Topsy-Turvy: thank you for wasting your career on silly, low-brow fluff.

by Aug 10, 2018News

Poster for Mike Leigh’s 1999 film Topsy-Turvy

This article is for everyone who works in advertising or entertainment or who makes products which serve no higher purpose than pleasing people in seemingly trivial ways, from beer to chocolate.

Making wildly popular products that even the least sophisticated consumer is able to enjoy is not easy and it deserves more respect than it gets.

One of the greatest British films you’ve probably never seen illustrates the point.

Topsy-Turvy is a 1999 film by British auteur Mike Leigh, who is best-known for kitchen-sink realism. Alternately hilarious and bleak, he usually makes present-day dramas which depict the gritty details of ordinary British lives. In Topsy-Turvy he departed from his usual subject-matter by meticulously detailing the birth of The Mikado, a light, comic opera of 1885 by Gilbert and Sullivan. If you haven’t seen Topsy-Turvy, make time for it this weekend.

If you don’t know The Mikado – and you might know more than you think – here are a few pointers. As operas go, it is silly. Because it is relatively recent, from the late Victorian era, it doesn’t even benefit from the gravity that older history imbues, as with comic operas by Mozart or comical plays by Shakespeare. The Mikado is an absurd, frothy, frivolous and arguably racist pantomime set in Japan – a nation and culture of which the average person in Britain knew little when it was first staged. Its authors, WS Gilbert (words) and Arthur Sullivan (music) were already making crowd-pleasing light operas such as The Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore, but rather to their own surprise, The Mikado blew those mighty vessels out of the water. When it first opened in London at the Savoy Theatre it ran for nearly 700 performances and to this day it is never out of production by professional and amateur companies around the world.

The reasons for its popularity are clear. It is easy to understand, joyfully foolish and over-the-top, it is the very definition of light-hearted. The foot-tapping songs, once heard, are unforgettable – I include a link below so that you can close your office door and raucously sing along with ‘Three Little Maids from School’. Arthur Sullivan was capable of writing serious music, except that the huge numbers of people who flocked to see his undeniably silly operettas weren’t (and still aren’t) quite as entranced by formal symphonies and grand operas. WS Gilbert’s lyrics, when detached from the music, are revealed as actual poetry for people who don’t read poems. Mike Leigh lovingly dedicates a whole scene of Topsy-Turvy to having Gilbert read aloud passages from the newly-scripted Mikado to his wife, to make the point.

Both men wanted to be taken seriously. Mike Leigh shows Gilbert as thin-skinned, deeply hurt by criticism and bitter over Sullivan’s knighthood (he eventually received his own but not until many years later). Sullivan, a much happier man (to which the knighthood no doubt contributed) expresses regret that so much of his career went on producing these wildly popular confections and not writing serious music, which, in the end, not many people wanted to hear. In Topsy-Turvy, Leigh remembers these men with great tenderness and honours their creativity and talent. In turn, I dedicate this article to my creative and talented colleagues in marketing and advertising who have invested their time and considerable abilities in low art, the mass market and popular cultural forms. It isn’t a small matter, being frothy and silly and making things that even the most uneducated person can love. Keep on doing it. It is not simple work.

Topsy-Turvy, possibly Mike Leigh’s greatest film

All together, now: “Three little maids who, all unwary / Come from a ladies’ seminary” Three Little Maids from School


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