Appellate Judge James A. Stewart's warning: Don't confuse this Potter with Beatrix or Harry when buying gifts for children.
"Something's going to happen."
The name Dennis Potter is one that's been rattling around in the back of my head for years. He's best known in the States for Pennies from Heaven, a British TV drama that was made into an American movie. I've meant to track down the British television dramatist's work for years, but never gotten around to it. Thus, Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember, a trilogy of his TV dramas that aired on three successive weeks in 1980, looked like the perfect chance to introduce myself to his work.
Facts of the Case
Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember features three Dennis Potter television plays:
• Blade on the Feather: Jason Cavendish (Donald Pleasence, You Only Live Twice), who once wrote a cult allegorical novel, gets a visit from Daniel Young (Tom Conti, Out of Control), who says he's writing a thesis. Cavendish and his assistant (Denholm Elliott, Noises Off…) are suspicious of their guest, who manages to ingratiate himself with the ladies of the house.
• Rain on the Roof: As she's figuring out that her husband John (Malcolm Stoddard, The Godsend) is having an affair, Janet (Cheryl Campbell, Chariots of Fire) gets a visit from Billy (Ewan Stewart, Titanic), an illiterate man who wants her to help him learn to read. His illiteracy means that he didn't read the warnings on his medication, leading to a dangerous reaction.
• Cream in My Coffee: Bernard (Lionel Jeffries, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Jean (Peggy Ashcroft, A Passage to India) visit the seaside resort where they spent a weekend before they got married—a weekend that drew the anger of Bernard's strict mother, pushed Jean to infidelity, and saw the first cracks in their relationship.
While Dennis Potter said in an interview that he dislikes the formulaic nature of television series, I noted a theme in these three plays: there's a couple with a strained relationship that boils over with the arrival of a visitor. In Cream in My Coffee, the couple is doing the visiting and the instigators are a singer at the resort they visit and Bernard's strict mother, but the theme of outside agitation continues. Other Potter trademarks include dining scenes in which people talk about the mundane even though tension is the main course and flashbacks. The stories end with some slightly Twilight Zone twist. Two of the stories even make a fly landing on someone into a dramatic moment. It did occur to me that these plays might not be representative, since they were commissioned together. However, Potter's interview mentions a work about an "afflicted house…and then there is a visitor."
These dramas may be shot on location with frequent flashbacks, but they have the feel of stage plays, with limited action and lots of dialogue. Moreover, the dialogue has an artificial quality that adds to that staged feel. It's not boring; Potter wrings more out of a reading lesson than anyone else could ever manage. Still, I'd go in expecting something more like a filmed play than a typical TV drama.
At the same time, Potter has a clear understanding of what television and film can do. When viewers first meet Janet and John in Rain on the Roof, they're seen, from Billy's perspective, through the windows of their home. We don't know what they're arguing about, but there's definitely a row going on. Giving me this perspective first made me anticipate the reveal more. Later, the camera lingers on a blazing fire as the religious Billy rants about the end of the world. Throughout the stories here, Potter uses flashbacks in a subliminal way, so that they sink in gradually through repetition.
The work of Lionel Jeffries and Peggy Ashcroft as the elderly Bernard and Jean makes Cream in My Coffee the best of the trilogy. They make their love-hate relationship seem natural, with bickering that's delivered more believably than in the other plays. Better yet, the flashbacks Potter loves are more integral to the story here. Donald Pleasence, Tom Conti, and Denholm Elliott fill the air with anxiety, even as the dialogue seems routine, to make Blade on the Feather effective. Rain on the Roof has a resolution that feels forced, but Cheryl Campbell and Ewan Stewart delivered engaging performances.
The source material for these plays is obviously dated, with flecks and the occasional serious rippling line. Natural lighting creates lots of shadows, which adds to the effect as the various mysterious visitors are introduced but takes away elsewhere. An occasional line is lost, but I had no serious problems with the sound.
There's an interview with Potter from a show called Without Walls, apparently called that because you can see the studio around interviewer Melvyn Bragg and his guest as they converse. It looks back at a few key Potter works, including Pennies from Heaven, assuming that viewers are familiar with Potter's career. It's not bad, but it doesn't even touch on the plays in this set and is aimed at his loyal fans. A Potter filmography rolls at the show's end; I wish they'd have used this information in a text feature so I could review it at my own pace.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A drama that feels like a filmed stage play just won't be the cream in some people's coffee, no matter how many arty flashbacks are inserted. Dennis Potter is undeniably gifted, but his work is also undeniably an acquired taste.
Dennis Potter may have been the last of a dying breed. With frequent contributions to shows with titles like Play for Today and ITV Saturday Night Theatre, he obviously has done a lot to preserve the art of the one-off drama. With shows like Playhouse 90 and Studio One have long absent from U.S. screens, his work will come as a surprise.
While his style won't appeal to many, the simple scenes with strong currents underneath could well interest people who have an interest in stage drama. I liked but didn't love this trilogy; I suspect its main audience will be Potter aficionados.
Not guilty, although I have to wonder about what kind of visitors Dennis
Potter received while he was writing these plays.
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