Review by Emma Shane
© September 2001
The great thing about this film is that there is something for everyone in it: You want the gritty realism that one associates with Mike Leigh? You want a Musical? You want Comedy? You want a ’Backstage story’? You want a fairly accurate Biopic about Gilbert and Sullivan, with a few details about some of their actors (especially Leonora Braham)? You want Gilbert and Sullivan’s work and sung by Singing-Actors rather than Opera singers, or rather done in a much more accessible way? You want to see some terrific British actors? You want to see the cream of British Musical-Theatre performers? In this film you get all of that and much much more. It may be a little long, but there is so much packed into it.
It has been said that this is a ‘Mike Leigh film’ posing as a ‘non Mike Leigh film’ (posing as a Backstage-Musical or posing as a Biopic) while in fact being the most ‘Mike Leigh film’ there is. In Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh has turned his distinctive way of incorporating realism into his films, onto his own sort of people: actors, writers, musicians and directors. For once, his actors did not need to research what their character’s jobs were like, they already knew that. They could concentrate on what the historical people they were portraying were like as people, and, their relationships with each other. But perhaps above all they could focus on giving the audience a realistic glimpse into what their own world is really like. Watching the film I couldn’t help feeling that although they are all playing historical characters, some of these actors might have incorporated bits of themselves into their parts as well. For example Mr Grossmith’s suddenly becoming a cockney, or Miss Brandram’s warmth and wide smile.
From a musical-theatre point of view I’d certainly recommend seeing this bunch of singing actors: Dorothy Atkinson, Eleanor David, Vincent Franklin, Louise Gold , Shirley Henderson, Kevin McKidd, Cathy Sara, Martin Savage, Michael Simkins, and,Timothy Spall, do a terrific job. They are backed by a wonderful chorus. I think one thing that made it so marvellously strong, and well able to provide real backup to powerful singers (such as Louise Gold), was the presence of Anna Francolini among the ladies of the chorus in The Mikado numbers. Ms Francolini may appear at first demure and sweet, and yet she has a strong voice that can really lead a chorus, all be it unintentionally so. All in all it’s a joy to see such a talented bunch of actors getting a chance to sing some terrific numbers very well.
I actually enjoyed it more the second time I saw it than the first, because second time round I knew what would happen, I wasn’t continually wondering when this or that person would appear. In my own case I loved it because I just love musicals, and this is my favourite sort of all, a backstage musical, it also happens to have some rather fine British singing-actors in it, including a particular favourite of mine. However, it is a great film to go to see with other people, including people you keeping wanting to do something with but can never find anything to do together, because your tastes are too different. This multiple genre film has so much packed into it there is something to appeal to almost everyone in almost any age-group, from School Child to Grown Up, from Student to Pensioner. This is a film for a wide cross-section of the population.
That is about the film in general terms, now to the parts that are my personal favourites. Since you can probably get hold of this film if you choose, and much has already been written about it, I won’t go into plot details here. I will just highlight a few scenes I particularly love. There is so much that is good about this film, it can be hard to choose.
Firstly, there occur the two scenes involving the song Three Little Maids. The rehearsal version involving three actual Japanease ladies showing their Doyly Carte counterparts: Miss Braham, Miss Bond, and Miss Grey how to walk down stage in a Japanese manner. This scene also includes several miscellaneous members of the company, including at least two unnamed ladies, who are possibly members of the chorus. The film then switches into the full production version of Three Little Maids, where we see Miss Braham, Miss Bond and Miss Grey in full costume, with the ladies chorus lined up in two rows, one on either side of them. Particularly noticeable, in her artless Japanese way, so to speak, is the girl in the orange/pink kimono on the back end of the row to the left of the screen. This is a Doyly Carte newcomer, Miss Biddles, played by the excellent Anna Francolini.
The second scene I have to single out comes a little more than halfway through, when Gilbert is taking a rehearsal of The Mikado. The scene they are rehearsing is supposed to involve: Pooh Bah, Ko Ko, Petti Sing, Yum Yum and Nanki Poo. However the actors playing the latter two, Miss Braham and Mr Lely are absent, so Mr Seymour, the prompter, has to deputise. The bit they are rehearsing starts with the exit of Katisha and The Mikado. At this point I am wondering when we are actually going to see Katisha, who has not so far made an appearance. It is highly amusing to watch Gilbert correcting the actors’ pronunciation of words such as “corroborative”, and making sure they say exactly what he has written, for some inexplicable reason Grossmith attempts to use a Laurel And Hardy catchphrase. But by far the funniest moment is Grossmith trying to say the line “A terrible thing ‘as ‘appened. It seems you’re the son o’ the Mikado”, where-upon Gilbert says “A terrible thing has just happened, Grossmith – you’ve become a cockney!” The rehearsal continues with the others present trying to persuade Ko Ko to marry Katisha, by describing her assets, namely her left elbow and her right heel. Since the actress who is actually playing this role in the film has good legs and a strong left arm, I can’t help but wonder when we are actually going to see the lady.
A little later in the film (after a scene of Sullivan rehearsing the orchestra), in The Mikado dress rehearsal we do finally get to see Katisha. Miss Rosina Brandram is about the only major Doyly Carte character who until this moment had not made an appearance in the film. Even though Miss Brandram herself was in the original production of Princess Ida, in 1884 (as Lady Blanche), and the revival of The Sorcerer (as Lady Sangazure), in 1884, she was not present in any of the film’s scenes from those shows. Here at last she is present on the stage, standing on the dais, wearing a red kimono (the colour suits her well), watching Mr Temple sing his Mikado’s solo, even if she doesn’t get to do anything, we do notice her. It might be supposed that Louise Gold is far to beautiful to play Katisha, but in fact this is entirely accurate, for it is said Rosina Brandram’s ‘only failure’ is to have been rather too attractive looking for many of the roles she played, including, of course, Katisha. Timothy Spall actually sings the famous Punishment Fits The Crime song rather well, and in spite of the lyricist’s opinion of it, if the audience is to judge it, it is a rather fine song. The other noticeable thing about this scene, is the ladies chorus lined up on the left-hand of the screen. They are in three rows facing the action, at the back end of the front row, if you can take your eyes off Katisha (on the opposite side of the stage) for long enough, you will find Miss Biddles, played by Anna Francolini.
After a brief interlude in Grossmith’s dressing room, we come to my second favourite scene in the entire film, Gilbert Giving Notes. I don’t know why but I do think this sort of stage-directors note-giving can be very funny to an outside onlooker. I was particularly amused by his comment about one of the sliding doors being on holiday in Yorkshire rather than with them in Japan. This is followed by what I think is the scene’s best moment. Gilbert announces is decision to cut Mr Temple’s solo. You can see what the assembled cast and crew is feeling, at last one distinctive voice from the fourth row breaks the stunned silence “I beg your pardon, Mr Gilbert” says Miss Rosina Brandram “Surely you can’t mean Mr Temple’s solo”, on being informed this is so, she voices what they are all feeling “I do think that’s a shame, sir”. This unlocks the others; Miss Bond, Mr Barrington and Mr Temple, soon join in. It is the only scene in the entire film where Louise Gold actually appears as just Rosina Brandram the actress, and not Rosina Brandram on stage playing Katisha.
My favourite scene in the film comes some while later, it is the opening night of The Mikado, he company is on the stage performing Miya Sama, and again, Anna Francolini is just noticeable on the back end of the ladies chorus’s front row. Miya Sama leads into From Every Kind Of Man Obedience I Expect, as sung by The Mikado and Katisha, with the chorus. It is undoubtedly my favourite number in the film, although that may be because it is the magnificent Louise Gold’s true moment of glory as a singing-actress in this film. Both duetists and the chorus sing clearly, so the lyrics can be heard. Louise Gold is particularly effective both vocally and visually, pointing her fan at the chorus, ordering them to bow to the Mikado’s ‘daughter-in-law-elect”, in other words herself. Unfortunately the cinematographer, Dick Pope and the editor Robin Sells seem to have taken it upon themselves to focus more on Timothy Spall than on Louise Gold, even when she is the one singing. Never-the-less, with her glorious voice and command of the stage, she really does make her presence felt. At the beginning of this song she is supposed to be expressionless, but as the number progressed she can’t help but use her facial expressions, especially her eyes (whose lids are shadowed distinctly in green) to convey some of Katisha’s personality to the audience. It is said that W. S. Gilbert described Rosina Brandram’s voice as rolling out like full-bodied burgundy rolls down, suddenly Louise Gold gave us a sense of what that might be like. It is one of her greatest gifts that she can combine giving us a tremendous sense of what some performer from another age was like, while at the same time being very much herself. It is brilliant to see how she merges the two elements together in performance, so that in a sense she becomes a part of who ever she is portraying, and they in turn become a part of her.
After a very ‘Mike Leigh’ interlude with Gilbert, we have another number from The Mikado, The Criminal Cried. This time The Mikado and Katisha are sitting on the dais watching Ko Ko, Petti Sing and Pooh Bah. This gives Mr Spall and Ms Gold another opportunity to communicate, silently.
And so we come to my third favourite scene, The Mikado finale. Here Louise Gold’s gift for being able to speak with her eyes, the way silent screen stars (such as Mary Pickford) used to, comes into its own. Initially she is frowning as Petti Sing reveals that Nanki Poo has married Yum Yum. But suddenly (when Ko Ko sings "You've a very good bargain in me") her eyes light up, and, while dancing with her fellow actors enthusiastically around on the stage of Richmond Theatre, she is grinning broadly for the rest of the scene, (especially during The Mikado curtain calls), in a way that is just typical of Louise Gold. Whether Rosina Brandram would really have grinned like that I have absolutely no idea, but that simply doesn’t matter. At this point a part of Louise Gold’s own stage manner is captured and preserved on film, and therein lies one of the notable achievements of this film. Topsy Turvy is a wonderful illustration of a point made by a journalist known as N.C. in an article titled The Talking Kinema, in The Manchester Guardian on 4th October 1921 (reprinted in The Guardian in November 1999), in which it was explained, how the wonderful thing about photophoning acting performances, is that it will capture and preserve the vital spark of an actors art, for posterity. For the principal actors, playing actors, in, Topsy Turvy this photophoned play does capture something of the beauty and artistry of their stage performances, and so, even though she seems to be somewhat underused, and it kept her so occupied she was unavailable for the whole of the last Lost Musicals season at The Barbican, I am very glad that Louise Gold is among these actors in Topsy Turvy.