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

Left-wing British film and television producer Tony Garnett dead at 83

Garnett’s career spanned 50 years, but he is identified above all with one of the most significant and creative periods in the history of television drama in the UK.

The highly respected film and television producer, writer and director Tony Garnett died on January 12 after a short illness, aged 83.

Garnett was born Anthony Edward Lewis on April 3, 1936, into a working-class family in Birmingham. His mother died when he was just five years old, of septicaemia two days after a backstreet abortion during the Second World War. His father, a munitions worker, committed suicide 19 days later.

Tony Garnett
Tony Garnett

Garnett’s career spanned 50 years, but he is identified above all with one of the most significant and creative periods in the history of television drama in the UK.

Originally an actor, he appeared in television’s The Boys (1962) and Z Cars (1962) and played several small parts in An Age of Kings (1960), the BBC’s influential production of Shakespeare’s history plays.

He moved behind the camera when he was hired as an assistant story editor at the BBC working on The Wednesday Play, which ran from October 1964 to May 1970 and aired more than 170 plays.

This famed series, which addressed social issues before an audience of millions, included the likes of Up the Junction (1965, about abortion), Cathy Come Home (1966, about homelessness), The Lump (1967, about casualised labour in the building industry), In Two Minds (1971, about mental illness as a social problem) and The Big Flame (1969, about a workers’ revolt on the docks), all produced by Garnett. During this period he began long associations with writer Jim Allen, dramatist David Mercer and, most notably, director Ken Loach.

His producing credits include Loach’s Kes (1969), After a Lifetime (1971), Family Life (1971—the film version of In Two Minds), Days of Hope (1975), The Price of Coal (1977) and Black Jack (1978), as well as Roy Battersby’s The Body (1970), Mike Leigh’s Hard Labour (1973), Julien Temple’s Earth Girls Are Easy (1985), Roland Joffe’s Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Hettie Macdonald’s Beautiful Thing (1996).

Garnett came into contact with Gerry Healy and the Socialist Labour League, the British Trotskyists, in the late 1960s. Although he never joined the Trotskyist movement, he was instrumental in organising discussions among actors, writers and directors, including Loach, Mercer, Roy Battersby and Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, that led to important gains within these circles. Playwright Trevor Griffiths depicted those meetings in his play, The Party (1973).

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Lesley Manville: ‘I want to go dancing and drink too much – and I’m over 60’ 

The Bafta nominee has been discovered by Hollywood after 47 years as an actor. She talks about ageism, losing her anonymity and spa trips with her Mum co-stars

Lesley Manville was at the bus stop the other day when the comedian Simon Amstell spotted her and came up for a chat. He wanted to know what she was doing there. Manville affects bewilderment. “I said: ‘Well, why? I’m going to get the bus.’ He said: ‘I don’t imagine you getting the bus.’” He could see her on a bus, but not actually waiting for it, perhaps because she seems both grounded and grand. “I said: ‘I love a bus. I don’t want my life to be about taking taxis.’”

But buses are becoming trickier for Manville. It’s not just the “oomska oomska oomska” of tinny music emitted by other people’s headphones, which “irritates the fuck out of her” and is turning the public space into a private entertainment zone and spoiling the opportunity for earwigging. She can also hear her fellow passengers whispering: “It’s her off Mum! It’s her off Mum!”

The BBC Two sitcom was nominated in four categories at the TV Baftas on Sunday, one of which was Manville for female performance in a comedy, while Mum is about to return for its third and final series. No wonder Manville’s quietly devastating performance as Cathy, a recently widowed mother of one who is falling in love with her late husband’s best friend, is making it hard for her to pass unnoticed. Many bus rides are now spent clocking the furtive glances and wondering whether she will have to get off before her stop.

“I’m clinging on to it,” she says – the “it” being the bus, but also the anonymity she has avidly protected during a 47-year career across stage, TV and film that has won her a reputation not as a glittering national treasure, but as “a stalwart”.

The days of this reputation are numbered. Last year, she was nominated for an Oscar for her potently austere portrayal of Cyril Woodcock, the sister of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Reynolds in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. We meet in the ballroom of the Langham hotel in London as she is preparing to fly to Canada to shoot Let Him Go with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. Hollywood has discovered her, while the acclaim for Mum and Phantom Thread, on the heels of an Olivier award for Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts in 2014, have turned her into a sort of poster girl for the older female actor. Continue reading