It was the short, sharp shock heard round the world – eventually. 

But in the world of Topsy-Turvy, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado is being staged for the very first time, and there’s a lot at stake.

Before Topsy-Turvy, released in 1999 and available on DVD at Whitehorse Public Library, Mike Leigh was a respected director known for films about life in contemporary Britain, who described himself as interested in “depicting the real world.”

It wasn’t the artifice of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas that intrigued Leigh, but the chance to show how hard creative people work to make things up.

The success of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaboration is ebbing in 1884, with Princess Ida failing to draw in audiences. Composer Arthur Sullivan (Alan Corduner) wants to seize the moment to break from the partnership and pursue more highbrow ambitions than he feels he can fulfill with the librettos William Schwenk Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) has to offer.

Sullivan’s had it with Gilbert’s contrived “magic lozenge” plots, which depend on some supernatural device with the power to disrupt the worlds of his characters.

Sullivan’s imminent departure threatens the industry that’s formed around the creative duo, including the D’Oyly Opera Company and the construction of the Savoy Theatre. Despite the diplomatic interventions of producer Richard D’Oyly Carte and his assistant Helen Lenoir, Sullivan is unmoved and Gilbert refuses to write out of his comfort zone to placate him.

But a Japanese exhibition that his wife Kitty (Lesley Manville) drags him to acts on Gilbert like one of his own magic lozenges. A literal gleam appears in his eye as he handles a Japanese sword, and a fully realized scene from The Mikado unfolds in his imagination and on the screen, in an outburst of joy embodied in music and exotically dressed performers.

His moment of inspiration seduces Sullivan back into the fold, the wheels of production are set in motion, cast members are assembled, and the painstaking collaborative work of making people laugh begins.

Topsy-Turvy is grounded in reality – members of the original cast are portrayed, and the staging and costumes of the scenes from The Mikado are based on Gilbert’s preserved notes.

Actors do their own singing, revealing rarely seen musical talents in familiar actors such as Timothy Spall as Richard Temple, the first Mikado, and Shirley Henderson as Leonora Braham, who was Yum-Yum. Allan Corduner is an accomplished musician, playing the piano himself.

Leigh is also at pains to expose a degree of the backstage reality behind the “chocolate box” perfection of a Gilbert and Sullivan production: the struggles and obstacles of a life in the arts, or arts-adjacent.

Topsy-Turvy takes a melancholy turn in the last few scenes, which feature the women in Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s lives.

If the glimpses of The Mikado in Topsy-Turvy capture your interest, Whitehorse Public Library also has the filmed stage version on DVD, directed by Jonathan Miller and performed by the English National Opera. It’s set in an English seaside town in the roaring ‘20s and stars Eric Idle as Ko-Ko.

The film Topsy-Turvy is available on DVD at Whitehorse Public Library.