Illuminating the Stage

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

Leigh waxes equally rhapsodic about his entire production crew -- production designer Eve Stewart, costume designer Lindy Henning, editor Robin Sales and cinematographer Dick Pope. "We pulled stunts that people don't pull to lower the costs," he says. "We took the Richmond Theatre in West London, and we dressed it and converted it to the Savoy. When we talk about doing it for no money, for example, Eve wanted to re-create the original wallpaper of the Savoy, so she went to wallpaper companies to see what it would cost, and they quoted her ridiculous prices, so she said, 'Right! We'll do it ourselves!' "

He also relates that an electric light company manufactured and donated 1,000 antiquated bulbs, which he used in the film but didn't let slip out and bombard the actors, as actually happened in the Victorian productions. "On the whole, I'd say the film survives without this detail."

But the music? And the greasepaint? "We had a ball with that," he says. "Carl" -- Carl Davis, the composer -- "and I very definitely decided to use Sullivan. But the problem was that for every moment that needed music, there were 25 choices as to what bit from Sullivan to use." As for the chronological dilemma of incorporating pieces from later in the duo's career, that decision barely caused a moment's hesitation. "I said to hell with it, because that's really academic, isn't it? And indeed, a lot of it is from The Grand Duke, which comes last."

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.

Other decisions called for more nuanced judgment. "So far as the actual extracts from the shows are concerned, I was very selective in that everything has got a dramatic reason for being there. By the time you get to a point in the story that you see a long extract from The Sorcerer, it's been all about the politics. You've been inducted into this world; now is the time to find out what it actually is. I felt we should be looking at it as the industrial process of theater in practice."

It's here that the worlds of theater and cinema blend miraculously under Leigh's sure-handed direction. Leigh continues: "As Jim Broadbent said in an interview, that's something we didn't need to research. We've been there, and this is what we do. I think it's because I am not romantic about the theater. And you would probably say, 'You're not romantic about anything,' and that is true, really, in the sense of being sentimental. I'm romantic, sure, and I'm passionate, and I have feelings. But I really don't get sentimental about anything. For me, a theater is where the industrial process takes place."

The inevitable question pops up as Leigh gets ready to leave: What about his famous practice of on-camera improvisation? "Throughout the entire film there is stuff which came out of improvisation, stuff which comes from me suggesting things, and that's true of all my films. There is also dialogue which is direct quotes from letters that Gilbert sent, but woven, hopefully, seamlessly into the scenes. Gilbert is much quoted for saying some very funny things. Some of them are in the film, and some of them are actually Gilbertisms that we invented."

And how much is Leigh like Gilbert? "I would say I hope the difference between my regime and his is that I work in a collaborative way, and I trust that. We try to have an element of trust, and we definitely reap what we sow. People have even presumed, 'Aha! This is a self-portrait, and you identify with Sullivan's crisis!' But it isn't. I don't have the problem of wanting to go off and do something serious. I do what I believe in, because I have that luxury.

"Not a single one of my films could be described as having one thing -- there's a whole lot of stuff going on. And some of it here is the same stuff, the same preoccupations. But apart from everything else, it's about people suffering in the cause of having a good time or giving other people a good time."

Lunch is called, and the veteran director rises. He points to the tape recorder on the table and sounds a closing note of eccentricity, saying, "Don't forget your sewing machine."

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