Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvydom

There can be no doubt –
No ifs or buts:
Mike Leigh ranks Gilbert
World’s leading misery-guts.

It may come as a surprise that the parents of Sir William Schwenck Gilbert outshone him in eccentricity: a valuable tool which is a leitmotif in Mike Leigh’s impressively researched and thoroughly entertaining 1999 biopic.

Other authors too have celebrated Gilbert as Master of Misery. But all – including Leigh – fail to give ear to the man’s extraordinary generosity. Rather than see the women of the chorus trudge home in the dark and wet, following late-night performances, he would hire cabs to see them home. (He always had better relations with women than men. Bad luck, blokes.)  Were they frightened of him? You bet they were. It was always a toss-up who had to speak with him about any dispute. Leigh shows such a situation very well. Did they respect him? They did indeed. Maybe because of the deference due to a man of pedigree – a tag Gilbert gives to Pooh-Bah in The Mikado. His generosity also cost Gilbert his life. Seeing an 18-year-old friend of their adopted daughter in difficulties in their large garden pond, he jumped in, clothed, to rescue her. He failed. She died. He had a heart attack himself and died instantly.

While I was researching material to write a programme note for RAI’s concert performance of The Gondoliers in Rome, I discovered that baby Schwenck (the name he was always known by in the family) was momentarily left in his pram by his nanny in the bay of Naples, while she did something else. Nanny returned to find the pram empty and a ransom note. Father Gilbert was parsimonious. However, he paid up for his son’s return. An episode which could have come straight out of Aristophanes, the Father of Comedy, himself a constant source of inspiration to classicist Gilbert. Not to mention classicist Wilde.

Topsy-Turvy was filmed at Three Mills Island Studios, Bow, with Richmond Theatre standing in for the Savoy Theatre. It focuses on the years 1884 to ‘85, leading up to the premiere of The Mikado in ‘85, but with scenes flashing backwards and forwards.

It opens with Sir Arthur Sullivan agonised with the pain of his kidney disease and being injected with cortisone by a servant to get him to the theatre to conduct an opening night. The disease would later kill him. Some of his friends might have added – if Gilbert didn’t kill him first.

Working with Gilbert would simply kill any man says the stern, business-like Helen Lenoir (Wendy Nottingham) PA to D’Oyly Carte, Company Manager (Ron Cook) – when making sympathetic overtures to Sullivan (Allan Corduner). All three actors are perfectly cast.

The star of the show is Jim Broadbent as Gilbert (Oscar nomination). He has the best lines, delivered with masterly comic timing. Outside the years of the film, Gilbert successfully sued D’Oyly Carte for charging an exorbitant sum for re-carpeting the Savoy Theatre in which he and Sullivan had shares. (The carpet episode was but the climax of other dubious charges Carte had made. Gilbert was formerly a QC.)

There are some excellent period touches like Gilbert’s eventual visit to the dentist: I’d rather spend an afternoon in a Turkish bath with my (hated) mother than visit the dratted dentist.

 Or the moment when needing Sullivan’s signature to a document, in a Paris restaurant, Carte hands him a reservoir pen. What next? says the surprised composer. The waiter brings a roller-blotter to dry up the ink.

The costumes – theatrical and everyday – are beautifully made and won an Oscar. Alison Steadman (formerly Leigh’s wife) is perfect in the brief role of Madame Leon, the theatre’s wardrobe mistress. There were Oscar nominations also for the Leigh’s script (amazing that this was not a winner) and director (also Leigh).

Leigh made the controversial decision that all the singing had to be performed by any actor playing a sung role. What a task for the casting director! But it works. All the G&Ss have the same characters in different costumes and situations. So, in one sense that made the casting easier. Outstanding as a singer is Eleanor David as Fanny Ronalds, the wealthy American society hostess, who was also Sullivan’s mistress. At one of her soirées we see her singing ‘The Lost Chord’. She later requested to be buried with the manuscript, to which Sullivan agreed. So, posterity lost that particular chord with Mrs Ronalds’ demise.

Much is made of ‘Three Little Maids from School’. Especially their ‘training’ from three Japanese girls from the much-lauded Japanese arts and crafts exhibition, who don’t speak a word of English, but under Gilbert’s bullying eye mange to convince him that Carte’s girls are actually able to learn what he perceives as Japanese choreography. This is no more Japanese than when the chorus interrupt Katisha at the end of Act I with ‘Japanese’ protests. No one knew better than Gilbert when it was appropriate to introduce a touch of fakery.

Shirley Henderson as Leonora Braham/Yum-Yum makes a most moving delivery of ‘The sun whose rays are all ablaze’. And she is impressively coy when Carte must reprimand her for her ‘little weakness’ (booze) as well as her secret (she has a small son). Shocking that these young women were so badly paid they had to accept invitations of wealthy audience members to entertain their guests after performances. Even more so for the women of the chorus.

Dorothy Atkinson’s Jessie Bond/Pitti-Sing is made of sterner stuff and altogether steelier in her resolve to oblige the ‘gentlemen’ of the audience. And refreshingly unsentimental. An extended job like any other, appears to be her focus. She must have enjoyed roaring trade. When challenged by the Mikado to describe an execution which hasn’t taken place she sings of Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else, This haughty youth he speaks the truth whenever he finds it pays / And in this case it all took place exactly as he says. (Readers can have fun remembering how many people they know to whom this tag might apply.)

Was there ever a woman who so thoroughly understood her husband as Gilbert’s wife (Lesley Manville) whom he calls Kitty but to everyone else she is Lucy. It is Lucy/Kitty who drags Gilbert to the Japanese exhibition against his better judgement: Oh so you think you know me better than I know myself? To which Lucy replies I know you better than you think I do. with such force of certainty that Gilbert goes along.

At the exhibition they take tea poured by a Japanese servant Spinach water? asks Gilbert. To which the girl bows and replies something incomprehensible that Lucy translates as sixpence please whereafter Gilbert addresses her as Miss Sixpence-Please. She is called to the Carte stage with two of her colleagues to show the English girls how three little Japanese maids would toddle along to school.

Maude, Gilbert’s generously-spirited sister (Theresa Watson) and her mean-spirited sister Florence (Lavinia Bertram) are both leaving the exhibition as Schwenck and Lucy arrive.

Flash forward to the Gilbert sisters’ residence where mama (a very convincing Eve Pearce) is grilling the daughters – from her bed – about their outing with the amplification of her hearing trumpet.

Is Lucy with child? growls the mother. No mother, absolutely no barks Florence, though come to think of it, she did look a bit sickly and asked after you. 

 As Maude is leaving the room mother calls Maude, never give birth to a humorous child. In a forced-fitting reply Maude retorts I shall endeavour to follow your advice mama.

 These notes would not be complete without mention of Gilbert’s dad William (Charles Simon) who tops the bill in eccentricity on his visit to his son’s house. He refuses to use the doorbell since he believes that such a contraption might endanger his life. Gilbert immediately asks the servant how many doorstep deaths they have had with the use of the bell. None to my knowledge replies the good man. There you are father says Gilbert, the odds seem to be in your favour. 

 Jack Buckley

Topsy-Turvy written and directed by Mike Leigh is available on DVD.

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