- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2000

Of course Shirley Henderson, like anyone else born in the British Isles, had heard of Gilbert and Sullivan. But their Victorian musical theater meant little to her before she was introduced to Leonora Braham.
"The British are a bit cynical about G&S;," says Miss Henderson as she soaked in some sunshine in the midst of a promotional tour for the Mike Leigh film "Topsy-Turvy," a richly textured backstage epic detailing the creation of William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's biggest hit, "The Mikado." The film, which is being released in America before England, opened recently.
A tiny pro with credits ranging from Shakespeare at England's National Theatre to a spurned waif in Danny Boyle's film "Trainspotting," Miss Henderson plays Braham, the leading soprano who created the role of Yum-Yum in "Mikado."
"She's not the one in that cast who was well-known," Miss Henderson says. "There was lots to discover about her."
Such featured G&S; players as George Grossmith, Jessie Bond and Rutland Barrington were legends in their time, molded by the tyrannical Gilbert into stars of hit after hit. But Braham, though she created such roles as Patience and Princess Ida (in the shows of the same name) merely passed through the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, the official and exclusive producer of the G&S; canon.
In "Topsy-Turvy," however, Braham is the one who ends the film, singing languidly to her image in the dressing-room mirror. And that Braham, whose exquisite delicacy may linger longest of all Mr. Leigh's well-upholstered dreams, is as much a creation of Miss Henderson as she is of the author and director.
"She had to be an amazing performer," says Miss Henderson, "but life seemed a bit of a trial for her. She was threatened with the sack, you know. There's a sadness to her life, the woman behind Yum-Yum."
The actor's-eye view of "Topsy-Turvy" provided by Miss Henderson is a fascinating peep at Mr. Leigh's unusual method of filmmaking, which he conceives as a series of collaborations with artistic colleagues based on exhaustive research and improvisation.
"I don't think there ever was a script actually written down," says Miss Henderson, "but everything we did was completely set with absolute precision when we went before the cameras."
Her first meeting with Mr. Leigh was a brief chat on general life and times, she says. Three months later, she got another call with a request that she prepare to sing a Gilbert and Sullivan song. She wasn't told anything about the project.
"I was never trained as a singer," she says. "None of us [in the cast] were, as far as I know. But I don't even read music."
At the library, she found a tape of, by coincidence, "The Mikado." A song she thought she might try was, again coincidentally, Yum-Yum's "The Sun Whose Rays," eventually to serve as the lovely finale of "Topsy-Turvy."
"When I got to the audition, I asked the pianist to play the song through to see if I had memorized it in the right key. I had, so I sang it for Mike Leigh and the other people there.
"Then they asked me to listen to another song something about a monkey, from 'Princess Ida' and, after hearing it just once, to sing it myself. I started to laugh inside, but I sang a bit of it anyway. I think they just wanted to see if I would be willing to try."
Six months later, while she was appearing in a play at the Old Vic, Miss Henderson received a call backstage offering her a job in a Mike Leigh film.
"We all met at the Savoy Theatre so he could say hello," she says, "and I was given a name: Leonora Braham. I was not encouraged to discuss her with the others but to start researching her. When I found she was a leading soprano, I began to suspect that I had a leading role myself.
"But we still were told nothing about the project."
It was three more months before her actual work began, months when she chased traces of Braham through libraries, museums and government records. Finally, though, the company was called together at the Richmond Theatre, a suburban London playhouse virtually unchanged from Victorian times, and dressed in their costumes.
"We just walked about and acknowledged each other," she remembers, "just plucking up the courage to say to ourselves, 'This is how we speak.' "
Group scenes were shot, mostly at the Richmond Theatre, in many days of mass collaboration, with actors encouraged to improvise and interact before the scenes were set.
"A lot had to be invented," Miss Henderson says. "Otherwise, the film would have been just a documentary. We had to make it work as a film while respecting the history."
Many of her key scenes take place in a dressing room Braham shares with the soubrette, Jessie Bond (played by Dorothy Atkinson).
At 34, Miss Henderson is a stage veteran and a frequent TV presence in such series as "Hamish Macbeth," opposite Robert Carlyle. "But I do like cinema, and it's hard, in Britain, to get into."

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