As one of the most significant British filmmakers all time, Mike Leigh is known for his dowdily naturalistic, unscripted approach to presenting human relationships. From his most recent film, Another Year about post-midlife crisis, to his appropriately titled, torturously slow 1971 debut Bleak Moments, his work is often intrepidly emotive; getting right under your skin and difficult to shake loose.
But, on the flip-side, he is also a master of dry, ever-so British wit. Although it stems throughout his work, the 1976 teleplay Nuts in May is perhaps the most plainly funny movie of his career.
A mixture of situational comedy and comedy of manners, Nuts in May follows a smug middle-class couple who head out of the suburban smog for a camping holiday in sunny Dorset. It’s a rural paradise for control freak, preachy husband Keith and his dimwitted hippy wife Candice Marie: they can trek across the open quarries, nibble on vegetarian rabbit food, drink unpasteurized milk straight from the teat, and whip out the banjo and guitar for a round of folk songs (not around the campfire, however, that would be against the codes of nature, you see).
But their dream vacation is destined to be ruined. For a start, there’s the typically British rainy weather putting a dampener on things. Then the unwelcome arrival of neighbouring camper Ray–and his pop music blaring radio–is set to spoil the bird song and push the pompous Keith over the edge.
Much like the rest of Mike Leigh’s oeuvre, Nuts in May was devised through improvisation, rather than scripting. A craft that has become synonymous with the filmmaker, it’s quite incredible to see it working so successfully at such an early period in his career.
That’s probably in some part a product of brilliant performers too. Forgotten British radioplay thespian Roger Sloman is great as the militant husband and stickler for the rules, whilst Alison Steadman (who would become not only a frequent collaborator with Leigh, but also his wife) is an absolute delight, wearing patchwork flares and speaking with that quintessential bourgeois slur. There’s far too many brilliant scenes to drop them all off in this review, but Keith attempting to put a fellow pesky camper under civil arrest is a highlight. Better still, hearing the pair harmonise ‘I want to see the zoo, she said, I want to see the zoo’ / ‘I want to take you there, he said, I want to go with you’, is so cringe-worthily hilarious that I was reduced to tears.
With the dispassionately married couple leading such stale, ascetic lives, Nuts in May is Leigh’s social critique on the stuffy British elite. Those who are ideologically ‘libertarian’, but ignorant to any inevitable changes in modern society. Although it may be a heritage piece, Nuts In May still holds up as one of Mike Leigh’s best.