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Illuminating the Stage

Director Mike Leigh explores the politics and process of theater in Topsy-Turvy

One wonders, one does. The name of Mike Leigh has been attached to some intense, intricate, generally superb character studies in the past three decades. The man has pitted Gary Oldman (as a skinhead) against Tim Roth (as a slow learner) in Meantime (1981), explored the friction of reuniting college chums Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman in Career Girls (1997) and charted David Thewlis's wretched trajectory through London in Naked (1993). Of course, his status as an unflinching observer of the English working class has also been celebrated widely in Secrets & Lies (1996). Now, here he is in a Beverly Hills hotel to discuss his big, bold, though intimate, portrait of Victorian-era composers Gilbert and Sullivan.

Where to begin? Indeed, the very basics are easy to establish. Leigh was born in Salford, Manchester, England, on February 20, 1943. That makes him a Pisces war baby from the same region that later gave us rock star Morrissey. But what about the more subjective aspects? Is he affable, charming, intriguing, pretentious, reserved, gruff? Given the adventurous emotional scope of his films, what is one to expect of his corporeal frame and decorum?

As it turns out, Leigh is congenial, pleasant and primed to plug. Today he is clad in tweed and carrying a walking stick. His stature and build suggest the presence of hobbits somewhere in the misty past of his lineage. Actually, there is a temptation to inquire about the furriness of his toes, but in the interest of professionalism, this urge is overcome. We dive right into the origin of his latest work, Topsy-Turvy.

Director Mike Leigh (right) shines a the unromantic process of creating theater.
Simon Mein
Director Mike Leigh (right) shines a the unromantic process of creating theater.
Victorian art: Jim Broadbent (left) as W.S. Gilbert, and Allan Corduner as Arthur Sullivan.
Simon Mein
Victorian art: Jim Broadbent (left) as W.S. Gilbert, and Allan Corduner as Arthur Sullivan.

"I had the notion quite a long time ago, and then I made a little movie with [actor] Jim Broadbent called A Sense of History," Leigh explains, quick to note that the short film sometimes screens on Bravo. "He wrote it. It's about an earl walking around his estate, owning up to his sins; and we shot it in the winter of 1992. I said he could play Gilbert, you know, and he thought I was mad!"

The madness spread, and within a few years Broadbent joined the rest of the cast for seven months of rehearsal, settling into the role of William Schwenk Gilbert, sophisticated comic librettist, opposite Allan Corduner as the brilliant, frustrated composer Arthur Seymour Sullivan. Gilbert and Sullivan crafted 14 operas together, including The Pirates of Penzance and The Yeomen of the Guard, so there was no dearth of material or history.

"You name it, we researched it, just to bring that whole world alive," says Leigh. "But, certainly, I didn't want to do a biopic, and anyhow, we couldn't have done [one], given our resources." (He declares the film's budget was $15 million, or "peanuts.") "So I did sort of what I always do, which is drop anchor in one place and make the story work through how people are, rather than being more spread out and detached."

Of his choice to focus on the years 1884 and 1885, Leigh has a simple explanation. "They are up and running and at the height of their popularity, but then they have this impasse, which seems to me to access what they're about at its most central Š the whole genesis of The Mikado, and the part played in it by the Japanese exhibition, plus the fact that my main actors were of the right age to play Gilbert and Sullivan at that stage. The concern is the psychological and emotional investigation of everyone. And what I suppose I'm obviously interested in is all of those other characters, the actors -- you know, the junkie, the alcoholic actress and all the rest."

"All the rest" proves to be an impressive ensemble, and Leigh readily raves about his cast, including Shirley Henderson, who plays the sauced starlet Leonora Braham. "Fabulous! Brilliant! You saw her in Trainspotting, and now she's in Wonderland, directed by Michael Winterbottom. Shirley's totally unlike all these stars -- you know, not given to vanity like masses of actors -- and she has this kind of antique quality. It's sort of spooky; she really feels Victorian."

He's also pleased as punch to point out that Andy Serkis, the Cockney choreographer in Topsy-Turvy, "plays the seedy guy in the white dressing gown who tries to sell the apartment in Career Girls." (He is thrilled whenever he gets recognition for that effort and its terrific female leads, sensing that it will be lost between the "two titans" of Secrets and Topsy.)

There are plenty of Leigh familiars in Topsy-Turvy, but when attention is called to Lesley Manville's performance as the librettist's wife, Lucy Gilbert, the director's enthusiasm deepens. "Much as you can read about Gilbert and his wife, you cannot find any evidence as to what she was actually like. So Lesley and I conspired to create the woman behind the facade. And the facade matches what we read, but we've obviously worked at giving her passion and flesh. And of course I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that one thing in the picture could never have taken place: what happens the first night after The Mikado opens, when she speaks her visions to her husband at her bedside. It's entirely invented, and it pertains more to Freud and Fellini than to anything else, really."

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