Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)


Main image of Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)
35mm, Technicolor, 109 mins
DirectorSidney Gilliat
Production CompaniesLondon Films, British Lion
ProducersFrank Launder, Sidney Gilliat
ScreenplaySidney Gilliat, Leslie Baily
PhotographyChris Challis
Music played byLondon Symphony Orchestra
ConductorMalcolm Sargent

Cast: Robert Morley (W. S. Gilbert); Maurice Evans (Arthur Sullivan); Eileen Herlie ('Helen Lenoir' D'Oyly Carte); Peter Finch (Richard D'Oyly Carte); Martyn Green (George Grossmith); Dinah Sheridan (Grace Marston)

Show full cast and credits

The story of Gilbert and Sullivan, their jealousies, antagonisms and final quarrel which is only resolved the day of Sullivan's death.

Show full synopsis

Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy (1999) took three hours to depict a relatively brief period of the creative lives of W.S.Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. By contrast, The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (d. Sidney Gilliat, 1953) covers the whole history of their collaboration in less than two-thirds of the time. Inevitably, the end result is somewhat sketchy by comparison, though compensations abound in the lavish Technicolor production values, generous excerpts from most of the operettas and especially Robert Morley's rumbustious performance as Gilbert.

It was made to mark both the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (her ancestor Victoria appears in several scenes) and the 21st birthday of London Films, though the stormy relationship of Gilbert and Sullivan (Maurice Evans) on screen was matched by behind-the-scenes arguments between production designer Hein Heckroth and overall supervisor Vincent Korda over the film's look, together with much post-production reshaping by Korda's brother Alexander.

Despite this, the film is breezily enjoyable, with Gilbert and Sullivan's works cleverly integrated into the narrative both in chronology and content (for instance, the scene where a real-life argument is cross-cut with a similar one they had previously dramatised and scored in The Gondoliers). The logistical and entrepreneurial contribution of Savoy Theatre impresario D'Oyly Carte (Peter Finch) is given equal weight to the creative process, to show how much hard graft goes into creating the lightest comedic souffl├ęs, something Gilliat had plenty of experience with.

The central narrative strand concerns Sullivan's constant battle between the desire to create "serious" art and the need to fund a lavish lifestyle through the success of the operettas, in one memorable sequence attempting to satisfy both needs by composing The Mikado and the cantata The Golden Legend simultaneously. But Gilliat constantly undermines his protestations by repeatedly showing the breadth of the operettas' appeal, from marching bands to lowly hurdy-gurdy men, from royal palaces to the roughest pubs.

Alexander Korda was keen that the film's main message, that a truly successful work of art contains elements of the vulgar and populist as well as the rarefied, came through loud and clear. Given Korda's own fondness for straddling the art-versus-commerce divide, it's easy to see why this appealed to him, though audiences disagreed: the film's financial failure, and that of Powell and Pressburger's own excursion into operetta, Oh!! Rosalinda, two years later, ended up sounding the death-knell for the traditional British costume musical.

Michael Brooke

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Iolanthe premiere (2:48)
2. Art versus operetta (4:04)
3. The final split (3:08)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Mikado, The (1939)
Finch, Peter (1916-1977)
Gilliat, Sidney (1908-1994)
Hawkesworth, John (1920-2003)
Heckroth, Hein (1901-1970)
Hyde-White, Wilfrid (1903-1991)
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
Launder, Frank (1906-1997)
Morley, Robert (1908-1992)
Sheridan, Dinah (1920-)