Abigail’s Party is really what gave Mike Leigh his name. For a long time, it was his defining work. It’s ironic then that the man himself actually hates this made-for-TV incarnation of his famous stage-play. Shot with multiple cameras on a basic set with a compromised soundtrack, Leigh was forced to settle for a rather plain and uninspired rendition of his work. What it lacks in cinematic qualities, however, it makes up for in performance, characterisation and observation.
Alison Steadman’s turn as Beverly is still held in high regard today. She’s one of those characters that leaps off of the screen (or page) and becomes something of a cultural icon for a certain generation. You can trace a heritage of Beverlys throughout British comedy since Abigail’s Party. Watching these characters mingle and bump heads leads to endless cringe-comedy and Leigh milks it for all it’s worth. It all culminates in a spectacularly operatic finale that doesn’t feel superficial or false. It’s about as tragic as tragic comedy gets. Even if the face of death you’ll find yourself letting out a guilty giggle.
It’s amazing how consistently excellent Leigh has remained over all these years. He always manages to make films that feel of their time and place but somehow avoid becoming dated. They are time capsules, representative of Britain’s mind-frame at the time they were produced but bottled and preserved for all time. Years later they still manage to speak to people. I arrived at Abigail’s Party almost forty years since its inception, but the material doesn’t feel dated in the slightest. Even in this form, the work inspires. Louis CK famously conceived of his latest project, Horace and Pete, after randomly stumbling upon this on YouTube one night. If nothing else we can be thankful for Abigail’s Party for that. Leigh might groan and moan, but like it or not, this is a BBC classic.