Roll along, prairie moon, because we'll be painting the clouds with sunshine, as that nasty Judge Mike Pinsky reviews a classic BBC miniseries. You rascal you—it's got to be love, right?
"This is a court of law, not a music hall!"—Judge (Carleton Hobbs)
Arthur Parker (Bob Hoskins) is a dreamer. He may be "common as muck," but he has unbounded desires. But they are the sort of desires—sex and success—that he cannot fulfill in his dreary life. "I feel empty," he tells his wife Joan (Gemma Craven), who is not so much a dreamer as a sleeper, willfully unaware of the world around her. Joan imagines herself a cold and remotely mysterious woman of fashion. Real flesh—real desire—appalls her.
So Arthur takes his desires elsewhere. In the England of 1935, caught in a worldwide depression, happiness is hard to find. Arthur sells moments of happiness: sheet music for songs of love. He fantasizes about pretty women. He makes up stories to tell his fellow salesman about how happy and successful he is. When Arthur first meets buttoned-up schoolteacher Eileen (Cheryl Campbell), he convinces himself that he is in love—that this is like all of those songs in which young lovers meet across crowded rooms and dance the night away.
But soon Eileen is pregnant, Arthur's business is in ruins, and a brutal murder has the police on Arthur's trail…
The 1970s were an adventurous time in British television drama. I, Claudius and Elizabeth R showed that history could be as perverse and shocking as any soap opera. Upstairs, Downstairs gracefully gnawed at the English class structure. And then there was Dennis Potter.
Potter was no stranger to controversy. His television plays had a tendency to arouse as much fury as they did ratings and critical accolades. Lawsuits, death threats, and protests followed many of his productions. His disturbing 1976 play Brimstone and Treacle, for example, was banned for over a decade. Whether he was dealing with politics, religion, or sex, Potter knew what buttons to push to get his audience talking. Still, the BBC kept hiring him, because in spite of his edgy subject matter—or perhaps because of it—Potter was a dramatic wizard.
When Dennis Potter came to the BBC with his six-episode series Pennies From Heaven, his first original work since the Brimstone and Treacle debacle, the idea must have seemed insane. The opening scene makes the point: Arthur Parker awakens hopeful that luck will finally smile upon him. Then he begins singing—in a woman's voice. Potter's conceit: the characters in this 1935 England lip-synch to popular songs of the era. It is as if they only way they can articulate their true feelings is through the detritus of popular culture, the sentimental ditties penned by professional songwriters and performed by house bands for the consumption of the masses. Some younger viewers may miss the historical context of Arthur's world: the days of sheet music, when families could purchase and perform the hits of the day, being supplanted by prepackaged entertainment in the form of gramophone records. I sometimes wonder what a Japanese audience, more conversant with karaoke and the cruelty of fate, might make of Dennis Potter's world.
The musical numbers, as staged by director Piers Haggard, are deliberately spare, squeezed (sometimes to a claustrophobic degree) into the space around the characters. All of these characters are already squeezed down by both social pressure and their own psychological flaws, so the short outbursts of song become the only times they reach out into something beyond themselves. The songs, often shallow Tin Pan Alley love songs performed by mediocre bands (the director refers to them on the commentary track as "frivolous and potent"), are the poetry of working class life. For example, Joan has a tea party with her gossipy lady friends early in the story. On the surface, they are all smiles and jokes, teasing about imagined affairs. Suddenly, they all break into a mimed performance of "You Rascal You," a viciously bouncy song about jealousy and revenge. They wave knives around, dancing cheerfully. Is this mock violence a comment on their secret hatred of one another? Is it a critique of the sexual politics of adultery, the double standard that permits their husbands to carry on affairs (as long as they are discreet) while the women must remain pure at home?
Pennies From Heaven is surprisingly complex and explicit in both its violence and sexuality for 1978. Some of its content could not play on American network television even today. Arthur is a compulsive liar and a borderline sexual predator. The wayward accordion player (Kenneth Colley), whose freedom both attracts and repels Arthur (think of him as Arthur's id unleashed), is a rapist and murderer. Eileen loses her job as a result of her pregnancy and must become a prostitute to survive. You get the picture. Potter is never exploitative, however. This darker side of human nature is necessary to balance the blandly optimistic lyrics of the songs. Pennies From Heaven is about the contrast between the magic of art (music, fairy tales, movies—all of which figure into Potter's tale) and the squalor of real life during the Depression. "They tell the truth, songs do," Arthur insists. But his truth is a Platonic ideal, far from the flesh. Potter never exactly pins down why Arthur is in such denial. Arthur, like many of his generation, suggests that World War I is responsible for the trauma around and inside him, whether directly or indirectly (and Arthur's own role in the war is rather ambiguous in the story). Certainly, the harsh conditions of the Depression highlight the disparity between his dreams and reality. Eileen is Arthur's escape, the promise of the songs that kept up his morale, made real. But that escape is always blocked by the realities of their economic and class situation, as well as the hypocritical moral outrage of those around them.
Potter's real brilliance in the script is in his ability to probe the psychological traumas of his characters by attaching each sequence to the perfect old song. No dialogue is wasted, as it all advances the plot or reveals details of character. Would-be Tarantinos would do well to study how Potter can weave pop culture references together in order to efficiently sketch personality and comment on culture at the same time. The script is breathtakingly comprehensive—this is a story that really does take seven and one-half hours to tell. More's the pity that Potter would later crush the entire affair down to a couple of hours to suit Herbert Ross. (Potter would create a similar mess later in squeezing The Singing Detective down to a theatrical script for Keith Gordon.)
Most Americans are only familiar with Potter's tale through the 1981 movie by Herbert Ross, a notorious commercial failure. But the fault was not with Potter's truncated screenplay. Ross took Potter's stripped-down musical numbers and expanded them into Hollywood spectacle. It was a mistake. The mimed songs work in the television version of Pennies because they never pull us too far out of the world of Arthur Parker. The line between reality and fantasy for the characters is highly perforated, pulled taut only by changes in lighting and the scratchy sounds of old gramophone records. To blow the songs up into elaborate production numbers sentimentalizes the story and pulls the fantasy too far from the reality. Ross's version thus subverts the genre of the Hollywood musical far less than the television version.
Casting Steve Martin, for all his charm, did not help either. What sustains our interest in the television version for seven and one-half hours is the challenge in understanding a character like Arthur Parker. In the hands of Steve Martin, Arthur is a pitiable dreamer. But that is only one side of the character that Bob Hoskins plays. His Arthur is coarse and selfish, whiny and irresponsible, and even brutal. He is also a heartfelt and ambitious lover, with a devilish smile and rebellious humor. He is clunky and graceful in turns, a schlep who can turn cartwheels when passion sways him. We hate him and sympathize with him at once. Steve Martin might have matured enough to approach such a part now (although only judging from his writing, which has always been better than his acting), but in 1981, he was nowhere near that level. The only American actor I can think of off the top of my head who could have combined such ugliness and charm in one performance in 1981 might have been Jack Nicholson. But all speculation aside, Bob Hoskins rises successfully to the task of fleshing out Arthur Parker.
Certainly, Ross was able to do more with the look of the film because he had a much larger budget at his disposal. The original television version of Pennies mixes soft (often deliberately filtered) videotape for interior sequences with low-budget 16mm for exteriors. It is not the most polished look, but it gets the job done. The series never looks cheap or silly, mostly by virtue of its script and performances. What is so remarkable as well about the television version of Pennies From Heaven is that its use of mimed musical numbers never descends to camp. The songs are sometimes poignant, sometimes ironic, but never merely silly. Piers Haggard and Dennis Potter manage to keep all the major characters sympathetic enough, and the story tightly wound enough, that the tragedy resonates rather than pushes us away. Potter's much-lauded follow-up, The Singing Detective, while more psychologically ambitious, is often too claustrophobic (a sign of Potter's increasing egomania). Pennies From Heaven is more expansive in its storytelling, balancing its psychological explorations with cultural and historical critique.
Producer Kenith Trodd and director Piers Haggard, speaking on commentary tracks for the first and last episodes of the series, offer intelligent assessment of Potter's use of "anti-naturalism" and discuss the importance of sexuality and desire in his work. They are also candid about the celebrated author's character flaws: his temperamental genius, his increasingly difficult ego, and his misogyny. Ironically, they argue that the character in the series most similar to Potter is Eileen, the repressed teacher whose corruption at the hands of Arthur turns her into a desperate risk-taker. Indeed, Eileen is the real survivor, the real hero of Pennies From Heaven. Her struggle as a working class woman to get by in a society that wants her to be either a virgin or a whore—with no middle ground—becomes far more interesting to the audience than the travails of Arthur, who seems to make his own bad luck. Bob Hoskins's excellent performance will be what hooks you, but Cheryl Campbell's ability to handle the evolving strength of Eileen is was you eventually take away from the story when it is done.
If you are offered the choice between Herbert Ross' cinematic version of Pennies From Heaven and the original television version, take the original. While it may lack the production values of the movie, it also offers finer performances and a deeper exploration of the story's themes. Television offers few enough masterpieces, and it is a pleasure to finally have this one back again after so many years in limbo (due to contractual obligations related to the Ross movie). Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven is like a rich and tragic novel you can return to now and again. Find yourself, your dreams, in Potter's characters—and be thankful that life offers you more opportunities than simply hoping luck magically falls from the sky.
This court does a song and dance. Not guilty.
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