Sarah Slade rewatches Topsy Turvy and discovers an unusual Mike Leigh film about the creative process.

W. S. Gilbert demonstrating the ideal working conditions for a professional writer.

When you think about how the creative process is depicted in films, this is what you usually get: Artists are tortured geniuses, beset by misfortunes and difficulties. They are misunderstood in their lifetimes, celebrated only by the people who love them and the enlightened few who back them. Even if successful, the artist is alone with his muse or his substance abuse habit. He is tortured by his past and fearful for his future, so all he can do is play, sing, or paint his pain and ultimately, achieve greatness through his art.

So far, so glib. There are honourable exceptions, but most fictional films depict the creative process as a struggle against the odds, to be heard, or to make money for a cause. Even ensemble ‘let’s do the show right here!’ musicals seem to concentrate on the Eureka! moment when the hero has that crazy idea, then cut to the hero getting his crew together, followed by a montage and on to the first night. The understudy becomes the star, or the shy girl finds her voice and her man, but there’s always a focus on two or three protagonists, and an against-all-odds story arc.

Looking back over his work prior to Topsy Turvy, in many ways Mike Leigh was perfectly placed to make the kind of film where the lone visionary kicks against the pricks. Putting to one side the focus on his often misunderstood improvisational approach to film-making (an awful lot of preparation goes into an ‘improvised’ work) his most famous films are focused intensely on individuals. Leigh’s previous work concerned the various malaises and insecurities of modern life for the middle-class family in the twentieth century: anorexic daughters, excruciating dinner parties, failed aspirations, failing relationships and campsite etiquette were all explored and dissected in sometimes excruciating detail. So a tortured-artist type film coming next would have made some kind of sense, but in fact Topsy Turvy isn’t like that at all.

Alternatively you might have thought along these lines: Great, a period drama, set in Victorian Britain.  Perhaps looking at the nascent trade union movement, or an adaptation of a novel by the Great Victorian Miserablist, George Gissing? (And if you’re not familiar with Gissing, this is how his novels normally go: Life is a series of disasters. Middle-class people are awful. All good writers are bitter, unsuccessful misanthropes. Women should neither work, read books nor marry above their station because it only makes life more miserable. There you go, that’s pretty much all you need to know about Gissing.) That sounds a bit like a Mike Leigh film, right? Is that what Topsy Turvy is about?

Er, no. Wrong again. Topsy Turvy is a film about the creation of The Mikado, a piece that is the cornerstone of every amateur light operatic society in the land. And there isn’t a tortured artist in sight.

In the film, Gilbert and Sullivan are neither tormented by some inner turmoil, in dire financial straits, nor a combination of the two. Gilbert is deeply affected by his parents’ failed marriage, and we see glimpses of his decidedly strange family. Sullivan has problems with his kidneys, and has an ongoing clandestine relationship with the society hostess Fanny Ronalds that doesn’t seem to cause him many qualms of conscience, and he is concerned that he hasn’t yet written his masterpiece. But by the time of the film, their partnership is already successful: the combination of virtuoso composition with humorously topical lyrics appeals to the public across the country. This isn’t how a film about the making of an operetta is meant to go, and if the film isn’t about an artist fighting against the odds, what’s the story?

The story is about how you make a story. Where the ideas come from and what you do with them when they arrive. On the surface, this is a departure into conventional storytelling for Leigh; a glossy, highly coloured period piece with frocks and top hats a-plenty, but like other Leigh films, this is an ostensibly casual exploration of a microcosm, poking into corners, eavesdropping on conversations between actors, hovering behind desks and peeping into rehearsal rooms.

The theatre is a world apart and a world within which aristocratic loucheness meets middle-class ambition. Within this world Gilbert, the irascible Victorian patriarch, can work fairly harmoniously with Sullivan, the brothel-haunting musical prodigy. Yet this also brings about the root of the tension in their creative partnership. Sullivan is the man about Europe, alternately revelling in his sexual freedom and chafing at his artistic bonds, while Gilbert is the sober, industrious married man who sets the scene, often literally, since he directs the Mikado as well as writing the libretto.

Once the initial idea of the Mikado is gleefully accepted, the theatre becomes a place of work. The camera lingers on the leads arguing about their costumes, the film flashes forward to show glimpses of the first night, complete with close ups of the male chorus’s badly fitting hairpieces. Extended rehearsal scenes show, not a perfectly staged and choreographed production, but fluffed lines, corrections, note-taking and many many arguments. Arguments over lines, over the right way to walk in a kimono, over motivation, and the musical notation, because that’s essentially what the creative process is, a series of arguments that eventually produces something.

Martin Savage as George Grossmith, Allan Corduner as Arthur Sullivan, Michael Simkins as Frederick Bovill and Dexter Fletcher as Louis, Sullivan’s butler show us how it’s done.  Click here for subtitled version.

Given the glossy production values of the film, the hairpieces, arguments and awkward attitudes jar slightly uncomfortably with the viewer, reminding us, as Leigh intended, of the human beings wearing the costumes and singing the songs. Though you could also see it as indicative of the uneasy lacquering of a very English story with slightly silly Japanesey bits that aren’t really authentic, but kind of work.

And at the end of the film, what do they have? They have a hit, it’s true, but is is “Art”? Well, some would say the Mikado has never been more than a highly enjoyable piece of fluff, but it has stayed in the public consciousness far longer than any other opera that premiered in 1885. It kept the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership alive, and kept the actors, musicians and stage staff in work for another season which must count for something.

For me, this film is one of the most truthful depictions of the creative process that I’ve seen. There’s no Eureka! moment, the creators are already respected for their skills, and the stop-and-go progress to a finished product is shown in detail. It seems odd to me that so many other film makers are happy to pretend that artists just have some indefinable creative spark, without showing the work, technique and skill that go in to creating something too. Topsy Turvy is an unusual and intriguing film, and I’d love for it to last as long as the Mikado.

About Sarah Slade

Middle-aged, middle-sized and reluctantly middle-class Learning designer, based in London. Wife to Mr Perfect, Mother of Little Miss Perfect. I write a lot of learningy businessy stuff for a living, and as a consequence am very lazy about writing for myself. I occasionally write my own blog about living in London and sometimes I’ll find something interesting to say about my professional life. I sew a bit, paint a bit and I sing very averagely and play a terrible game of badminton.