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LEIGH, MIKE: Topsy-Turvy

Mike Leigh gives JIMMY THOMSON an uncharacteristically easy ride in this interview after the world premiere of his latest film, Topsy-Turvy, at the Venice Film Festival in 1999, and admits he doesn't really know how the film happened.

For British director Mike Leigh, it’s one thing getting a few actors together, telling them a contemporary tale of love, loss and redemption, and then asking them to improvise scenes for a movie. It’s quite another when the film is set in the late 1800s, involves a cast of dozens, everyone is required to speak Victorian English and the story is based on real life events.

"A different kind of challenge"

But Leigh, 56, wasn’t fazed. He merely regarded making his latest work, Topsy-Turvy, based on the lives of English operetta creators Gilbert & Sullivan, as simply a quite different kind of challenge in a career studded with improbabilities.

"Yes, of course, it was hard work but that’s what we did," he says, smiling. "Of course, it’s complex and takes time, patience and all of that, but it’s still organic. Before, I’ve told stories that have been quite intimate and intense, with only a few characters, and I’ve been able to let people go to wherever they want to.

"With this, everything was limited by historical facts, but we still managed to keep everything free and inventive and, I hope, not merely a documentary about two artists making souffles who happened to make a huge impact on the cultural life of the era.

"And the truth is, I don’t know how the film eventually happened. It’s always the same with my films. For instance, I look at that scene where Gilbert brings the Japanese people to the theatre to research The Mikado, and remember how we had to make that happen under great pressure because it was the last thing we did in the theatre before we had to get out. When I look at that scene, now, I’m not quite sure how it was achieved."

"A major departure"

For certainly, while Topsy-Turvy is a major departure from his usual sphere of interest in working class lives and struggles – lives laid out in movies like the Palme d’Or winner Secrets and Lies, Naked, Life Is Sweet and High Hopes – he was anxious not to be forced to abandon his modus operandum. Revered within the industry by actors for the freedoms he allows them to interpret their characters and dictate their storylines, with weeks of rehearsals to explore ideas and hone methods, he wanted this latest movie to be just as democratic.

So, this time, he sent his cast off for several months to research their own characters, rhythms of speech and the reality of Victorian society, so they could eventually all return to the fold just as ready to improvise as they would with any modern fiction.

"Only other people can be the judge of how well that worked," says Leigh, raising his eyebrows in query. "But I feel happy with it, and I think everyone who took part also felt that they had achieved a great deal. I think the most painful thing for everyone involved was only the costumes. Getting into those corsets took hours every day.

"I found myself a little impatient with that, but that really isn’t much on the scale of the whole production."

"Uncommonly happy to chat"

Leigh is sitting in the bright sunshine in the garden of his hotel in Venice, where Topsy-Turvy has just premiered to great acclaim at the annual international film festival. Before the film screened, he looked anxious and pale. Now he’s animated, cheerful and uncommonly happy to chat.

Renowned for his violent mood swings and his propensity when the press are around to taciturn grumpiness, he has today taken everyone by surprise. Only once has he ticked off a journalist for asking "a very silly question" and he made a valiant effort to conceal his irritation – even if he did fail abysmally in the attempt – when he was asked the same thing twice during the earlier press conference.

For just as much as Leigh loves making films, working with actors and the production process itself, he absolutely loathes having to sit with journalists and deconstruct his movies, particularly if they’re not as well appreciated as he believes they deserve to be. His temper tantrums during the rounds to promote the controversial Naked, which not everyone enjoyed, became legendary. His grouchiness even while talking up the much-loved 1996 Secrets and Lies was, in retrospect, exacerbated by his split from actor wife Alison Steadman.

Topsy-Turvy, however, is such a jolly, witty and robustly mainstream movie, full of tantalising snatches of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s clever words and light, bright music, none of Leigh’s famed darkness has yet come to the surface as he discusses the film.

It helps, of course, that by this stage, he’s already faced incredulity over his choice of material a hundred times before, and had to constantly justify his fancy to make a period film involving lots of people, shedding new light on an old subject. There were his backers to be convinced of the worth of his project, his collaborators and, most importantly perhaps, his actors. "When I first told them about what we were doing, they laughed," says Leigh. "Some of them actually laughed. But the point is that the ones you’ve worked with before, hopefully have confidence that we can make the material work.

"Everyone embraced the material"

"They’d say, `Well, if you think it can be done, then we’ll join in’. They were very positive. There were a lot of young actors involved who wouldn’t even know specially about Gilbert and Sullivan, but everyone embraced the material. And once they started researching it, everyone became engrossed and stimulated. It was very tough, particularly having to wear all those dreadful costumes, corsets and wigs over the summer in a heatwave …"

The actors, however, rarely complained. His two leads, Jim Broadbent as Gilbert and Allan Corduner as Sullivan, even today count the experience as one of the most valuable of their lives. "It was an absolute privilege working with Mike Leigh," says Broadbent. "I wouldn’t hesitate if I was ever lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with him again."

The rest of the cast is a mix of experienced veterans, like Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall and Leigh’s now ex-wife Steadman, and up-and-coming youngsters, such as Kevin McKidd, the ex-Trainspotting star of Bedrooms and Hallways, and Shirley Henderson, also of Trainspotting.

While all were challenged by the differentness of Leigh’s material this time around, Leigh says, at base, there are common threads that run through all his work. Topsy-Turvy was, like his other films, still about people struggling to make sense of their lives and battling on against the odds to achieve happiness, and everyone involved still had to study and work to find the truths of their roles.

"Emotions and passions and frailties that make us human"

"This time, I suppose we were dealing with an industrial process that all the actors knew about, but we still had to research it," says Leigh. "You’d have to do that same research whether it was about a guy wandering around the streets in Naked or a woman looking for her mother in Secrets and Lies, but this time it happens to be about a group of people in a theatre.

"But on one level, the film’s about us, we who tell stories and make other people laugh and cry and who take it seriously and suffer a lot to do so. On the other level, it’s about all the emotions and passions and frailties that make us human."

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