By 1978 Dennis Potter’s standing as a TV dramatist was unrivalled. His contemporaries from a decade before, the writers for the BBC’s “Wednesday Play”, a series of one-off plays which were often challenging, controversial & even influenced the political agenda, had moved to theatre, films or anonymity while contenders like Mike Leigh did not yet have back catalogue to claim the belt. “Pennies From Heaven”, six 75 minute episodes starring Bob Hoskins, was event television. Potter had never been backward about coming forward to blur the conventions of TV & this time around he came up with real doozy. Set in the mid-1930s, Arthur is an unhappily married sheet music salesman. His fantasies are expressed in flamboyant scenes where he mimes to popular songs of the day. This was charming, surprising & very effective. Film director Herbert Ross, a noted adaptor of Neil Simon’s plays, saw the series & “Pennies From Heaven” went to Hollywood.
There are 62 reasons to traduce the film version of “Pennies From Heaven” (1981) but I don’t do lists. Any attempt to condense a drama over 7 hours long into less than 2 will sacrifice more than nuance. Nevermind that which is lost in the translation from English to American despite Potter writing the screenplay. Then there is the bit where Christopher Walken totally nails this sleazy song-and-dance number. From “The Anderson Tapes” (1971) to “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) Walken deserves his rep as a great screen actor. He can claim some of the best scenes in modern American cinema & “Let’s Misbehave” is the sleeper in his own Top 10. Herbert Ross had started as a choreographer & he knew what he was doing here. When Spike Jonze got Walken to dance in the video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” (2001) it surprised many unaware of the range of his talent. I’m a little more mellow now about other folks messing about with my personal favourites. I can even sit through “A Scanner Darkly” without kicking the dog. Maybe it’s time I gave the “Pennies From Heaven” movie another look because there will be no new Dennis Potter scripts.
Dennis Potter was born in the Forest of Dean in the West of England. I hung out in Gloucestershire in the 80s, it was like the 30s, I didn’t venture into the beautiful Forest. A coal miner’s son, his generation of promising post-war working class children were skimmed off through the education system & offered the carrot of a way out. Social mobility, the safety valve of capitalism. Oxford University & 2 years of National Service (compulsory in the 1950s) must have been contrasting experiences. In 1964 he stood as a Labour Party candidate in a safe Tory seat. His dissatisfaction with the process meant that he did not vote for himself & produced 2 semi-autobiographical plays about Nigel Barton, which made some very modern points about politics & politicians which most sentient people now share.
This blend of the personal & the political was both adroit & unmatched. His autobiographical honesty, his sexual abuse by an uncle at the age of 10 was unflinchingly used in his work, fused with a direct, unsympathetic view of humans & their failings made for a heady brew which often offended his BBC bureaucrat bosses, the media & self-appointed guardians of public morality. “Son of Man” (1969), an alternative view of Jesus’ final days, was bound to stir it up. I saw a theatrical production, still starring Colin Blakely, & was thoroughly entertained, I guess they must have removed the blasphemy then. Potter said what he liked & liked what he said. He would kick against the pricks & was pleased when the pricks kicked back. He was a man who liked a good argument.
“The Singing Detective” came around in 1986. an0ther 6 and a half hour epic. Since 1962 Potter had suffered with psoriatic arthritis, a condition affecting the skin & joints causing constant pain. His protagonist, writer Philip E Marlow (anagram), is hospitalised with the same ailment. The view from his bed fuses with flashbacks of his childhood & his mother’s life. When Marlow avoids his meds he fantasises about his novel about a dance hall singer (Marlow) who gets the detective jobs “the guys who don’t sing” leave alone. If you are looking for a couple of snappy sentences explaining “The Singing Detective” then sorry, you’re in the wrong place. It is a brilliant dramatic roller coaster ride, a landmark of British TV. Dennis Potter’s cynicism now had a barbed-wire bitterness. Marlow’s pain & self-loathing, his anger not only at the cards he’s been dealt but at the whole game, shocks & delights. If you went down to the woods there would be no teddy bears & it would be no picnic. Michael Gambon (ok…Dumbledore) never had a better script & was never better. Don’t mention Robert Downey Jr…I said don’t.
Between “Pennies…” & “…Detective” Dennis Potter had been prolific. 1979’s “Blue Remembered Hills”, his most popular single play, featured adult actors as 7-year olds in the Forest of Dean in 1943. Potter admitted that it was possible he could be a much more wholesome writer than his audience – even he himself – is led to believe . Yeah right. His play “Brimstone & Treacle” (1976) had enough of the Devil in it to get itself banned. It was made for the cinema in 1982 & he worked on several screenplays. The final one was in collaboration with another English maverick, Nicolas Roeg, an incendiary coupling. Roger Eberts reviewed “Track 29” (1988) as bad-tempered, kinky and misogynistic & that’s good enough for me.
By the time the last of the 3 lip-synch dramas Dennis Potter was incapacitated by his illness, sustained on a cocktail of medication. The landscape of British television had been changed by the launch of satellite TV by “that drivel-merchant, global huckster and so-to-speak media psychopath, Rupert Murdoch.”(Potter). Big budget drama favoured cosiness over controversy & after the BBC’s “Blackeyes”, a drama concerning misogyny was accused of that very thing “Dirty Den” (those tabloids eh ?) moved to Channel 4 for “Lipstick On Your Collar” (1993). “Lipstick…” is set during the Suez Crisis of 1956 when British aggression in Egypt in pursuit of its economic interest (sound familiar ?) was thwarted by the United Nations & the British ruling class had to face the fact that perhaps this Empire thing had run its course. Back home a new generation, hyped on rock & roll, were tired of war stories, through with deference. There’s a rom-com in there too. This series had less money spent on it, the more familiar songs less charming & the romance element is strained. I saw it again recently, it has a great cast of character actors, it’s funny , it has Louise Germaine & young Obi-Wan Kenobi (a very young Ewan McGregor) in a gold lamé suit miming to Elvis.
Dennis Potter died in 1994. In the 30 years he wrote for TV he produced the most innovative, distinguished & provocative drama around. If he was controversial it was not just that he liked a rumpus but he believed that television should be all of these things. There’s little point working in a mass media if you don’t have a mass audience. For myself, I was never offended, I found his modern views on British society to make a lot of sense & I think he wrote some of the finest post-war British drama. Is there TV around like this today ? Whenever I turn on the tube people are baking, ballroom dancing or patronising me. Luckily I have one of those sets with an off-switch.