The cold winter months are a perfect time to catch up on movies and miniseries. I just treated myself to a repeat of one of my very favorite movies, Topsy Turvy. It’s a 1999 musical drama/comedy by the great and idiosyncratic director Mike Leigh. He works with a regular troupe of favorite actors. The actors all develop their characters over a period of months and get together regularly to improvise based on the relationships they develop. Mr. Leigh watches the improvisations. At certain points, he tells his actors to get out of character. Then they all discuss what’s happened. Based on the improvisations and discussions, Mr. Leigh develops a shooting script. So the stories arise organically, out of real human behavior.
The subject of Topsy Turvy is the unlikely creation of the much-performed and much-loved musical classic, The Mikado. The film’s story is based on real people and real events, extensively researched. Each cast member was given a character to research and understand, then at intervals they got together in various groupings. Mr. Leigh would give them the premise of a scene, and off they’d go.
At the beginning of the story, Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert are a phenomenally successful creative team. Their comic operas attract large and appreciative audiences to the Savoy Theatre, built specially for them by the producer D’Oyly Carte. Gilbert writes the stories and lyrics, and Sullivan comes up with the orchestral scores. But Sullivan is weary. He feels he has a serious opera in him, and he is convinced he is wasting his time with light comic operas. He complains to Gilbert that every story they’ve done is the same: a “topsy turvy” world created by a potion or spell or magical device.
Sullivan decamps to Paris, where, truth be told, he enjoys the naughty nightlife more than he composes serious work. Gilbert is left to his own devices in Victorian London. He has a supportive but miserable wife, an estranged set of demanding elderly parents, and two old maid sisters. His wife wants children, and he either can’t or won’t cooperate in conceiving any.
Suddenly, Eureka! There’s an international exposition which includes a wildly popular Japanese pavilion. Gilbert brings home a ceremonial Japanese sword; it falls on his head with the same brain-jarring effect as Newton’s apple. The Mikado, in all its wit and humor, flies out of his pen. Sullivan, skeptical, reads the libretto and chuckles appreciatively. The duo is in business again, hard at work on their greatest triumph. The Mikado premiered in 1885. It was an instant smash hit.
The best part of the film chronicles the joy and struggle to bring the piece from the page to the stage. Scenes of backstage pettiness alternate with scenes of sheer genius as the performers learn their places in the comic masterpiece.
Some years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a performance of The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre in London. It was all I’d hoped for, and more–sublimely beautiful and funny. Topsy Turvy brings it all back. But it is not necessary to know a thing about Gilbert and Sullivan to enjoy the rollicking humor and genuine pathos of the movie.
Alan Corduner stars as Arthur Sullivan. Jim Broadbent is W.S. Gilbert. All the actors are stellar, including Timothy Spall, who is currently starring in Mr. Turner, a new Mike Leigh film. Mr. Spall plays the great English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in an acclaimed performance.
The movie still above is from Roger Ebert’s admiring review, found at