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Topsy Turvy.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMike Leigh
Produced bySimon Channing Williams
Written byMike Leigh
Music by
CinematographyDick Pope
Edited byRobin Sales
Distributed byPathé 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 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 and Lesley Manville. 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 the decision by the two men to continue their partnership, which led to the creation of several more famous Savoy Operas between them.

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), who is 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 playwright 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[3] and appears mechanical in its reliance on a supernatural device. Sullivan, under pressure to write more serious music, says he longs for something that is "probable" and involves "human interest", and is not dependent on magic. Gilbert sees nothing wrong with his libretto and refuses to write a new one, which results in a standoff. The impasse is resolved after Gilbert and his wife visit a popular exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts in Knightsbridge, London.[4] 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 entire cast object to Gilbert's proposed cut of the title character's Act Two solo, "A more humane Mikado," which persuades the playwright to restore the solo. The actors face first-night jitters in their dressing rooms. Finally The Mikado is ready to open. As usual, Gilbert is too nervous to watch the opening performance and paces the streets of London. Returning to the theatre, however, he finds that the new opera is a resounding success.


Depiction of Victorian society[edit]

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".[6]

While the film deals primarily with the production of The Mikado, it shows many aspects of 1880s British life. Scenes show George Grossmith's use of morphine; Sullivan's mistress, Fanny Ronalds, implying that she will obtain 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; Sullivan's visit to a French brothel; and Gilbert being accosted outside the theatre on opening night by a beggar. The film also depicts the Savoy Theatre as having electric lighting; it was the first public building in Britain – and at the time one of the few buildings there of any kind – to be lit entirely by electricity. Another scene shows an early use of the telephone. These scenes, some based on historical incidents, depict different aspects of Victorian society and life at the time.[7]


Principal photography took place at Three Mills Studios in London beginning 29 June 1998 and completed shooting on 24 October.[8] 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.[9]


Box office[edit]

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.[10]

Critical reception[edit]

The film received very positive reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an 89% "Fresh" score based on 84 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8/10. The site's consensus states: "A thoroughly entertaining character study and a great success for Mike Leigh."[11] Metacritic reports a 90 out of 100 rating based on 31 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[12]

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.[13] 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.[13]

Richard Schickel called the film "one of the year's more beguiling surprises"; it is 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".[14] 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 notes the film is "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."[15] For Roger Ebert, it was "one of the year's best films."[16]

Topsy-Turvy ranks 481st on Empire's 2008 list of the 500 greatest films of all time.[17]

Awards and honours[edit]

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, losing these to Sleepy Hollow and American Beauty, respectively.

The film also won Best Make Up/Hair at the BAFTA 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 Venice Film Festival, and the film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the same festival.

Topsy-Turvy also won the Best British Film Award at the Evening Standard British Film Awards, and received 1999 awards for Best Film (shared with Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich) and Best Director from the National Society of Film Critics, and for Best Picture and Best Director at the 1999 New York Film Critics Circle Awards.[8][18]

Home media[edit]

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.[19][20]


  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. ^ 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).
  4. ^ 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, which is long after Gilbert sent the first plot sketch of The Mikado to Sullivan in May 1884.
  5. ^ Carte and Lenoir later married.
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ a b "Topsy-Turvy (1999): Miscellaneous notes", Turner Classic Movies, accessed September 21, 2017
  9. ^ "Budget". The Numbers. Archived from the original on 27 June 2006. Retrieved 2006-07-03.
  10. ^ "US Sales Statistics". Retrieved 2006-07-03.
  11. ^ "Topsy-Turvy (1999)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  12. ^ "Topsy-Turvy reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  13. ^ a b Maslin, Janet (2 October 1999). "With Gilbert and Sullivan, Dreaming Up a Second Act". Critics' Pick. The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-07-16.
  14. ^ Schickel, Richard (27 December 1999). "Topsy-Turvy". Time. Retrieved 2011-07-16.
  15. ^ French, Philip (20 February 2000). "Whiskers to a screen". The Observer. Retrieved 2011-07-16.
  16. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Review: 'Topsy-Turvy'", Chicago Sun-Times, 21 January 2000. Retrieved 10 July 2014
  17. ^ "The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time". 500–401. Empire. Retrieved 2011-07-16.
  18. ^ "New York Critics Honor Leigh's Topsy-Turvy". The New York Times. 17 December 1999. Retrieved 2011-07-16.
  19. ^ "Topsy-Turvy: Mike Leigh", accessed 26 April 2012
  20. ^ Criterion Collection Essay by Amy Taubin, accessed 8 May 2012

Further reading[edit]

  • Ainger, Michael (2002). Gilbert and Sullivan – A Dual Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stedman, Jane W. (1996). W. S. Gilbert, A Classic Victorian & His Theatre. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816174-3.

External links[edit]