In the wake of directing what is likely to remain the best imaginable Gilbert and Sullivan movie—Topsy-Turvy, a fantastically detailed and wonderfully leisurely account of the genesis of The Mikado—Mike Leigh has taken to making statements like this: “I’m not interested in proselytizing Gilbert and Sullivan. At the end of the day they were minor artists. They did suffer, but they suffered in a bourgeois way.” Aside from any possible arguments about the implied connection between non-bourgeois suffering and the making of major art, it’s understandable that Leigh needs to put some distance between himself and the body of work he has so cunningly restored to cultural prominence. He knows after all that many will go to see Topsy-Turvy for reasons that have nothing to do with Leigh’s impressive earlier films (Life Is Sweet, Naked, Secrets and Lies) and everything to do with a lingering, if decidedly attenuated, popular enthusiasm for the Savoy operas.

They will go looking for lost comforts associated with the ideas of operetta and of Victorian theater, as well as the familiar pictorial splendors to which this era of filmmaking—with its endless and eye-pleasing adaptations of Austen, James, Forster, and other chroniclers of bourgeois pastimes—has long since accustomed them: in short, for a Christmas treat appropriate to that imaginary nineteenth-century childhood which will endure well past the end of the twentieth. Leigh’s triumph is to have provided something that can pass for exactly such a package, while delivering a movie almost as abrasive in its way as Naked. The abrasiveness admittedly takes different forms: instead of apocalyptic rants, violent sex, and life on the street, we have the unobtrusive permeation of Victorian sitting rooms and dressing rooms by a full range of mental and corporeal miseries, from kidney stones and morphine addiction to raging paranoia and sexual denial. From our first glimpse of Arthur Sullivan waking in pain and panic to drag himself to conduct the orchestra on the opening night of Princess Ida, it’s clear that this is to be a period film in which the costumes and furnishings do not protect the characters from physical vulnerability. Even the gnarled and protuberant facial hair of so many of the men adds to the sense of inescapable materiality.

The premise is simple: What if Gilbert and Sullivan had actually existed as something other than the lovably eccentric caricatures that crop up on old theatrical posters or reissues of early recordings of The Sorcerer or Patience, and what if the world in which they moved did not altogether resemble one of their own operettas? It may come to seem typical of the late twentieth century, this need to look for an ultimate grittiness in even the smoothest confections, this reluctance to let trivial pleasures exist on their own terms. It is not a matter of exposing anything particularly sensational, although the film’s advertising speaks enticingly of “The Women. The Scandals.” On the contrary, it puts under the microscope a group of people who, whatever their personal neuroses and professional disagreements, have their lives fairly well in hand.

Sullivan may run off to Parisian brothels, and Gilbert may look on in inarticulate discomfort as his frustrated wife free-associates a fantasy about strangled babies, but the real story here is that they and their colleagues manage to keep their world running quite competently. What a lot of work that takes, on the part of all from high to low, is the almost exclusive subject of Topsy-Turvy’s three full and not in the least enervating hours of screen time. (In one of the few lines betraying a hint of explicit authorial message, Mrs. Gilbert remarks: “Wouldn’t it be wondrous if perfectly commonplace people gave each other a round of applause at the end of the day? ‘Well done, Kitty. Well done!”‘) Leigh’s film thrives on the very real conflict between the theatrical magic of The Mikado (even as presented here, as a deliberately rough and out-of-sequence work in progress) and the distinctly unmagical world it rose from.

The magic will of course not necessarily be apparent to all viewers. Many will come to Topsy-Turvy with scarcely a clue to what The Mikado might once have meant, and for them it may well resemble some strange species of vanished pop art. It’s hard for me to imagine coming to Gilbert and Sullivan cold, in the middle of life, having been born into the latter phases of a world where they were part of the decor. From Mikado and Pirates and Pinafore —just then, around 1950, being made available on LP for the first time—I got my first taste of such things as melody, orchestration, plot, and the farther reaches of the English language. The Savoy operas formed a kind of universal lexicon: a musical range embracing sonorities out of Handel or Verdi or Offenbach, arias, marches, madrigals, chanteys, tarantellas, English country dances; story lines employing every variety of melodramatic contrivance and farcical misunderstanding; a procession, seeming to encompass all mortal possibilities, of pirates, fairies, constables, poets, schoolgirls, ghosts, jesters, jailers, lovesick maidens, impoverished Spanish grandees, and jolly sailors.


Beyond all else there was the initiation into Gilbert’s linguistic realm, where words existed not so much to express meaning as to provide a gratuitous and extravagant pleasure. An inexhaustible vocabulary of recondite, often downright useless terms and phrases was absorbed long before meaning became an issue: “breach of promise,” “trepanning,” “scholas-tic trammels,” “pirate caravanserai,” “grace of an Odalisque on a divan”—along with endless names (Spohr, Guizot, Heliogabalus) and the endless nonsense which somehow made sense of it all, from “Tarantara” to “tiny tiddle-toddle.” It would take the better part of a lifetime to untangle all the information embedded in Gilbert’s arcana; at any moment a newly acquired bit of information might suddenly illuminate a lyric long since internalized. When all the elements of his art came together, in the nightmare song from Iolanthe or the ghost’s song (“When the night wind howls”) in Ruddigore, he seemed to embody the mystery of creative power like a second Shakespeare. With Sullivan he had brought into existence what to a child seemed something like a perfect world, in which absurd entanglements were resolved by equally absurd equivocations, to the accompaniment of melodies alternately gorgeous and sprightly.

It was only gradually that a childish listener detected, beneath the ludicrous crises of Gilbertian dramaturgy—the babies switched at birth, the lives hanging on preposterous points of imaginary legal doctrine—and his tendency to find humor in images of torture and disfigurement, a more troubling mood mixing anger, cruelty, and inconsolable depression. One phase of childhood ended with an awakening to the authentic grotesquerie and misanthropic animus in Gilbert’s libretti. Now one could begin to savor the mordant variations on themes of vanity and avarice, self-serving unctuousness and moral cowardice, to take in the harshness of Ko-Ko’s great renunciation in Act I of The Mikado:

Now I adore that girl with passion tender,
And could not yield her with a ready will, Or her allot,
If I did not
Adore myself with passion tenderer still!

The parade of cynics, toadies, grasping senescent father figures, gleefully dupli-citous bureaucrats, and self-infatuated romantic leads continuously undercut any tendency toward mawkishness in what had once seemed tender love stories.

The possibility of anything like charitable impulse was remote in Gilbert’s world; his characters essentially tried to get what they could for themselves while desperately trying to evade the strictures of irrational legal codes, whether the law was that of Japan or Barataria or the realm of the fairies. At the bottom of everything was cold calculation, no matter how sweet Sullivan’s music, as in the glee from Mikado:

If I were Fortune—which I’m not—
B should enjoy A’s happy lot,
And A should die in misery—
That is, assuming I am B.

Even in a world of pure fancy, such considerations could not be put aside: that iron rule shored up the operas just as much as the metrical rigor and argumentative brilliance of Gilbert’s lyrics.

This was where Sullivan came in, to suggest with his music a world of emotional realities beyond Gilbert’s reach, whether it was the exhilarating buoyancy of the trios in Pinafore and Iolanthe or the note of tender melancholy that creeps in—in the sestet in the first act finale of Patience or Mikado’s madrigal—as if to elicit a compassion otherwise alien to Gilbert’s creatures. Appreciation of the operas became an exercise in appreciation of temperament, of judging precisely the abyss that separated the two and thereby coming to appreciate not the infiniteness but the limits of creativity. Gilbert and Sullivan respectively reached different parts of one’s being, Sullivan offering emotion and worldly color, Gilbert a brilliance spinning in the void, withering to any notion of sincere feeling: the oddity of their collaboration was that they did both in the same instant. Yum-Yum’s great song in the second act of The Mikado (with which Leigh ends his film) was the supreme example of the disparity between them: the lyrics presented a heartless, utterly vain creature who was transformed by Sullivan’s music (worthy, in this instance, of Puccini) into a mysteriously beautiful presence. Yet it was a presence that existed outside the world of The Mikado, a presence that world could hardly support.

The poignance of the operas resided in their precise mapping of their own limits; these worlds were so sharply defined that they also made one aware of areas of feeling and perception that could never be expressed within them. Neither eroticism nor death could be acknowledged here, and so they were a little bit everywhere, just past the edge of the jolliness. The most interesting byproduct of the Savoy operas was the residual impression of emotional depth that lingered from works that were objectively as frivolous and paper-thin as entertainment could be.


Part of the emotional weight came simply from the accretion of all the people who made the operas part of their lives, who had founded a sub-culture of amateur Gilbert and Sullivan production that still survives although in diminished numbers, or on a more intimate substratum in the form of family theatricals or holiday sings around the piano. The operas elicited participation; they could be sung, approximately, by anyone, and to get close to them was to end up enacting them and in the process to end up feeling that one had somehow helped to create them. It was a last remnant of what had once been a culture of homemade entertainment, in which people availed themselves of scripts and sheet music and masks and props to shape a theatrical world of their own.

A sense of that culture is very much present in an earlier treatment of the same subject. The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953), a lavish Technicolor production directed by Sidney Gilliat and starring Robert Morley and Maurice Evans, embodies a tradition of historical pageantry in British filmmaking that film historians have tended to dismiss as static, wooden, and word-bound. Such films have become hard to see, even though in the 1950s they cropped up on American television with great frequency; in those days when Hollywood studios were still loath to license their films to the rival medium, the gap was often filled with ornate English period films such as Saraband for Dead Lovers, The Queen of Spades, and The Magic Box. Like many of these, The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan looks better now than anyone might have expected. The very traits once characterized as Stiff Upper Lip Cinema—the absence of high emotion or flamboyant gesture, the dry and carefully researched presentation of historical background, the tone balanced between blithe good humor and unflinching decorum in the face of life crises—have receded sufficiently into the past to seem rather bracing.

The respect for detail, the sense that the story being told is actually important, carries real force in a film whose underlying subject is the world of expectations within which Gilbert and Sullivan shaped their work, a worldof which it is in some sense still part, or at least wants to believe it is still part. With its exquisite design and photography (Vincent Korda and Christopher Challis were among the collaborators) it feels like something of an homage to the Michael Powell of The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann, an intimate celebration of a specifically British tradition of theatricality. The biographical narrative is periodically interrupted by bursts of pageantry: a miniature version of Trial by Jury; The Gondoliers staged for a toy theater; a splendid boating party on the Thames; and, in the most impressive sequence, a montage illustrating the dissemination of Gilbert and Sullivan’s songs into English society via pub piano, whistling bicyclers, seaside dance pavilion orchestras, hurdy-gurdy, carousel, and military parade. Inevitably, as one form of pageantry converges on another, the film culminates in a command performance for Queen Victoria at Windsor.

In its depiction of the contrasting temperaments of the two men, The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan covers much of the same ground as Topsy-Turvy, although far more discreetly; Sullivan here is sexually frustrated (his sweetheart rejects him because he won’t focus on oratorios) rather than debauched, Gilbert (beautifully played by Robert Morley) blusteringly dyspeptic rather than anguished. The tone of the film, finally, is celebratory: we are to marvel at the happy chemistry that enabled Gilbert and Sullivan, through whatever mix of whimsy, choler, deflected artistic goals, and practical ambition, to end up almost in spite of themselves contributing a new variety of unalloyed pleasure to English culture. Tradition here represents the careful preservation of what at its origin was lucky accident.

Leigh’s movie can count on no such sense of tradition. If for the earlier film the Savoy operas represent a supreme flowering, for Leigh they are perhaps no more than a random instance. He might just as well have chosen to make a movie about the creation of The Third Man or The Goon Show or Rubber Soul, except that by his own account he wanted to do a costume picture “pretty much for the sheer hell of it” and was taken with the “perversity and naughtiness of subverting this chocolate-box subject, dealing with it in a serious way.” In undertaking to make a period piece without nostalgia, a theatrical film unencumbered by wish-fulfilling fantasy, he has achieved a historical film that really interrogates the genre. Leigh is renowned for the extended preparation of his films, involving months of improvisational work by the actors out of which the script evolves. It is a process that in the past has made possible a pleasingly lifelike off-the-cuff looseness, even as it provided space for actors as expansive as David Thewlis and Brenda Blethyn to build extraordinary characters from the inside out. Indeed, Thew-lis’s nomadic, ceaselessly verbalizing Johnny in Naked may turn out to be one of the more enduring British literary creations of this period.

The apparent realism of Leigh’s previous films was not without its histrionic component: it amounted to a constant demonstration of the theatricality of everyday life, at every moment threatening to spill over into overt clowning or melodramatics. Both that actorly exuberance and the directorial restraint required to keep it within bounds prove most useful in Topsy-Turvy. Most history films fail to convince either because the actors, subdued by their costumes and the unaccustomed wordiness of their dialogue, do not seem entirely physically present, or else because they overcome the constraints by some form of anachronistic outburst. For all its obsessively researched dialogue and its dense agglomeration of Victorian bric-a-brac, Topsy-Turvy does its most convincing work of historical suggestion on the level of the acting. It is not a matter of faithfulness to the period—who would know?—but of a total relaxation of manner which does not rely on contemporary modes of speech. The improvisational method—still applied here, but with the additional weight of historical data hemming it in—results in dialogue where, for once, witty remarks are not necessarily delivered with the aplomb of the perfectly rehearsed stage actor. Each of the principal speaking roles—there are at least twelve, each distinctly affecting the overall flavor—is defined with an exact feeling not just for a particular style of speech, but for the character’s sense of presentation and for the space separating each from the others. The rest—the clocks and cups and candlesticks scattered about in every shot, the deftly interwoven topical allusions, even Dick Pope’s staggeringly fine photography—is built around those spaces. As superb as Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner are as Gilbert and Sullivan, they in no way overshadow the rest of the cast, down to the servants, the members of the chorus, and the participants in the Japanese exhibit at Knightsbridge who get roped into the rehearsals.

The remarkably unstrained quality of the acting is doubly appropriate, since it was the stiffness of the acting style inherited from the original D’Oyly Carte productions, and maintained with puritanic rigidity over the decades, that did more than anything to turn the Savoy operas into theatrical antiques. Leigh shows us that style from the inside, as it gestates in rehearsal under Gilbert’s exacting tutelage, just as every aspect of what eventually becomes The Mikado is shown as the result of major or minor decision-making. The film establishes a world in which there is only one problem of any significance: how to conceive, prepare, and present the next Gilbert and Sullivan opera. The personal travails of the creators and their troupe can never be more than marginal shadows because everyone is too busy with the work at hand; any other sort of problem registers only to the extent that it threatens to impede the production. The company is so busy that there’s scarcely time for anyone’s ego to blossom in All About Eve fashion; at most there’s room for brief eruptions over costuming or salary.

There is not even any room for sky. This is a film virtually without natural light, taking place almost exclusively in interiors, each of which in the hands of Dick Pope has its own peculiar sheen and density. The lone foray outdoors is into the dark and fetid alley—really another kind of interior—in which Gilbert, escaping from first-night anxieties, is accosted by a raging beggarwoman. Intellectually, the world beyond the theater leaks in only through a discussion of the death of Gordon in the Sudan (as if to salute obliquely such old-school British classics as Zoltan Korda’s Four Feathers and Basil Dearden’s Khartoum), although Gordon is upstaged in the end by some bad oysters. But if the sun and the outside world are removed from consideration, it is not in order to induce claustrophobia but rather to allow the inner light of theater to shine without competition.

For the Savoy troupe, reality tends to be a nightmare: not an especially Victorian nightmare (the film refrains mercifully from facile retroactive finger-pointing at ancestral sins of commission or omission), simply the usual share of human discomfort. They can awaken from it only into the closet world of performance. But if Topsy-Turvy inevitably evokes comparison with the sort of musical in which somebody is apt to say “Let’s all of us kids get together and put on a show,” it cannot allow itself the untrammeled theatrical apotheosis of 42nd Street, Summer Stock, or The Band Wagon. Those are movies where the show the characters mount becomes the solution to their problems, allowing them to partake of the same pleasure that they afford the audience. The Mikado’s small share of ecstasy—its capacity to send everyone out smiling—offers no redemption to those who concoct it in the first place. Leigh feels the need to underscore the point, even at the risk of undercutting the theatrical gaiety he so effectively summons up for the 1885 opening night, by having Gilbert remark afterward: “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.”

The Mikado itself is given to us only in fragments; splendid as they are, they do not cohere enough to let us enter the theatrical illusion; nor are they meant to. Every scene or song from the opera is used to demonstrate one or another part of the production process. Leigh has judged, probably wisely, that unimpeded contact with the show’s pleasures might swamp his hard-won sense of the bitterer reality offstage. Nor does the theater audience figure as anything but an abstraction, to be called into action for a culminating shot—almost perfunctory in its inevitability—of the whole house applauding enthusiastically, the great yet finally inadequate payoff of everyone’s labors. We remain on the other side of things with the actors, unable really to see the show because completely caught up in it, lost in a process of intricate collaboration and endless rehearsal.

That, in spite of everything, the ecstasy of performance does come across may be a demonstration that the paradoxical magic of theater is unkillable after all. In this film with no sky we end with a song about the sun and the moon—evoked only as metaphors for the beauty of the character who sings it—sung by the actress we have seen a moment earlier staring disconsolately into the mirror in her dressing room. A single image serves to fuse Gilbert with Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy with The Mikado, actress with role, and audience with the spectacle just preparing to recede into darkness.

This Issue

February 24, 2000