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Film / Topsy-Turvy

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Topsy-Turvy is a 1999 film written and directed by Mike Leigh that focuses on the partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan when they reach a crossroads in their career.

After earning disappointing reviews for Princess Ida, Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) decides to unilaterally dissolve his partnership with William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) creating comic operas for the Savoy Theatre. To get his mind off his troubles, Gilbert's wife, Kitty (Lesley Manville), drags him to the Japanese Village in Knightsbridge and he is inspired to write The Mikado. What follows is a comprehensive story of how the play was developed such as how it was written, how Sullivan prepared the music and the singing and how Gilbert dealt with the choreography, costuming and dealing with actors and their occasional moments of temperament.

Topsy-Turvy was nominated for four Academy Awards and won for Best Costume Design and Makeup.

Tropes Associated With This Work:

  • Artistic Licence – History:
    • In the film, Gilbert gets the idea to write The Mikado after visiting the Knightsbridge Japanese Village. The real exhibition did not open until 1885, long after Gilbert sent Sullivan the first plot sketch of The Mikado in May 1884.
    • In the real-life opening-night performance of The Mikado, the Act 2 finale began with "The Threatened Cloud Has Passed Away." That was felt to be too short, so "For He's Gone and Married Yum-Yum" was added later, as seen in the film and modern performances.
    • Gilbert, indignant at Sullivan's unwillingness to set his proposed magic potion piece, encourages him to contact Mr. Ibsen in Oslo if he wants to write a more "dull" opera. Oslo was called Kristiania at the time. Not until 1925 would the city revert to the medieval name by which Gilbert called it. When Mike Leigh found this out, at the Venice Film Festival where the completed film was being screened, he was mortified: he prides himself on exhaustive research.
  • Avoid the Dreaded G Rating: The film's "R" rating apparently comes from just one short gratuitous scene with some topless burlesque dancers, and a very brief shot of an actor shooting up some drugs; there's hardly any other remotely offensive content at all.
  • Bad "Bad Acting": During rehearsals, the script supervisor Seymour fills in for two actors who are absent that day. His performance is ribbed by Gilbert and the remaining actors.
  • Bilingual Dialogue: Numerous characters drop into French in the course of ordinary conversation, the most conspicuous example being Madame Leon, the wardrobe mistress, who speaks mostly in French despite her honking working-class London accent.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Mikado is a huge success, but Kitty Gilbert is still sad about the fact that they don't have children; Fanny is pregnant by Sullivan but they know that she'll have to have an abortion, as the scandal of her being an unmarried mother would be too great; Leonora is still lonely, and a title card says that Sullivan did eventually write a grand opera, Ivanhoe, but that almost nobody performs it anymore.
  • Bowdlerize: The film omits the third stanza of the Mikado's solo. This may be partly for time considerations, but also probably has something to do with the fact that the verse as originally performed contains the N-word, which was eventually expunged in 1940.
  • Camp Straight: Lely and Temple, both of whom are happily married to their wives but, when chatting in the dressing room, delightfully… theatrical.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Mr D'Auban, (Andy Serkis) the choreographer.
  • Comedy Ghetto: In universe. Sullivan's motive for wanting to move away from comic operas to more serious fare, such as symphonies.
  • Costume Drama
  • Creative Differences: In-universe. This is the essential problem for Gilbert and Sullivan with the latter tired with the fantasy musical comedies Gilbert keeps writing, while Gilbert doesn't see what the problem is with his creations.
  • Death Glare: Katisha gives a particularly terrifying one to the crowd during the Miya-sama scene.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: William Gilbert has to deal with an actor who has a hissy fit over his costume which seems too "revealing," even though by modern audiences' eyes, it is demure. Furthermore, with Method Acting stars like Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep becoming well known and respected for the lengths they will go to be in character, this actor sounds childishly unprofessional.
    • During a lunch meeting, Grossmith and Barrington make some extremely racist comments about Africans, and are mildly rebuked by Lely (who, being Scottish, has certainly been the subject of English racism himself). Such attitudes were rather common in Victorian England, and thinking of Africans as a bunch of half-naked savages living up in trees was part of the justification for British Imperialism.
  • Depraved Dentist: A dentist pulls one of Gilbert's teeth apparently without anesthetic.note  To make matters worse, though, the dentist then goes on to remark that Princess Ida is "too long"— a point Gilbert is sore about — while Gilbert has his mouth forced closed so he's unable to respond!
  • Double Entendre:
    Barker: I am going out for some Italian hokey-pokey and I care not who knows it.note 
  • Drugs Are Bad: We see George Grossmith hiding in his dressing room to use morphine before the first performance.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Gilbert is inspired to write The Mikado when a mounted samurai sword falls off his wall.
  • Eye Twitch: The Mikado, when being upstaged by his daughter-in-law elect.
  • Foil: Gilbert and Sullivan are this to each other. Gilbert is grumpy, reserved, apparently fond of his wife but doesn’t show her physical affection, uninterested in sex, uninterested in food and drink, utterly focused on his work, doesn’t appear to know any foreign languages, and only shows faint signs of happiness or pleasure when he gets the idea for The Mikado and when he’s rehearsing. Sullivan is ebullient, cosmopolitan, very physical with his mistress, drops into French at the drop of a hat, showers praise on other people, hangs out in brothels, loves his food, and when he’s listening to Gilbert read the libretto, strolls up and down his drawing room chuckling with appreciation.
  • Fully-Clothed Nudity: Durward Lely complains that his costume as Nanki-Poo (a short jacket and black tights) renders him practically naked, and only relents when Gilbert convinces him that the Japanese did not wear trousers.
  • Functional Addict: Grossmith, who despite taking heroin right before the first performance manages play Ko-ko just fine, though Sullivan does fix his stare on him when Grossmith starts looking unsteady after his verse of "The criminal cried as he dropped him down".
  • Gilligan Cut:
    • Gilbert says he would not visit the Japanese exhibition, "not for all the tea in China". The next scene is of him and Kitty wandering around it.
    • In a previous scene, Gilbert says "I would rather go to a Turkish bath with my grandmother than go to the blasted dentist." His wife nods. Cut to Gilbert in the dentist's chair.
  • Girl Friday: Helen Lenoir to Richard D'Oyly Carte. note 
  • Heh Heh, You Said "X": Sullivan chuckles when Gilbert reads the play's subtitle, "The Town of Titipu." (Of course, knowing Gilbert, that's probably quite intentional.)
  • Hypocritical Humor: Gilbert argues to Lely that he must accept that his profession obliges him to sometimes be a bit undignified because they’re not doing "grand opera in Milan", they’re doing "low burlesque on the banks of the Thames." Later on, he argues to Mr. D’Auban the choreographer that he must have authentic behaviour because they’re not doing "low burlesque", they’re doing "an entirely original Japanese opera".
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Grossmith, Barrington and Lely have lunch, at which they discuss the fall of Khartoum.note  Grossmith and Barrington are booked to have a chat with D'Oyly Carte about their salaries, at which they intended to push for generous pay rises, but Lely isn't booked to have such a chat. Grossmith and Barrington make extremely racist remarks about the natives in Khartoum, but Lely (who's Scottish) mildly reminds them of a massacre of the Scots by the English. Grossmith and Barrington indulge in an extra dozen oysters, but Lely, who's having the sole, declines to have any. At their respective chats with D'Oyly Carte, Grossmith and Barrington are struck down with oyster poisoning and fail to obtain their pay rises, while Lely is perfectly healthy.
  • Last-Name Basis: By the time of the film, Gilbert and Sullivan have worked together for thirteen years but still refer to each other by their surnames (this was normal in Victorian Britain).
  • Making the Masterpiece: The story of the making of The Mikado.
  • Only Sane Man: D'Oyly Carte, in managing his business, has to contend with both reluctant Sullivan and stubborn Gilbert, as well as all the actors employed in their operettas.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping:
    • In-universe. Actor Durward Lely is a Scotsman who affects a posh Southern English accent on stage and in most of his public dealings. Except when angered.
    • Also in-universe for Mrs. Fanny Ronalds, who is an American society lady living in English society. When with Sullivan and other intimate English friends, she tends to be in a generic upper English accent, but in hosting private concerts for English society she slips into her normal American accent.
  • Pet the Dog: Gilbert may be cold to the subject of his mother, self deprecating to the point of being unable to watch his own work, and a perfectionist who keeps actors in rehearsal until they perform his lines to is exact standards, but he's also shown to be capable of some kindness such as restoring Richard Temple's solo "A more humane Mikado" when confronted by the Savoy chorus, or to Jessie Bond when the abscess on her leg causes her pain, even giving her a kiss on the forehead to calm her nerves on opening night.
  • Potty Emergency: Two actors get food poisoning from bad oysters and feel the effects during separate meetings with the owner of the Savoy Theatre.
  • The Prima Donna: While many of the senior members of the acting troupe have prima donna tendencies, the worst offender is the troupe's choreographer, Mr D'Auban.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Richard D’Oyly Carte, boss of the whole company. He offers his actors pay rises and is genuinely concerned when their attempts to wangle even bigger pay rises are interrupted by bouts of food poisoning. When he warns Leonora that she mustn’t let her drink problem interfere with her acting, he does so in the most delicate way, and when she promises to keep it under control, he is genuinely pleased. When negotiations between Gilbert & Sullivan have broken down, he even invites them to lunch, but they don’t go. He never raises his voice, and where necessary, he lets his sidekick Helen do the talking.
  • Set Behind the Scenes: Most of the film shows the inner workings of the D'Oyly Carte company as The Mikado is conceived, produced, and rehearsed.
  • Sexless Marriage: William and Kitty Gilbert is portrayed as sexless and rather strained, particularly as she wants children and he's not prepared to have any. It's questionable how much of this was true in real life, where the Gilberts were reportedly a doting couple. By contrast, Sullivan and his lover, Fanny Ronalds, are highly sexual as well as affectionate, and arrange an abortion when she accidentally falls pregnant.
  • Sci-Fi Ghetto: Sullivan was also tired of the fantasy plot devices Gilbert used in his stories and wanted something more "probable."
  • Shout-Out:
    • Gilbert complains that Sullivan wants to write a serious opera about "a prostitute dying of consumption in a garret," an obvious nod to Verdi's La Traviata.
    • Gilbert also drops quotes from Shakespeare into his conversation, as he was known to do.
    • In rehearsals, Grossmith misspeaks one of Gilbert's lines as "Here's another fine mess you've gotten me into," a blatantly anachronistic shout-out to Laurel and Hardy.
  • Show Within a Show: Type 1, the production of The Mikado.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Some of the characters reminisce about their past roles or sing parts of solos from other shows. Yes, in real life, those characters did indeed originate those roles.
    • Quoth IMDb, "Most modern recordings and performances of the Mikado's solo, 'A More Humane Mikado' feature a bloodthirsty laugh between the verses. This touch was added by Darrel Fancourt, a D'Oyly Carte performer from 1920-1953, and has been copied ever since - which is why the laugh is not performed by Richard Temple (Timothy Spall)."
  • Sophisticated as Hell:
    Temple: One should be rewarded on one's merits, not on one's ability to ingratiate oneself with the management, particularly when the management have difficulty in locating the relative whereabouts of the arse and the elbow.
  • The Show Must Go On: Despite painful kidney disease, Sullivan rouses himself out of bed to conduct the orchestra on Princess Ida's opening night.
  • Those Two Guys: Lely and Temple.
  • Tone Shift: The first half of the film dramatises the stagnation of Gilbert & Sullivan's creative partnership, with Sullivan becoming increasingly impatient with Gilbert's ideas, or rather (as Sullivan feels) Gilbert's lack of fresh ideas, and the two lead characters become more and more bad-tempered (although this establishes their characters: Sullivan deals with their joint Creator Breakdown by going to Europe and living it up, whereas Gilbert deals with it by staying at home and becoming ever more grumpy.) As soon as Gilbert attends the Japanese exhibition, becomes inspired to write The Mikado and reads the resulting to libretto to an appreciative Sullivan, the whole tone of the film shifts into comedy and stays there throughout the ensuing rehearsal sequences. It shifts back into drama at the end, as we see that the enormous success of the show hasn't necessarily fixed the characters' lives and that some of them are just as messed-up as they were to begin with.
  • Victorian London: That being the time and setting where the film takes place.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: Jessie Bond suffers from an abscess in her leg, which means she’s in more or less constant pain. This was Truth in Television.