Over the nights with a newborn spent more awake than asleep, you catch up on late telly if not on much-needed kip; and so the other evening I finally got round to seeing David Leland’s film The Big Man on BBC1, 20 years after its cinema release.
I remember it getting a rough ride at that time, yet it seemed to me like a good picture. Back then, just as now, the British cinema industry was utterly convulsed by the pressure to find a mainstream audience, both at home and overseas, and that sometimes led to quasi-commercial errors of style, packaging and casting, some of which The Big Man, too, certainly exhibits. But it also testifies to the ambitions of Steve Woolley’s and Nik Powell’s Palace Pictures, which produced the movie, and to the gifts of David Leland, one of the most formidable figures to have worked in British film and TV in the last 30 years.
The Big Man anticipates a raft of British films from the late 1990s that took the effects of the Thatcher government’s industrial policy as the starting point of the drama. Like Brassed Off and Face, this one’s heart beats on the left. Unlike Billy Elliot, it takes the 84/85 Miner’s Strike very seriously and doesn’t act as if the redemption of One could be consolation for the damnation of Many. The only thing glaringly wrong with the picture is Joanne Whalley as a doughty pit wife of middle-class provenance. (British cinema’s It Girl of the late 1980s, Whalley got a lot of parts she wasn’t right for before she moved to the US and got a lot of parts that I’m sure she hated.)
The Big Man taps into the gangster genre very directly but quite smartly: the underworld is evoked with familiar strokes but also genuine menace. Its Morricone-ish score sounds a little too familiar until you realize the score is indeed by Morricone, stealing from himself as usual. The thematic bleakness of the picture has force, in that characters one likes are made to suffer, Liam Neeson’s lead Danny Scoular above all. And there’s a useful terseness in the visual metaphor of a bag of money for the price of a man’s soul. Having tried to pull a few strokes of this sort myself in Crusaders, I thoroughly respect Leland’s efforts here.
I got to know David a little when I was compiling my book on Alan Clarke, a project to which he was immensely helpful, and I found him just as impressive in person as his body of work had suggested. He has a quiet force about him: a calmly-spoken, eloquent intelligence with a steely edge. He first met Clarke in 1973 by acting for him in a BBC taping of The Love Girl and the Innocent by Solzhenitsyn (or ‘Solly Neasden’ as Clarkey rechristened him.) Later he ran the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, putting on tough new plays at a time when the venue was more famous for hosting world snooker tournaments. Clarke encouraged him to write: Psy-Warriors and Beloved Enemy were fascinating political dramas made at the BBC; Made in Britain, done for Central TV, is as good a film as Britain made in that decade.
Leland and Clarke were wonderfully matched in terms of their interests and uncompromising bents. As David told me, ‘In the time that I knew Alan, everything he did was coming out of current affairs… He was digging into what was happening here and now, which is always the most uncomfortable area to explore in drama. Real contemporary drama has become a thing of the past on television. First of all it’s very hard to do, it’s a fight to articulate what is out there in the present – how do you get it on paper and how do you portray it, by what means? Then it’s even harder to get the space to get it made.’
Leland duly moved into films. His script for Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa was very interesting on class, sex and crime. He made the tone a bit lighter for his directorial debut Wish You Were Here (1987), but it was so lively and unsentimental on the subject of a girl’s sexual self-awareness that it wowed Cannes and made a star of Emily Lloyd. The Big Man didn’t perform, though. And for a few years after, I guess David had trouble getting things made. The Land Girls (1998) is an attractive period piece but it disappeared quickly.
Still, I do recall the last occasion I saw David was in 2002, across the room at Morton’s restaurant in Hollywood at a party after the Emmy Awards ceremony, where he had won a trophy for directing on Band of Brothers. Out with the Tom Hanks gang for the night, he was dapper in a black frock-coat and looked very ebullient. The best people always deserve their comebacks.