It’s strange how history – even TV history – remembers some names and not others. Take Mike Leigh. You’ll almost certainly have heard of Mike Leigh, in part because of his film work, but largely because of his work on the BBC’s Play For Today, with the likes of Abigail’s Party and Nuts In May still famous to this day. In particular, Leigh is known for the improvisational nature of his plays, working with the actors to create the scripts from which the final product is created.
Mike Leigh went to Salford Grammar School where he studied acting. He later moved to Birmingham and worked at the Midlands Art Centre, where he started to develop that famous style of his. He then enrolled on a course at the London Film School. In 1971, he worked on a feature film, Bleak Moments, and was recruited in 1973 by the famed Tony Garnett to make dramas for Play for Today.
The strange thing is that if you replace “Mike Leigh” with “Les Blair” in that previous paragraph, it’s still a completely true statement. Blair acted with Leigh in Salford, they shared a flat together in Birmingham, went to the Film School together, and Blair edited and produced Bleak Moments, which Leigh directed.
The big difference between Leigh and Blair, however, is that while Leigh began to edge more into comedy, albeit with a satirical edge, and film, Blair stayed firmly in the realm of TV drama, eventually going on to direct the socio-realistic likes of Law and Order and The Nation’s Health with his future long-time collaborator GF Newman. As a result, while Leigh is practically a household name, Les Blair is almost unknown except to TV historians.
Blair’s first effort for Play For Today came just three months after Leigh’s Hard Labour. Blooming Youth was an improvised drama about a group of polytechnic students sharing a house together, including a world weary cynic, a nervous studious virgin, and a couple in a relationship. Not a lot happens in it, but what marks it out is its realistic depiction of student life at the time, with dingy rooms, epic boredom and other aspects of study that would have been familiar to anyone who’d been to either university or polytechnic.