances that the two brothers find themselves in can obscure the fact that they love one another. It's obvious enough that Frank and Mavis are not to blame for their circumstances and that they cope as well as they can with their economic problems and unemployment and lack of cultural stimulus, Mavis’s only outlet is a Bingo game! To me it is clear that Barbara's feelings towards Mark are due to her sexless relationship with her bank manager husband, the question of having children is raised but never explained? Barbara’s plan for Colin to work in her house on a painting and decorating project is used as a metaphor for those useless Tory short-term work schemes. Therefore as I have opined unemployment is certainly the driving force behind the movie. Who is worse off Barbara or Mavis, Barbara has choices whereas Mavis does not, based on this Mavis is the worst off of the two sisters or is she? Have human condition changed in our modern world with its class and culture clashes: would Mark get a politically motivated job, would the state stand by Colin, will a now retired Frank and Mavis be the same as we left them only collecting the State pension?
A tragic and honest discourse, which mirrors modern Britain, but one that retains an important sense of humour. Shot around the East End of London with location shooting even taking place inside an actual lift! It has a remarkable cast and is one of Mike Leigh’s most important films and one that should be revisited in the austerity ridden world of 2015!