Timothy Spall as The Mikado in Topsy-Turvy


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



18 November



WS Gilbert born, 1836

On this day in 1936, William Schwenk Gilbert, writer and librettist, was born on the Strand, London, a short distance from the Savoy Theatre, where he would have the greatest triumphs of his career with collaborator Arthur Sullivan. After his parents’ marriage collapsed, Gilbert travelled extensively through Europe as a child. He spoke good French when he returned to England to attend Great Ealing School, “the best private school in England”. As a young man he joined the Civil Service,
joined the part-time army the Militia, then became a barrister, wrote theatre reviews, poems, plays and stories and drew cartoons, before he became a war correspondent for The Observer newspaper. His poems were popular but his legal practice was not. In 1863 he collaborated on a pantomime and soon found himself working with the German Reed entertainments as part of a movement to raise the tone of British theatre, which had a very grubby reputation. He became a director and was a stickler for clear enunciation, lots of rehearsal and finely choreographed, if not regimented, performances. In 1871 he first worked with the composer Arthur Sullivan, on a successful lightly comic Christmas work called Thespis. It was four years before they would work again, on Trial By Jury, which was a huge hit. More works in Gilbert and Sullivan’s lightly satiric style followed – HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado being the best known of the Savoy Operas, as they became known, that the two would turn out over the next ten years. Their collaborations were fruitful but their creative relationship was strained. Sullivan found Gilbert’s insistence on “topsy-turvy” satire at odds with his own desire for realism; Gilbert thought Sullivan a lick-spittle social climber who would do anything to avoid conflict with his social “superiors”. Even so, they continued collaborating until 1894. A phenomenally hard worker who insisted on probity, Gilbert was a hard man to get along with and fell out with people regularly, though he also had a reputation for generosity. He died, aged 74, from a sudden heart attack brought on by the cold water while trying to save a young woman who had got into difficulties while swimming in his lake.

Topsy-Turvy (1999, dir: Mike Leigh)

Director Mike Leigh is best known for films in which modern working people do battle with the class system in a funny, often satirically barbed way. Topsy-Turvy is his most atypical film, full of musical numbers, costumes and moustaches, bits of comic stage business completely at odds with his more usual contemporary realist output. At the centre of one of this most nakedly enjoyable of his films is the partnership between Gilbert and Sullivan, right at the point where they’ve come to a creative and personal bump in the road. Sullivan is tired of subjugating his music to the words of Gilbert’s “topsy-turvy” satire; Gilbert is hurt that Sullivan doesn’t like what he is producing musically. It’s a total stand-off, though Leigh is clearly on the side of Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), whom he clearly admires for his facility with words, his brusqueness and his humanity. Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is portrayed as a bit of humbug, which is probably how Gilbert saw him too. Leigh is credited as the writer of the film, though in accordance with his normal working practice, the script has been worked up through extensive improvisation in rehearsal – Leigh lets his actors (including Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Shirley Henderson and Dexter Fletcher) get on with it, in other words. And he presents, anti-Baz Luhrmann style, the music straight up, no ironical overlay, no references to Beyoncé or what have you. It is remarkably effective, and by focusing tightly on the creation and performance of The Mikado, as Gilbert and Sullivan come out of creative stasis, Leigh makes us appreciate that, beneath the Japanese costumes and names such as Nanky-Poo, Yum Yum and Titipu, Gilbert was writing social satire mocking the government, judiciary and aristocracy. It’s Mike Leigh: the Musical.



Why Watch?


  • The Mikado – one of the most watched musical theatre pieces of all time
  • Timothy Spall as The Mikado
  • Mike Leigh started out in theatre – and his love for it shows
  • The running joke about obsessions over Victorian gadgets might ring a little bell with the iGeneration


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Topsy-Turvy – at Amazon






Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner in Topsy-Turvy

Lovers of costume drama and light operetta are in for a treat. And so are people who can’t stand either, thanks to Mike Leigh, more usually known as a purveyor of working-class drama to the realm.

Taking as its starting point the creative roadblock reached by the librettist WS Gilbert and his writing partner, the composer Arthur Sullivan, after the relative failure of their Princess Ida in 1884, Leigh’s film follows the duo as they struggle towards the rejuvenating success of The Mikado. Leigh’s masterstroke is to weave the composer/librettist’s full antler stand-off – Gilbert wanted to write an opera called The Magic Lozenge; Sullivan most definitely didn’t – with an oblique commentary on our own age’s attitudes towards foreign cultures and techno-gadgetry.

Running through Topsy-Turvy is Leigh’s obvious regard for the librettist’s facility with a lyric, Gilbert’s rhythms as near to rapping as Victorians got. Plus his enthusiasm for Gilbert and Sullivan’s often disparaged collaborations; Leigh serves the musical numbers straight up and wink-free – there’s not a dry irony in the house. All this and a stone-faced Jim Broadbent, playing a bluff Gilbert to Allan Corduner’s waspish Sullivan – two more reasons to see this fabulously entertaining film.

Topsy-Turvy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2000