As a child I involuntarily acquired a familiarity with Gilbert and Sullivan from my grandmother’s record collection (which consisted almost wholly of their operettas and Strauss waltzes — the popular music of her parents’ generation) and from the occasional televising of a performance. These were the days when a household had a single screen, and the children got to watch whatever the adults decided should be on it. In 2005, for the World Expo in Aichi, the commissioner of the Belgian pavilion published a lavish volume on the history of Japanese–Belgian relations (economic, diplomatic and cultural). I revised the essays in the book, more than one of which was about the 19th-century craze for Japanese arts and crafts (which can be seen in Van Gogh’s imitations of Hiroshige, or Monet’s more oblique debt to Hokusai).
Not long after this I first saw Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy on television. I have rewatched it five or six times since, and regret having become aware of it too late to see it on a big screen. The film covers a period of about a year in the mid-1880s when Gilbert and Sullivan came close to ending their flagging artistic collaboration, but triumphantly got it back on track with The Mikado. So many influences on our appreciation are personal that I do not know whether anyone else would respond with quite the enthusiasm that I did — a reluctant Gilbert and Sullivan buff, with an unsought depth of knowledge about the Victorian enthusiasm for Japan. The film certainly seems not to have done very well at the box-office, where according to Wikipedia it recouped not much more than 6 of the 20 million dollars that it cost to make.
I really cannot imagine why it had so little success at the box office, as I would count Topsy-Turvy among the cleverest, best written, best acted, and most beautifully produced films of the last twenty years. The sets and costumes are unimpeachable. It does rather pack in the novelties of the time – telephones, fountain pens, ice-cream cones, indoor plumbing – but in an entertaining enough manner. I think I’m right in saying that it won Oscars for costumes and make-up; if it didn’t it certainly deserved to. And of course, it is filled throughout with songs from the works.
As fair warning, I will mention that two scenes do always irk me. One is of Sullivan in a Parisian brothel, which takes a good deal longer than is necessary to convey whatever artistic point its inclusion requires (similarly, in Mr Turner, a film that is a stunning exploration of light and colour, Leigh has an uncomfortable sex scene that goes on long after its point is made, for no clear reason — certainly not for titillation). Luckily, once the brothel scene starts you miss nothing by skipping straight to the beginning of the next chapter on the DVD. The other is a group of leading actors from the company (the bass, tenor and baritone who in the final production of The Mikado have the roles of the Mikado, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko) dining together and discussing news from the Sudan (the contemporary events that provide the plot for the 1966 blockbuster Khartoum). They speak with a crude and dismissive racism that rings false. Racist assumptions may have been characteristic of many attitudes of the period, but the dialogue in this scene strikes me more as a modern liberal trying to sound like an imperialistic jingo (see how unenlightened they were!) than something respectable people at the time would actually have been likely to say over dinner in a public restaurant. I wouldn’t go so far as to call these minor irritations, but in the balance of the film as a whole they certainly detract little from it.
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.