Building a Masterpiece

Topsy Turvy

Remember live performance? The story of the making of The Mikado illuminates the magic of theater in the delightful Topsy-Turvy.

A bluff, domineering Victorian fellow pronounces the words in a humorless, matter-of-fact tone, as though dictating a legal filing: “If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan.” The moment marks a painfully achieved breakthrough halfway through Mike Leigh’s delightful 1999 film Topsy-Turvy, the story of a project — The Mikado — that was not merely a hit but earned a place among the minuscule proportion of hits that endured across the centuries. One hundred and thirty-five years after its debut, Gilbert and Sullivan’s most beloved collaboration, the one that begins with those gentlemen of Japan introducing themselves, remains a very model of the modern musical theater and is still widely performed today.

Or it would be, if there were much performing going on in the Anglosphere, which is why Topsy-Turvy makes for especially poignant viewing today. (You can watch it free, with minimal commercial interruption, on NBC’s new streaming service Peacock.)

The author of The Mikado’s libretto, William Schwenck Gilbert — incomparably portrayed by the brilliant character actor Jim Broadbent in his greatest performance — is, at the outset of the movie, huffing about a lightly damning review of his latest “opera” (today usually called an “operetta”), Princess Ida, which was later more or less forgotten. The reviewer notes that Princess Ida is pleasant enough but “words and music alike reveal symptoms of fatigue in their respective composer and author.” The critic correctly identifies a rut of predictability into which Gilbert has fallen — his topsy-turvy reliance on absurdly contrived, high-concept twists. Later in the film, when Gilbert explains to his partner, composer Arthur Sullivan (a recessive Allan Corduner) that the premise for his next work is a magic potion that transforms the person who takes it into whoever he or she is pretending to be, Sullivan scoffs, “You and your world of Topsy-Turvydom! In 1881 it was a magic coin. And before that, it was a magic lozenge. And in 1877 it was an elixir.” Pause. Gilbert: “In this instance, it is a magic potion.”

Gilbert is a genius who is nevertheless turning into a bit of a hack, and needs a genuinely fresh idea, which he discovers at an exhibition of Japanese culture in London where he purchases a ceremonial sword that, when he displays it in his home, later falls off a wall and unleashes his creativity. The Mikado would prove to be not only a career tonic, but the epitome of the Gilbert and Sullivan style, which anticipated today’s Broadway musical.

Topsy-Turvy, which cost an enormous sum by Leigh’s standards — all of $20 million, or approximately the latte budget for a superhero movie — was a financial flop and got no major Oscar nominations except for Best Original Screenplay. What might have kept the film from achieving the stature it deserved is Leigh’s rigorous refusal to flatter the audience by shaping his material into any kind of argument. Though Leigh is an ardent left-winger, the film rejects all opportunities to indulge in propaganda or grandstanding. It doesn’t castigate the Victorians for their racism, sexism, classism, or any other ism that causes disgust in our age. Nor did Leigh locate among the Victorians some previously hidden source of values we today hold dear. Even a reference to abortion comes free of any suggestion of what we should think about it. Today’s concerns hardly enter the picture at all; Leigh opts instead to re-create the period as best he can (though he embellishes the record: The oft-told story of the operetta’s genesis in the Japanese exhibition is false). Only one, unfortunate line of dialogue is clearly thrown in from the vantage point of the late 20th century — an unlikely reference to Jennie Churchill’s headstrong son Winston, then an underachieving ten-year-old. [ . . . ]

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Alison Steadman: ‘I never thought I would live in such strange and scary times’

The actor is back from lockdown with two new dramas. She talks about her 50-year career, Boris Johnson and the joy of miaowing at John Cleese, while James Corden, Julia Davis and Mike Leigh pay tribute

It took less than a week of lockdown for Alison Steadman to start making puppets. Supplies weren’t a problem; this is a woman so anti-waste she thinks supermarkets should charge a fiver for plastic bags and donates her old hair to the birds. “It’s very good for nests; it’s soft and it complements the grass and sticks.”

So, come late March, she decided to knock together a Mr Punch to entertain her grandson on FaceTime. “I’d got all the stuff: toilet roll holder, newspaper, flour, plasticine, Christmas decorations, an old cushion.

“I love Punch and Judy. When I was a child, we’d sometimes go shopping in Liverpool city centre and my treat, if I behaved, was to watch it outside St George’s Hall. People say: ‘Oh, but he used to beat his wife with a stick.’ But as a kid you don’t know that. It’s just fun.”

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Bill Antoniou takes a look at the films of British master filmmaker Mike Leigh

Whenever people tell me that Mike Leigh is one of their favourite filmmakers, I’m always surprised to hear it.  Even though he’s also one of mine, I forget to think of him as an actual filmmaker.

His brilliant work is derived from his achievements in theatre and it bears those origins on screen, though I don’t mean that as criticism. He returns to some character archetypes frequently (the soulful homeless man, the hopelessly chirpy working-class woman) and the conflicts he puts his characters through feel like the stuff of stage drama. He makes them relevant in cinema from the beginning, then as he goes along, directing more films and making his multi-levelled narratives feel more cinematic. (Meantime just feels like watching people, while Another Year plays almost like a thriller.)

A common mistake people make about Leigh’s work is saying that it is improvised. It’s absolutely not, but is rather a script created from work that he does with his actors, creating characters from birth to death and putting them in situations together in which their improvised interactions eventually result in a finished work. In the eighties, he revolutionized the kitchen-sink melodrama. These films were celebrated for nailing the anxieties of the less fortunate under Thatcher’s conservative reign. In the nineties, he applied his observations of simple lives in the less glamorous parts of London to high concept dramas (and in the case of his Palme d’Or-winning Secrets & Lies, created his masterpiece). Continue reading

Movies to help us through: “Another Year”

By Michael Stevenson

The Hobbledehoy never fail to see the latest film from British director Mike Leigh. High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Career Girls, Happy Go Lucky are each wonderful films, but the one we need to help us through the Covid-19 lockdown is 2010’s Another Year.

Why is film necessary viewing during our confinement? I love how the characters in Another Year take care of each other. The script covers four seasons in the life of one British couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and their small group of friends. The couple tends a seasonal garden that requires tender care, as does their challenging friend “Mary” (Lesley Manville) – a deeply troubled narcissist trying to hold onto her youth by pursuing her friend’s much younger son. There is birth, death, disease and always much love throughout.

Leigh’s actors Broadbent (Another Year, Life Is Sweet) Sheen (High Hopes, Vera Drake) and Manville (High Hopes) each give brilliant performances.

Said one reviewer of Another Year: “Ordinary people doing really ordinary things and making these things really important.”

I suppose that’s what we are each doing during this lockdown – making seemingly ordinary things, like staying at home, really important. And caring for each other, even our crazy friends.

Have you seen Another Year ? If so, tell us your thoughts. Have your own film recommendation to help us get through? Tell us.

Watch ANOTHER YEAR on Amazon

Interview with Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville

For a movie about a famous massacre, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is very dry

Mike Leigh’s films have always been first and foremost about people. He makes incredibly rich and detailed character studies, famously conducting his actors through months of improv work before he even sits down to write a screenplay. Somehow, that’s been the case even when he’s occasionally tackled famous historical subjects, like 19th-century Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. Topsy-Turvy recounts the creation of The Mikado, but everybody on screen, from Gilbert and Sullivan themselves down to the smallest member of the ensemble, registers just as vividly as do the wholly invented characters in Naked or Secrets & Lies.

That’s what makes Leigh’s latest effort such an anomaly. Peterloo doesn’t deliberately skimp on character, but it’s the first of his movies in which no inividual makes much of an impression, and each one is fundamentally subordinate to the larger event being painstakingly chronicled. “Peterloo” is the nickname given to a massacre of unarmed civilians by cavalry soldiers that occurred on August 16, 1819, at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester. (Just as we now strip the “Water” from Watergate for every similar scandal, they stripped the “Water” from Waterloo, suggesting an equivalent to Napoleon’s then-recent bloody defeat.) Eigtheen people were killed in the melee, with hundreds more injured; the movie builds to the horror, eventually showing just what happens when men on horseback charge into a crowd with their swords drawn and start indiscriminately slashing at people who are just trying to get out of the way.

To his credit, Leigh is less interested in the massacre itself than he is in the series of political machinations that inexorably led to it. His challenge: That’s an incredibly dry subject—England’s equivalent of Ben Stein droning on to Ferris Bueller’s classmates about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. Here, the proximate cause of all the trouble is tariffs imposed on imported grain, known as the Corn Laws; widespread dissatisfaction with these laws, which benefited wealthy landowners at the expense of everyone else, resulted in demands for parliamentary reform.

Peterloo makes an effort to demonstrate how this affected a typical Manchester family, opening with one weary soldier (David Moorst) returning home from Waterloo and subsequently becoming semi-radicalized as a result of the deprivation. Mostly, though, the film consists of public meetings at which organizers bellow things like “The object of Parliament ought to be the general good, the equal protection, the security of the person and property of each individual, and therefore labor—the poor man’s only property—ought to be as sacred as any other property!” That sort of rhetoric almost always gets exhausting in a hurry (even MAGA-heads who wait in line all day to see Trump free-associate often leave early), and it represents a sizable chunk of this lengthy film’s first hour [ . . . ]

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