Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Topsy Turvey

“A paradox! A paradox! A curious case of paradox!”
1999 - Dir: Mike Leigh
Shown at The FeckenOdeon on 29th March, 2008
This appears to be a strange project for Mike Leigh. The master of improvised realism tackles a costumed, backstage semi-biopic? It’s hardly “Vera Drake” or “Secrets and Lies”! There are those of us here tonight who have first hand experience of Mr Leigh’s deadly serious approach to life - particularly where there’s comedy involved. It’s therefore somewhat of a relief to be able to write that he seems to have rediscovered a lightness of touch rarely seen since early TV films like “Nuts in May” (edited by our own Oliver White). “Topsy-Turvy” is the work of a man helplessly in love with the theatre. In a gloriously entertaining period piece, he tells the story of the genesis, preparation and presentation of a comic opera - Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" - celebrating all the dreaming and hard work, personality conflict and team spirit, inspiration and mundane detail, involved in every theatrical “birth”. The film fairly skips along and one can imagine its gnome like director grinning at every frame!
“Ballad songs and snatches”
The director’s method of building a script through research and improvisation with the cast has not been abandoned but here Mr Leigh has been constrained by historical fact and period detail - and the film is better for it. One of the faults evident in many films depicting stage performances is that directors rarely resist the temptation to apply a little cinematic gloss. Here the performances are patently stage performances - not dubbed by virtuosi - the actors sing their own songs and the result is undoubtedly the most accurate representation of 19th century musical theatre you’re ever likely to experience on the big screen. The music is supervised by Leigh’s long standing/suffering musical director Sir Carl Davis.
“Here’s a curious thing, here’s a how’d you do!”
Most modern recordings and performances of the Mikado's solo, "A More Humane Mikado" feature a bloodthirsty laugh between the verses. This touch was added by Darrel Fancourt, a D'Oyly Carte performer from 1920-1953, and has been copied ever since - which is why the laugh is not performed in the film. The third verse of the song also contained a reference to the lady who “pinches her figger, is blacked like a nigger with permanent walnut juice” - this was not amended until the 1940s but thankfully doesn’t appear in the film.

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