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Mike Leigh was born in Salford - the home of Coronation Street - in 1943 and has been working in the theatre (including a sojourn in Australia) and television and making films since 1971, the best known of which are Meantime (1983), High Hopes (1988), Life Is Sweet (1991) and Naked (1993).

His films have won prizes everywhere in the world and, since Naked took the Best Director and Best Actor awards (for David Thewlis) at Cannes in 1993, Leigh has been one of the most bankable of British directors. Secrets & Lies - which won both the Palme díOr (the top prize at Cannes) for Leigh and the Best Actress award for Brenda Blethyn in May 1996 - was made mainly with money put up by the French company, Ciby 2000, which has backed the work of David Lynch, Jane Campion, Pedro AlmodĘvar and Robert Altman, among others.

(Secrets & Lies was shot in 1995 and opened in Australia on October 24 1996.)

Q. The Palme díor for Secrets & Lies made you the centre of a media frenzy in Cannes. Does that kind of thing make you uncomfortable?

A. If anyone finds it difficult to reconcile my subject matter with my enthusiasm for the razzmatazz of Cannes, then they are naive and take a very narrow view of things. Apart from anything else, the dinners are good.

So far as what has happened over the past few years at Cannes is concerned, I regard it as entirely a good thing. I made films - as you know - in total obscurity for many, many years. I never dreamed that one would go to Cannes, let alone win a couple of prizes as Naked did, let alone have the experience that we are having here with (Secrets & Lies).

As a film-maker who began life as a film student in the early sixties, being far more inspired and involved with international cinema than with English-language cinema, it seems entirely natural - and very good news indeed - to finally become part of that international cinema. I never thought it would happen, but itís brilliant that it has, and I have absolutely no reservations about it.

Q. Secrets & Lies is very different from Naked, which is much bleaker than most of your films. In Naked, there was no resolution, no coming-together at the end. Do you think audiences in Cannes who may not have been familiar with, say High Hopes or Life is Sweet, were expecting something less life-affirming than Secrets & Lies?

A. Naked, as a matter of fact, was quite a hard act to follow. You make a film where you scrape away to the rock-bottom of things - and then you have to make another one! And one always lives under the threat - or the possibility - that you are just making the same film over and over again. Thatís a problem for anybody who does anything: that you always tell the same story. And, in a certain sense, it would be true of what I do.

Part of what I do as a film-maker, is to be an entrepreneur. That is what it is about: putting entertainment on for people. But, having said that, Iím quite comfortable about returning to the general subject matter which I have always done, which is relationships and people and family and all that. And, frankly, Naked was no different. Life is very complex. I should know: Iíve had to put up with it for 53 years!

Q. At Cannes, Brenda Blethyn won the Best Actress prize but, for me, Timothy Spallís performance was the revelation of the film. Thereís much more of a sense of desperation about the character than we have seen in other films heís done with you - that, and a sense almost of sweetness.

A. Weíre very disappointed heís not here (in Cannes), because he would have cut a very fine dash indeed. Apart from anything else, as a confirmed gastronome, he would have had a good time! Tim and I share a healthy taste for the grotesque. Weíre both avid Dickensians, and heís really good at all that. But heís also a sensitive and emotional guy, and heís really pared away and got down to that here in a very special way. Heís managed to create a good guy who doesnít make you feel sick sentimentally.

Q. Youíre renowned for developing your screenplays in collaboration with your actors. Indeed, you must be the only film-maker in the world who can raise money to make films without showing anybody a script!

A. Yes, but, for me, although there is much discussion about characters, it is all really about the texture of life. Iím very excited by what is around us and what we wear. That, to me, is part of the joy of exploring real life - and of film-making.

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Nick Roddick talks to Mike Leigh, director of the much acclaimed and awarded English film, Secrets & Lies - which is one of this yearís Best Film Oscar contenders.

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