Last updated

Topsy Turvy.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Mike Leigh
Produced by Simon Channing Williams
Written byMike Leigh
Music by
Cinematography Dick Pope
Edited by Robin Sales
Distributed by Pathé Distribution
Release date
  • 3 September 1999 (1999-09-03)(Venice)
  • 15 December 1999 (1999-12-15)(United States)
  • 18 February 2000 (2000-02-18)(United Kingdom)
Running time
160 minutes [1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$6.2 million (U.S.) [2]

Topsy-Turvy is a 1999 British musical period drama film written and directed by Mike Leigh, starring Allan Corduner as Sir Arthur Sullivan and Jim Broadbent as W. S. Gilbert, along with Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville and Ron Cook. The story concerns the 15-month period in 1884 and 1885 leading up to the premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado . The film focuses on the creative conflict between playwright and composer, and their decision to continue their partnership, which led to their creation of several more Savoy operas.


The film was not released widely, but it received very favourable reviews, including a number of film festival awards and two Academy Awards for design. While it is considered an artistic success as an in-depth illustration of British life in the theatre during the Victorian era, the film did not recover its production costs. Leigh cast actors who did their own singing in the film, and the singing performances were faulted by some critics, while others lauded Leigh's strategy.


On the opening night of Princess Ida at the Savoy Theatre in January 1884, composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner), ill from kidney disease, is barely able to make it to the theatre to conduct. He goes on a holiday to Continental Europe hoping that the rest will improve his health. While he is away, ticket sales and audiences at the Savoy Theatre wilt in the hot summer weather. Producer Richard D'Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) has called on Sullivan and the dramatist W. S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) to create a new piece for the Savoy, but it is not ready when Ida closes. Until a new piece can be prepared, Carte revives an earlier Gilbert and Sullivan work, The Sorcerer .

Gilbert's idea for their next opera features a transformative magic potion, which Sullivan feels is too similar to the magic lozenge and other magic talismans used in previous operas [lower-alpha 1] and mechanical in its reliance on a supernatural device. Sullivan, under pressure from the British musical establishment to write more serious music, says he longs for something that is "probable", involves "human interest", and is not dependent on magic. Gilbert sees nothing wrong with his libretto and refuses to write a new one, resulting in a standoff. The impasse is resolved after Gilbert and his wife visit a popular exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts in Knightsbridge, London. [lower-alpha 2] When the katana sword he purchases there falls noisily off the wall of his study, he is inspired to write a libretto set in exotic Japan. Sullivan likes the idea and agrees to compose the music for it.

Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte work to make The Mikado a success, and many glimpses of rehearsals and stressful backstage preparations for the show follow: Cast members lunch together before negotiating their salaries. Gilbert brings in Japanese girls from the exhibition to teach the ladies' chorus how to walk and use fans in the Japanese manner. The principal cast react to the fittings of their costumes designed by C. Wilhelm. The cast objects to Gilbert's proposed cut of the title character's Act Two solo, "A more humane Mikado," persuading the playwright to restore it. The actors face first-night jitters in their dressing rooms. Finally The Mikado is ready to open. As is usual for him, Gilbert is too nervous to watch the opening performance and paces the streets of London. Returning to the theatre, he finds that the new opera is a resounding success.


Depiction of Victorian society

Fanny Ronalds Fanny ronalds 2.jpg
Fanny Ronalds

Film professor Wheeler Winston Dixon wrote that the film "uses the conventions of the biographical narrative film to expose the ruthlessness and insularity of the Victorian era, at the same time as it chronicles, with great fidelity, the difficulties of a working relationship in the creative arts. ... Topsy-Turvy is an investigation into the social, political, sexual and theatrical economies of the Victorian era". [4]

While the film deals primarily with the production of The Mikado, it depicts many aspects of 1880s British life and society, some based on historical episodes. Scenes show George Grossmith's use of morphine; Leonora Braham's alcoholism and single motherhood; Jessie Bond's health issues, including an abscess on her leg that does not heal; Sullivan's visit to a French brothel and his relationship with his longtime mistress, Fanny Ronalds, implying that she obtains an abortion; three actors' discussion of the destruction of the British garrison at Khartoum by the Mahdi; a private salon concert; a conversation about the use of nicotine by women; and Gilbert being accosted outside the theatre on opening night by an elderly prostitute. The film also depicts the Savoy Theatre as having electric lighting; it was the first public building in Britain, and one of the first of any kind, to be lit entirely by electricity. [5] Another scene shows an early use of the telephone. During costume fittings, the actors protest at having to perform without their corsets for the sake of accuracy. [6]


Principal photography took place at 3 Mills Studios in London beginning 29 June 1998 and completed shooting on 24 October. [7] Location shooting took place in London and Hertfordshire, and scenes which took place at the Savoy Theatre were filmed at the Richmond Theatre in Richmond, London. The film's budget was $20,000,000. [8]


Box office

In the United Kingdom, the film grossed £610,634 in total and £139,700 on its opening weekend.[ citation needed ] In the United States, the film grossed $6,208,548 in total, and $31,387 on its opening weekend. [9]

Critical reception

The film received very positive reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an 89% "Fresh" score based on 85 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8/10. The site's consensus states: "Dressed to the nines in exquisite production value and buoyed by Mike Leigh's sardonic wit, Topsy-Turvy is rich entertainment that is as brainy as it is handsome." [10] Metacritic reports a 90 out of 100 rating based on 31 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". [11]

Janet Maslin of The New York Times found Topsy-Turvy "grandly entertaining", "one of those films that create a mix of erudition, pageantry and delectable acting opportunities, much as Shakespeare in Love did". [12] She continued:

Topsy-Turvy ... is much bigger than their story. Its aspirations are thrilling in their own right. Mr. Leigh's gratifyingly long view of life in the theatre (Gilbert has a dentist who tells him Princess Ida could have been shorter) includes not only historical and biographical details but also the painstaking process of creating a Gilbert and Sullivan production from the ground up. The film details all this with the luxury of a leisurely pace, as opposed to a slow one. [12]

Richard Schickel called the film "one of the year's more beguiling surprises" and a "somewhat comic, somewhat desperate, very carefully detailed" story given "heartfelt heft" in the way it depicts how rehearsing and putting on a comic opera "takes over everyone's life". [13] According to Philip French, "Topsy-Turvy is not a conventional biographical film. ... [It] is an opulently mounted, warm-hearted celebration of two great artists and of a dedicated group of actors, backstage personnel and front-of-house figures working together." French also calls the film "a rare treat, thanks to Dick Pope's photography, Eve Stewart's production design and Lindy Hemming's costumes", with "great music orchestrated by Carl Davis." [14] For Roger Ebert, it was "one of the year's best films." [15]

Topsy-Turvy ranks 481st on Empire 's 2008 list of the 500 greatest films of all time. [16]

Awards and honours

At the 72nd Academy Awards, Topsy-Turvy received the Academy Award for Best Costume Design and the Academy Award for Best Makeup, and was nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Original Screenplay.

The film also won Best Make Up/Hair at the 53rd British Academy Film Awards and was nominated for Best British Film, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jim Broadbent), Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Spall) and Best Original Screenplay. Broadbent also won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 56th Venice International Film Festival, and the film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the same festival.

Topsy-Turvy won the Best British Film Award at the Evening Standard British Film Awards, Best Film (shared with Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich ) and Best Director at the 1999 National Society of Film Critics Awards, and Best Picture and Best Director at the 1999 New York Film Critics Circle Awards. [7] [17]

Home media

A digitally restored version of the film, released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection in March 2011, includes an audio commentary featuring director Leigh; a new video conversation between Leigh and musical director Gary Yershon; Leigh's 1992 short film A Sense of History, written by and starring actor Jim Broadbent; deleted scenes; and a featurette from 1999 including interviews with Leigh and cast members. [18] [19]

See also


  1. Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer (1877) involved a magic love potion, and several of Gilbert's other works involved various magic devices that transform the possessor. See, e.g., Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack (1866).
  2. This scene in the film is anachronistic: Gilbert is shown in the film visiting the exhibition and getting inspiration for his play, but the real exhibition did not open until 1885, long after Gilbert sent Sullivan the first plot sketch of The Mikado in May 1884.

Related Research Articles

Gilbert and Sullivan Victorian-era theatrical partnership

Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of the dramatist W. S. Gilbert (1836–1911) and the composer Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) and to the works they jointly created. The two men collaborated on fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896, of which H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado are among the best known.

<i>The Mikado</i> Comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan

The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert, their ninth of fourteen operatic collaborations. It opened on 14 March 1885, in London, where it ran at the Savoy Theatre for 672 performances, the second-longest run for any work of musical theatre and one of the longest runs of any theatre piece up to that time. By the end of 1885, it was estimated that, in Europe and America, at least 150 companies were producing the opera.


Ruddigore; or, The Witch's Curse, originally called Ruddygore, is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It is one of the Savoy Operas and the tenth of fourteen comic operas written together by Gilbert and Sullivan. It was first performed by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Savoy Theatre in London on 22 January 1887.

George Grossmith English comedian, writer, composer, actor, and singer in the 19c

George Grossmith was an English comedian, writer, composer, actor, and singer. His performing career spanned more than four decades. As a writer and composer, he created 18 comic operas, nearly 100 musical sketches, some 600 songs and piano pieces, three books and both serious and comic pieces for newspapers and magazines.

<i>The Sorcerer</i>

The Sorcerer is a two-act comic opera, with a libretto by W. S. Gilbert and music by Arthur Sullivan. It was the British duo's third operatic collaboration. The plot of The Sorcerer is based on a Christmas story, An Elixir of Love, that Gilbert wrote for The Graphic magazine in 1876. A young man, Alexis, is obsessed with idea of love levelling all ranks and social distinctions. To promote his beliefs, he invites the proprietor of J. W. Wells & Co., Family Sorcerers, to brew a love potion. This causes everyone in the village to fall in love with the first person they see and results in the pairing of comically mismatched couples. In the end, Wells must sacrifice his life to break the spell.

<i>The Grand Duke</i>

The Grand Duke; or, The Statutory Duel, is the final Savoy Opera written by librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, their fourteenth and last opera together. It premiered at the Savoy Theatre on 7 March 1896, and ran for 123 performances. Despite a successful opening night, the production had a relatively short run and was the partnership's only financial failure, and the two men never worked together again. In recent decades, the opera has been revived professionally, first in the US and then in the UK.

Peter Pratt British opera singer and actor

Peter Pratt was an English actor and singer. He was best known for his comic roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.

DOyly Carte Opera Company British theatre company

The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company is a professional British light opera company that, from the 1870s until 1982, staged Gilbert and Sullivan's Savoy operas nearly year-round in the UK and sometimes toured in Europe, North America and elsewhere. The company was revived for short seasons and tours from 1988 to 2003, and with Scottish Opera it later co-produced two productions.

Henry Lytton British actor and singer

Sir Henry Lytton, Henry Alfred Jones, was an English actor and singer who was the leading exponent of the comic patter-baritone roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operas from 1909 to 1934. He also starred in musical comedies. His career with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company spanned 50 years, and he is the only person ever knighted for achievements as a Gilbert and Sullivan performer.

Richard Temple (bass-baritone)

Richard Barker Cobb Temple was an English opera singer, actor and stage director, best known for his performances in the bass-baritone roles in the famous series of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.

Leonora Braham

Leonora Braham, born Leonora Lucy Abraham, was an English opera singer and actress primarily known as the creator of principal soprano roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.

Durward Lely

Durward Lely was a Scottish opera singer and actor. Although he had an extensive opera, concert and acting career, he is primarily remembered as the creator of five tenor roles in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas, including Nanki-Poo in The Mikado, for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Sydney Granville

Sydney Granville was an English singer and actor, best known for his performances in the Savoy Operas with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

W. S. Gilbert English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was an English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator best known for his collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, which produced fourteen comic operas. The most famous of these include H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre, The Mikado. The popularity of these works was supported for over a century by year-round performances of them, in Britain and abroad, by the repertory company that Gilbert, Sullivan and their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte founded, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. These Savoy operas are still frequently performed in the English-speaking world and beyond.

<i>The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan</i>

The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan is a 1953 British technicolor film that dramatises the story of the collaboration between W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 comic operas, later referred to as the Savoy Operas, which became the most popular series of musical entertainments of the Victorian era and are still popular today.

Sybil Grey

Sybil Grey, born Ellen Sophia Taylor, was a British singer and actress during the Victorian era best known for creating a series of minor roles in productions by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, including roles in several of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan operas, from 1880 to 1888. Afterwards, she went on to a long West End theatre career, appearing in both musical theatre and plays.

<i>The Mikado</i> (1939 film) 1939 film by Victor Schertzinger

The Mikado is a 1939 British musical comedy film based on Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 comic opera The Mikado. Shot in Technicolor, the film stars Martyn Green as Ko-Ko, Sydney Granville as Pooh-Bah, the American singer Kenny Baker as Nanki-Poo and Jean Colin as Yum-Yum. Many of the other leads and choristers were or had been members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Frederick Bovill

Frederick Bovill was an operatic baritone of the late Victorian era. In his short career, he created the roles of Pish-Tush in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera hit The Mikado (1885) and the Squire in Sullivan's romantic opera Ivanhoe (1891). From 1887 to 1889 Bovill toured the British provinces with J. W. Turner's English Opera Company

National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company

The National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company is an English professional repertory company that performs Gilbert and Sullivan's Savoy operas. Founded in 1995 to perform at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, the company generally stages three or four productions each summer, giving up to 16 performances in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, and also touring.

Rudolph Lewis (bass-baritone)

Rudolph Lewis was a bass-baritone known for creating several small roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas including Go-To in The Mikado (1885) and Old Adam Goodheart in Ruddigore (1887).


  1. "TOPSY-TURVY (12)". British Board of Film Classification . 4 August 1999. Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  2. "Topsy-Turvy (1999): Money", Turner Classic Movies, accessed September 21, 2017
  3. Carte and Lenoir later married.
  4. Dixon, Wheeler Winston. "Mike Leigh, Topsy-Turvy and the Excavation of Memory" Archived 4 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine . Senses of Cinema, 2005, accessed 22 March 2010
  5. "The Savoy Theatre", The Times , 3 October 1881; and Burgess, Michael. "Richard D'Oyly Carte", The Savoyard, January 1975, pp. 7–11
  6. An anachronism occurs in the film when Gilbert suggests to Sullivan that he "get in touch with Mr Ibsen in Oslo". At the time the capital of Norway was called Christiana; it was not renamed Oslo until 1925.
  7. 1 2 "Topsy-Turvy (1999): Miscellaneous notes", Turner Classic Movies, accessed September 21, 2017
  8. "Budget". The Numbers. Archived from the original on 27 June 2006. Retrieved 3 July 2006.
  9. "US Sales Statistics" . Retrieved 3 July 2006.
  10. "Topsy-Turvy (1999)". Rotten Tomatoes . Flixster . Retrieved 24 November 2020.
  11. "Topsy-Turvy reviews". Metacritic . CBS Interactive . Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  12. 1 2 Maslin, Janet (2 October 1999). "With Gilbert and Sullivan, Dreaming Up a Second Act". Critics' Pick. The New York Times. Retrieved 16 July 2011.
  13. Schickel, Richard (27 December 1999). "Topsy-Turvy". Time. Retrieved 16 July 2011.
  14. French, Philip (20 February 2000). "Whiskers to a screen". The Observer. Retrieved 16 July 2011.
  15. Ebert, Roger. "Review: 'Topsy-Turvy'", Chicago Sun-Times, 21 January 2000. Retrieved 10 July 2014
  16. "The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time". 500401. Empire . Retrieved 16 July 2011.
  17. "New York Critics Honor Leigh's Topsy-Turvy". The New York Times. 17 December 1999. Retrieved 16 July 2011.
  18. "Topsy-Turvy: Mike Leigh", accessed 26 April 2012
  19. Criterion Collection Essay by Amy Taubin, accessed 8 May 2012

Further reading