Abigail's Party is 40 - but director Mike Leigh expected it to 'sink without trace'

Director Mike Leigh has said he expected his hit play Abigail’s Party to “sink without trace”.

The film and theatre writer spoke to The Guardian to mark the 40th anniversary of his classic 1977 tale that enjoyed huge success after making the crossover to television.

He recounted how he had been convinced to write what he thought would be a quick turnaround production, despite wanting to start a family with his then-wife Alison Steadman.

Leigh, 74, told how he had been out for lunch with the artistic director of north London’s Hampstead theatre who had wanted him to create something for the venue.

He said: “I’ll do it and get it out of the way, I told Alison. It’ll just be a stopgap. It’ll sink without trace. Then we’ll be able to concentrate on the things that matter.

“Then I suggested that Alison be in it. She hesitated. She really wanted to devote time to domesticity. But as it was to be a quick, forgettable job, she relented.”

Abigail’s Party, a satire about the new middle class of 1970s Britain, became a huge hit with Alison as lead character Beverly Moss. Theatre bosses clamoured to secure it for a West End run, but Leigh explained how it came to be featured on the BBC instead.

He said: “But we had hit a snag. The nuisance was Alison’s and my other project. She was pregnant. No way could she do a West End run, and naturally I wouldn’t contemplate her being replaced. Our doctor said she could do four weeks, no more. But this was plainly no use to a commercial producer.”

Leigh said he had originally thought theatre and television should be kept separate and so was reluctant about the adaptation, adding he had had to make what he considered to be some serious compromises with the screenplay.

He said: “For byzantine copyright reasons, the BBC insisted I change some of the live music integral to the action. Thus Elvis was replaced by Tom Jones, and Jose Feliciano by Demis Roussos.

“This was of course a colossal compromise. Tom Jones just isn’t the same thing as Elvis Presley. (Elvis, incidentally, died during the Hampstead run, resulting in our having to rewrite the references to him.)

“But, replacement though he was, Demis Roussos became, after the TV broadcast, so inextricably associated with the play that I now allow stage revivals to feature him. (If you’re doing so, replace Laurence’s ‘that blind Spaniard’ with ‘that fat Greek’.)”

Leigh said he was glad to have been proved wrong about Abigail’s Party being instantly forgettable. He said: “Forty years on, I reflect on this unintended ‘stopgap’, in which I had no interest, and which I was sure would sink without trace.

“Had I pondered it longer and more seriously, I might perhaps have attempted that ‘state of the nation’ play. But good fortune intervened, and the world was mercifully saved from that unquestionably dreadful fate.”

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