13 May 2007: Bad timing is keeping Loach and Leigh away, but both have happy memories, writes Amy Raphael.

Cannes celebrates its 60th anniversary with Stephen Frears as president of the jury, but not a single British film is in competition. Conspiracy theories abound, but there’s a simple reason: two of our most acclaimed directors are busy. Ken Loach, who won the Palme d’Or last year with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, is in post-production in Pinewood. Mike Leigh, who picked up best director for Naked in 1993 and the Palme d’Or for Secrets & Lies in 1996, is shooting the follow-up to Vera Drake.

Loach will have a small presence at Cannes. To celebrate the anniversary, festival president Gilles Jacob selected 35 international film-makers to make a three-minute short, which will collectively be known as Chacun Son Cinema (To Each His Own Cinema). Loach, the only Brit in an impressive list that runs from the brothers Coen and Dardenne to Nanni Moretti and Wong Kar Wai, found the task daunting. ‘It caused anguish because it had to be set in a cinema. Paul Laverty [Loach’s regular screenwriter] and I couldn’t think of what to do; I haven’t got anything to say about the cinema, really. I can’t tell you what it’s about; if I say anything, I’ll give the end away.’

Both Loach and Leigh sound a little wistful when talking of past visits to Cannes. Loach has seen ‘around eight’ of his films in competition, but his first experience was back in 1970, when Kes was shown in the directors’ fortnight. ‘Even then, it seemed incredibly grand and impressive; it still had the whiff of old European cinema and was full of European film stars. We were young and it was heady stuff. However much people complain about it, Cannes is great fun. I guess it would be more sophisticated to say how tedious it is …’

Leigh says his privilege has always been to attend as a persona grata. ‘I haven’t experienced the awfulness of being at Cannes, hanging around and trying to get into things. I’ve been well looked after.’ Although winning the Palme d’Or ‘was like winning the World Cup in France’, it was Leigh’s stint on the jury in 1997 that allowed him an insight into the festival. ‘You really get an insider’s view; there such a lot of mythology surrounding Cannes.’

One such myth is that Jacob influences the jury. ‘It’s rubbish. It was an operation of integrity and privacy. We all attended screenings at 8.30 every morning and there were strict rules; we weren’t even allowed to go to the loo. It was a fantastic jury, including Paul Auster, Michael Ondaatje, Tim Burton, Gong Li and Nanni Moretti, and we had brilliant discussions about all the films.’

Leigh and Loach both joke about waiting for that phone call about the Palme d’Or. Last year, Loach was pottering at home, about to cut the grass, when his producer called. Flights were full, so he hitched a lift on an empty private jet that was picking ‘posh people’ up from the Monaco Grand Prix. On arriving at Nice airport, he thought he was about to be arrested, before being told that Palme d’Or winners are given a police escort.

Leigh recalls being told to get in and out of the private car waiting outside his house as the jury deliberated. ‘And when I was on the jury, best actress finally went to Kathy Burke, who was shopping in Sainsbury’s. She arrived looking very much the rabbit in the headlights.’

· Amy Raphael is editor of Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh (Faber), to be published in spring 2008