Topsy-Turvy for Gilbert & Sullivan Fans


Directed by Mike Leigh

Pathé Films, 160 minutes, R (For brothel nudity, but I wasn’t corrupted)



When I was in junior high school, I made my only stage appearance in a production of H.M.S. Pinafore. I had pretty much forgotten about my short and inglorious acting career until recently seeing Topsy-Turvy, a look at the famed collaboration between librettist W(iliam) S(chwenck) Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner).


Most people either love Gilbert and Sullivan operettas or find them as embarrassing as soiled trousers. I’m in neither camp; in moderation I’m mildly amused, though I quickly OD on them. I was surprised when I first read that Mike Leigh directed this comic drama. Leigh is an unreconstructed lefty advocate of dumping the British monarchy and is more at home behind the camera of gritty working-class political dramas. It is its own testament to the enduring fame of Gilbert and Sullivan that he would indulge in such bourgeois pleasures.


"Topsy-turvy" is an archaic expression that means disorderly and upside down. That was the hallmark of Gilbert librettos that disrupted social convention. He was so famed for this that he appropriated topsy-turvy as a self-descriptor. Like any stratagem, though, overuse can turn a sockdolager into a pair of smelly gym socks. That’s the dilemma facing Gilbert and Sullivan in the film. Theirs was a wildly successful partnership, though they couldn’t stand each other and lived in different worlds. Gilbert was careless with money and often irreverent but he was also stubborn, impatient, and had an annoying talent for hearing only what he wished to hear. By contrast, Sullivan was a playboy, had aristocratic pretensions, wanted to write critically-acclaimed compositions, and dearly desired to see the back of Gilbert.


He almost got his shot. The duo is tapped out and revivals of past works are closing faster than a front door on a proselytizer. Even their actors are reaching the end of their respective ropes. You could run through a lot of pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders with a cast like the insecure Richard Temple (Timothy Spall), backstabber Rutland Barrington (Vincent Franklin), and tipsy Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson). Both men are running out of patience talking someone down from a tantrum-du-jour or dealing with Savoy Theatre owner Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) who cares only about putting fannies in the seats. Gilbert is nobody’s Mr. Sensitive and Sullivan has decided it's time to make critics realize he’s a musical genius.


Sullivan’s problem is that he’s not nearly as good at the highbrow stuff as with the low. For his part, Gilbert needs money, pays scant attention to Sullivan’s alternative plans, and wants Arthur to listen to his latest bit of topsy-turvy. That might have gone better had he not filled it with rehashed devices that made it cliché upon cliché. In short, Sullivan needs a dose of reality and if Gilbert wants to draw another salary, he needs something fresher than limp celery. Fortunately, a London exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts unleashes new creative energies. The Mikado opened in 1885 and proved to be their biggest hit (672 performances), even though it did crib from The Sorcerer (1877). Gilbert and Sullivan launched five more productions before Gilbert retired in 1897.  


Leigh's film is a bit of topsy-turvy in that he assumed audiences brought foreknowledge to the movie theater. If you don’t, you may find it tough going until you get a handle on personalities and circumstances. (They already had nine co-productions under their belts when the film picks up the story.) It’s also one of those movies in which considerable scenery is chewed by everyone on the screen. For me, Broadbent’s performance stands out, as do those from Spall, Eleanor David as Sullivan’s mistress, and Andy Serkis as fey choreographer John D’Auban. I can always do without the grating Shirley Henderson and 22 years on, some may find The Mikado culturally offensive.


It is, however, a visual treat whose critical awards came mostly for costuming, makeup, and art direction. In a sense, it’s like a Gilbert and Sullivan production in that it’s fun in places but inconsequential as a whole. But maybe I’m just bitter that agents didn’t call after my stint in H.M.S. Pinafore.


Rob Weir    


If You've not Read the bone people, You Must!



the bone people [sic]

By Keri Hulme

Penguin books, 1986, 445 pages.



Hulme wanted her title in lower case!


On December 27, 2021, Keri Ann Ruhi Hulme died in a dementia unit in Waimate, New Zealand. Hers was a difficult life. She came from a multicultural background; her father John carpenter was a carpenter of English ancestry and her mother Mary Ann Miller was a credit manager with Scottish, Faroe Islands, and Máori heritage. She was christened “Kerry” but, in 2001 changed it the Keri, which was more Máori. In her words, “Of all my family, I look the least Máori but feel the most Máori.” Before he died when Keri was 11, John Hulme called his daughter “my Máori princess” and she spent vacations with her mother’s Máori relatives in Moeraki on New Zealand’s North Island. Keri took care of her mother’s home until Mary died in an accident.


Ms. Hulme was a hard person to get along with. She dropped out of law school because she felt “estranged,” which also describes her relationship with her five younger siblings. She was a poet, short story writer, novelist, and painter. Hulme was a solid woman who played guitar, had authority issues, and smoked a pipe and cigarillos. After leaving school she picked tobacco and hops, was obsessed by whitebait (fry fish), and built most of her house with her own hands on a plot of land that she won in a 1973 lottery near the remote former gold mining town of Ókárito (South Island). She was an atheist, asexual, and skeptical of romance. In her spare time, she wrote and painted, some of the latter good enough for exhibitions. Her home had more than 12,000 books, Keri’s greatest company. Locals knew her for her fierce temper, strong opinions, cooking wizardry, and heavy drinking.


It took 17 years for Hulme to see the bone people in print, as it was rejected by virtually every publisher in New Zealand. Conservatives wanted no part of it and liberal whites accused her of cultural appropriation. In Wellington, a group of feminists formed the Spiral Collective to publish Hulme’s debut. In 1985, Hulme got a phone call advising that she had won the Booker Prize, Europe's most prestigious book award. Her response was, “Oh–bloody hell.” As you might surmise, she wanted nothing to do with fame, critics who lambasted her style, nor those who wondered how she could have won over writers such as Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch.


If you’re wondering why I’ve written an obituary instead of reviewing the book, the answer is simple; one of the three main characters has every characteristic I described above. She’s even named (ahem!) Kerewin Holmes. I first read the bone people in 2001 and reread it in 2022. The experience was even more rewarding the second time around. I hesitate to call it fiction in any sense other than story details. It’s autobiography, first person, third person, poetry, political commentary, anthropology, naturalism, magic, and mysticism. Truly, it is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever set eyes upon.


Go slowly; it’s not an easy read. Among other things, there is a mix of English and Máori dialogue. Keep a bookmark in the back for translation, but pay attention; she expected readers to learn as they went along and didn’t hold hands a second time. (You could ignore the Máori, but why would you?) That’s because one intention was to build a “bridge” (her words) between Máori and non-Máori Pákehá. (This Pákehá wishes white folks would cease the racist practice of appointing themselves as guardians of people of color.)


The heart of the story–and I emphasize that that’s only part of the book–is the relationship between Kerewin, Joseph Ngakaukawa Gillayley, and his found son Simon Peter. As you can see, racial lines are blurry. Joe identifies as Máori and so does Kerewin. As for Simon, who knows? Joe’s wife and child died in an accident and “Simon” is the name he gave to the only survivor of a shipwreck. No one knows much about Simon; he’s intelligent, but mute, writes, but was too young to recall his life before he knew Joe. Simon is also very difficult. He is ridiculed by other kids and fights back ferociously; he also skips school, drinks, smokes, and steals anything that’s not bolted down.


Like Joe, Simon is fun-loving and pleasant one moment, and violent and destructive the next. Joe loves Simon, but he also beats him. Simon’s wandering ways bring him to Kerewin’s odd compound–it sports a handmade tower–and soon he and Joe intrude on her solitude. I will say nothing more except if you think this is going to turn into anything resembling a family fairy tale, you're on the wrong island. The book is about broken people; in real life, healing doesn’t happen in a straight line and sometimes not at all. Nor, in Hulme’s imagining, are there hard-fast boundaries between reality, visions, and dreams. It’s a bridge between Máori and Pákehá, but an intentionally rickety one.


I cannot overemphasize what a remarkable book this is. Do take my advice and read in small doses. Maybe even study the Máori in the back matter. I can help a little with that (see below*). You will not be the same when you finish.


Rob Weir


*I’m bad with languages, but it helps to vocalize words. Máori looks tough but its long words are generally easier to pronounce that you might think. In most cases, you can break the words into groups of adjoining letters without stress syllables. Pákehá (white people)  is Pá/ke/há and pronounced something like Pa-key-ha.


There are exceptions, of course. (Think of the illogical of English.) Double vowels run together. Mao/ri comes out sort of like the Chinese name “Mao” + ree (i is usually a long e sound and e the short a of English.) There are lots of ng words and you mush them together. Words beginning with w are tricky. If it stands alone, it’s w; if it’s wh, an f sound, which I found out when I visited the Máori homeland of whakarewarewa, which comes out a bit like Fucka-rah-weir-ah!)


Love at the Worcester Museum of Art




Worcester Museum of Art

Worcester, Massachusetts

Through March 13, 2022


London’s National Portrait Gallery is an underappreciated gem. It’s filled with so many splendorous things that it can loan enough items to fill a large exhibition. That’s a good thing indeed if you can get to the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) before March 13. Call Love Stories from the National Portrait Gallery the perfect art show for Valentine’s Day. It consists of lovers from the 15th century to the present. Best of all, its definition of love is broad.


The Sandys 1571 Artist Unknown

In that spirit, the first thing one sees upon entering the gallery is a series of photos of Audrey Hepburn (1929-93), surely one of the most beloved screen stars of all time. I’ve heard it said that she was the kind of person who, upon first viewing, one simply wished to cuddle. I’m not sure everyone felt that way, but I surely did. But to jump back in time, I was also enamored of a double portrait of Edwin Sandys and his wife Cicely. You wouldn’t infer from their faces, but theirs was a forbidden love; as Archbishop of York before the Reformation, his marriage was deemed illegal. Yet he and Cicely had nine children, so stuff that in your papal mitre and smoke it!


Burton and Taylor by Terry'Neill 1971

Paul and Linda McCartney by Humphrey Ocean 1976

John and Yoko by Tom Blau 1969

Hughes and Plath by Rollie McKenna 1959

John Maynard and Lydia Keynes by William Roberts 1932


I’ll circle back to forbidden love, but first let’s take a look at famous lovers. Robert and Elizabeth Browning fell into that category, but I was more moved of a bronze casting of their intertwined hands than of their painted portraits. Being that WAM borrowed from a British collection, we see paintings and photographs of famous UK lovers, even when their main squeezes are from the Colonies and beyond: Paul and Linda McCartney, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb, and John Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova, among others. The latter has a particularly unusual quality, as John Maynard is painted conventionally for the time, but Lydia has an art deco abstracted look. 


Helen and Kate by Graham Hughes 2014 


Pears and Britten by Kenneth Green 1943



The exhibit isn’t confined to heterosexual love. You can also see Oscar Wilde posing with Lord Alfred Douglas, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, singer Peter Pears and composer Benjamin Britten, Olympian gold medalists Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh, and Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington. The latter couple had perhaps the most daring of all relationships. Theirs was a lavender marriage, a term indicating that he was a gay man and she a lesbian. I posted Strachey’s painting by Carrington, as it captures Strachey’s understated effeminate qualities.


Ellen Terry by Watts, 1864

Peake and Gillmore, 1940s


Other items in the exhibition are simply stunning images. George Frederic Watts’ oil of his young bride actress Ellen Terry is one such image; artists Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake’s oil paint selfies another. It’s hard not to see the humanity in Ford Maddox Brown’s painting of Henry and Millicent Fawcett, as she tenderly ministers to her husband who was blinded in a hunting accident. The most unorthodox image is surely Ben Nicholson’s self-portrait with Barbara Hepworth, a marriage made in modernist heaven. There is even unrequited love such as that painter George Romney (1734-1802) held for his muse Emma Hamilton, a maid and a bawdy one at that.


The Fawcetts by Ford Maddox Brown, 1872

Nicholson and Hepworth 1933



If you are one of those who tend not to read museum labels, I understand; many curators tell us way more than we need or want to know. I would, however, urge you to break that habit for this exhibit. Those wall placards tell us about the relationships as well as the art and many of the former are touching. In the time of pandemic, maybe all we need is love.


Rob Weir