The next post will be on or before 12th August
DENNIS POTTER’S ONLY DUD
It is now 40 years since Dennis Potter’s 6-part series Pennies from Heaven was broadcast on BBC TV in the spring of 1978. On the strength of his epic 1986 and partly autobiographical series The Singing Detective and the poignant childhood saga Blue Remembered Hills (1979) not to speak of his 1978 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Potter (1935-1994) is generally recognised as TV’s most radical, innovative and accomplished playwright. He was also a fearless controversialist who once famously described BBC TV executives as ‘croak-voiced Daleks’ and said that the erstwhile Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s attempt to make comically saccharine election films with the hope of gaining power had made him, Dennis Potter, want to throw up. However, his courting of controversy went far further in artistic terms, when his explosive TV drama Brimstone and Treacle about a young woman paralysed in a hit and run accident and then raped by a diabolic young man called Martin, was withdrawn from its Wednesday Play slot in 1976. The BBC executive of the time Alasdair Milne described it as ‘nauseating if brilliant’, though it did eventually appear on TV in 1987 and was also made into a film starring Sting as Martin.
As a paid-up admirer of much if not all of Potter’s work, by some anomaly I missed out on Pennies from Heaven four decades ago, and have only just watched all 7 and a half hours of it. Back in 1978 it made Bob Hoskins (1942-2014) who played the central character, an overnight star, and it also received a BAFTA award, and in a golden list of the best 100 of all BBC programmes it came 21st. With such a dizzy pedigree I naturally expected great things, but to adapt Potter’s contrarian independence of mind, I would argue that it is one of the worst of his creations. My response as I watched it, was not a simple one, however. I couldn’t stop watching it, but I also couldn’t stop being irritated by numerous things as I did, and I also kept reflecting how dated it seemed in most of its artistic means, unlike Blue Remembered Hills which was broadcast only a year later. In a nutshell, it has a central character, Arthur Parker the sheet music salesman, who is all over the place when it comes to convincing characterisation, and his wife Joan (played by Gemma Craven, born 1950) is one of the worst examples of stereotypical caricature I have ever seen. Re the latter it can hardly be Craven’s fault, given that she convincingly played Minna Wagner in the 1983 film Wagner about the notorious composer, and thus the fault if anyone’s has to be laid at the door of the director Piers Haggard, the producer Kenith Trodd, and the author himself Dennis Potter. The central dramatic hinge, Parker being wrongly convicted and hung for the murder of a young girl in a Forest of Dean wood, entails not one but two highly symbolic and overcharged figures, for the girl is blind and thus the epitome of innocence, and her murderer is an accordion-playing pathetically nervous simpleton, who by definition is not fully responsible for his actions. Apropos which, the vagabond accordion man (Kenneth Colley, born 1937, here looking haunted and desolate and best known from his Star Wars appearances) rapes as well as murders the blind girl, and there is the problem of basic credibility here. This vagabond is also a severe epileptic, and one of the most powerful things in the drama is Colley at one point alone in the countryside taking a terrifying volcanic fit. At which point we need to ask, is it the case that the rape and murder of a young woman is ever committed by a nervous and jabbering epileptic? It might fit Potter’s plot specifics but often enough murderous rapists are things like taxi drivers and peripatetic van delivery men, who by definition can get away swiftly from the scene of the crime. Needless to say, the penniless accordion man has no car, whereas the innocent man Arthur conveniently has (and parenthetically given that Arthur is an unsuccessful salesman and that his wife at first will not share her inheritance, it is also unlikely that he would have owned his own vehicle back in 1935).
To start at the beginning. Somewhere in the mid-1930s Arthur Parker/Hoskins is an unsuccessful salesman of sheet music who drives from the London suburbs where he lives with his wife Joan up as far as the west country and beyond. Arthur is an unrefined product of the London working class, while Joan is genteel and prudish middle class, and has been left a sizeable inheritance by her hard-working father. It is never explained why prissy and frigid Joan would have fallen for Arthur in the first place, as she is appalled by his blasphemous swearing, his eating habits and his frank sexual appetite. She calls him a dirty beast when he makes bedroom advances and generally comes across as a grown-up version of a simpering teenager from a girls’ comic of the time. Arthur’s response is to lie awake mad with sexual frustration and to angrily accuse her, and grovellingly plead with her by turn. His dialogue is predictable and repetitive rather than original, and Joan’s delivery is reminiscent of squawking village hall melodrama, meaning as if it is some kind of stylised parody. The result is that Joan does not come across as real in any way, but a kind of ready-made mouthpiece of cosseted and alienated inhibition. Potter the playwright needed to make her anxious prudery come convincingly from the heart, and have genuine dramatic implications, instead of which is it just plonked on the screen and we are to take it as a given, albeit it is at times embarrassing caricature. If any more confirmation were needed, with over-sexed Arthur away on the road, when she is not sat at home Joan often dallies with two girlfriends in a posh teashop, and these two chums are likewise shallow stereotypes, the only character inflection being that one of them gossips maliciously about the other when she is absent, and says that she is shamelessly flirting with Arthur whenever she gets the chance.
Out on the road, instinctive, unreflective and in many ways childlike Arthur, is naturally looking for sexual opportunities. Early on he has sex in the back of his car with an abusive prostitute who he meets in a Gloucester pub (Gloucester is Potter’s home town, for he was raised in the nearby Forest of Dean where once the principal industry was coal mining). After giving a lift to the accordion man who is walking by the side of the road, then buying him a hearty breakfast, Arthur gives up impatiently on this gibbering and anxious wreck, but later observes a beautiful young woman giving him a few coppers for his accordion rendition of some old-fashioned Methodist hymns. Smitten at once, he goes into a Gloucester music shop and manages to sell some sheet music to the reluctant proprietor, but takes no payment and crucially tears up the receipt in exchange for information about the name and address of that beautiful woman out there. The young woman is Eileen Everson and she is a village schoolteacher in the Forest of Dean, and she also very poetically lives right in the forest itself, where she looks after her widowed Dad and her 2 squabbling brothers, all of them colliers. Eileen is played very capably by Cheryl Campbell (born 1949) memorable as Vera Brittain in the TV adaptation of Testament of Youth as well as in the contrasting Chariots of Fire. However Campbell has a difficult and uneasy part to play. Her school is run by a Dickensian tyrant of a headmaster played by the ubiquitous Freddie Jones (born 1927 and father of Toby Jones) who never fails as an actor, but who also is split down the middle here in terms of inner consistency. In assembly he knocks a young lad almost senseless for talking to a friend, then threatens to cane every single boy if any one of them continues the practice of singing irreverent versions of the National Anthem. Later when he realises Eileen is leaving her job as she has got pregnant by Arthur, he corners her in the deserted classroom and very tenderly and understatedly declares his love, and tries to press money on her for her frightening future. That display of deep sensitivity is weirdly at odds with his autopilot sadism and in the same way when Arthur is not being an impatient East End Jack the Lad, he is the last word in romantic idealism. In one set piece, head over heels with his first encounter with Eileen he bumps into some salesmen cronies in a pub where he berates them for their lack of Romance and even gets tearful as he talks about the ineffable magic and the wonderful miracles that are out there if one is prepared to take risks and seek them. This dovetails all too conveniently with his choice of profession, for as well as being a dance band addict, he believes the lyrics of those hit songs are spelling out a freedom and perfection that is painfully at odds with the grim reality of things like a frigid wife and a dead-end job.
It is at this point one might take issue with Arthur and also his creator Potter for conflating things that quite simply cannot be easily merged for artistic effect. The point about 1930s hit songs was that the chirpy and/or melancholy and nostalgic dreams they extolled, were not sung with any passion from the heart, but in a stylised rendition that someone like the UK comic Harry Enfield would easily be able to parody for humorous effect. Because the feelings in the songs are rendered in a stylised anaesthetic mould, then Arthur’s identification is ipso facto an identification with something that does not exist. This also helps us to understand why his wife Joan is rendered as caricature when it comes to sexual inhibition, and why her squeaky head girl protests about Arthur and all he stands for, are about as convincing as the set-in-aspic lyrics of the 1930s pop stars. One thing worth noting here is that Dennis Potter was 5 years old when the 30s ended, so that unlike in The Singing Detective, set in the 1940s and 1980s, he is not identifying with something he knows directly, but at second hand. Doubtless those 30s songs were played on the wireless when he was a boy in the wartime 40s, but his characterisation of Arthur born around 1900, feels remote and unfelt if only because Arthur with his whims and lies and explosive romantic impulses, comes across as having no centre of gravity but is more like a half-felt concoction of a troubled romantic. In the same way Potter’s examples of feminine prudery of the time which are crucial to the murder plot, come across as contrived and conveniently overstated. Arthur at one point asks Joan to go around with no knickers on and as well as Joan being reflex horrified, much is made of this later by a detective investigating the blind girl’s murder. The fact is that even in the 1930s sex was alive and well albeit at times strategically underground, and no detective in his right mind would be as comically shocked by the no knickers request as the one played by Dave King (1929-2002, singer, comedian and 1950s pop star). Thus it is that we have caricature piled upon caricature, and hence we finally discern the point of the numerous original 1930s songs that the characters keep breaking into, miming those originals for all they are worth and in most cases doing wonderfully good dancing and gesticulatory vamping. Potter’s much-admired musical interludes in this case (though not in The Singing Detective nor in the excellent 1993 series, Lipstick on Your Collar) work here to bridge the gap left by the fact that many of his characters are melodramatic and crudely overstated. When the stereotyping and the caricature start to creak at the seams, then Potter seemingly pulls in a diversionary song and dance, and the mood and the dramatic power of the ensemble on display somehow seem to be magically rescued and resolved.
Meanwhile Eileen the Forest of Dean schoolteacher is symbolic foil to the brutal headmaster, for instead of terrorising her pupils she literally enchants them with her storytelling. Several times we have set pieces of her mesmerising the open-mouthed children in the classroom with the tale of Rapunzel and other classic fables. Moreover she is an enchantress who actually lives in a fairytale wood, and unwittingly she also lures Arthur Parker there, for thanks to the music shop owner he tracks her down, declares his absolute love, and eventually is taken into her cottage and introduced to her Dad and 2 fractious brothers. As humble miners they are instantly impressed by his suit and motor car and politely go to bed early to leave the sitting room free for them to court. The 2 of them promptly have sex and Eileen eventually gets pregnant but Arthur doesn’t know this until he later encounters her fortuitously in London. In the meantime he has already declared his love or at least enormous infatuation with the blind girl who he’d bumped into after getting out of his salesman’s car to take a pee, once he’d seen her progressing in a weirdly straight line into the forest. He had pursued and frightened her as he offered to lead the girl home, and she had rushed off only for him to shout that he would never ever forget this encounter and she was the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen. Later more prosaically in a Gloucester pub he had described the encounter to another salesman pal and blokeishly said he would like to have had the same girl’s knickers off. This later rebounds on him when he comes to trial as did his earlier request to Joan to walk around minus hers. Once the blind girl’s body is found she is also without her underwear which is where Potter’s plotting, outwardly ingenious, is more ratcheted towards convergent effect, based as I said on an overstated and exaggerated account of 1930s prudery. The local police investigate and soon bring in Arthur for questioning, but he has the watertight alibi of the music shop man, who he was busy grilling about Eileen’s name and whereabouts when the blind girl was murdered (shortly afterwards the same shopkeeper has a fatal heart attack so crucially cannot confirm the undocumented alibi at Arthur’s murder trial).
However the enchantress schoolteacher is no longer in a fairy tale, for she is single and pregnant, and she therefore moves to a cheap part of London to hide her shame and find some work. Rapidly penniless she wanders into a rough pub one evening where the kindly barman warns her what kind of place this is, as it is full of prostitutes as well as a confident and winning chap called Tom who immediately discerns Eileen’s problem and proceeds to get her drunk on port and lemon. Tom is played by Hywel Bennett (1944-2017) best known from the TV series Shelley and I promise you his acting here is by far the best thing in the whole of Pennies from Heaven. He manages to make vaunting, wisecracking Tom both obnoxious and faintly likeable at the same time, and it takes real talent and effortless timing to do that. Tom leads her off to his luxuriously appointed flat, plies her with more drink, has sex with her and then hearing her story gets in a doctor to abort her for the sum of £25 he claims. He does this not out of charity but because he is a successful pimp and he promptly arranges that she go on the game to pay him back the £25 and sundry other fictional and massive expenses. By another very unlikely fluke, one night Arthur happens to go into the same pub, where Eileen is by now fearfully trying to solicit a man, they joyfully recognise each other, and he sweeps her off into his latest acquisition, an actual music shop selling gramophone records just down the road. He had acquired it by wheedling money out of Joan from her inheritance, but like everything else in his life it is a flop and he is getting ever more in debt. The two of them now turn into a kind of West London Bonnie and Clyde duo, as he smashes up his unsaleable records and they decide to elope together as romantic adventurers. This only lasts so long of course and they soon end up in an appalling bedsit where Arthur’s notion of initiative is to try and solve a jigsaw puzzle, whereupon angry Eileen insists in going out on the street again. There is reflex accusation from Arthur now, of her being a dirty slut, in much the same way that Joan had accused him in bed of being a dirty little beast, but by this stage neither the characters nor we the viewers seem to believe in this autopilot and factitious wrangling. It is much more convincing that Eileen becomes ever more assertive and amoral, for she declares she doesn’t mind the casual sex with strangers which means nothing to her anyway, but that she does like money and what it can buy. Eventually she gets involved with a powerful Tory MP played very ably by a wheezing and obese Ronald Fraser (1930-1997) best known from the 1970s TV series The Misfit. Pooh-poohing Arthur’s anxious protests, she decides she will blackmail the MP, for the quantity of money she is making by now has allowed them to rent a luxury flat and to dine in the best London restaurants where a bottle of good wine costs all of 7/6d. Her actual attempt at blackmail is stumblingly half-hearted and she soon scoots when the MP pretends to ring the police, so that the dramatic power gets lost in the wings somehow, and you ask yourself whether Dennis Potter, Kenith Trodd and Piers Haggard ever reflected as much when they later watched the show themselves on TV.
Finally a terrifying Nemesis looms, for the detective/ Dave King has decided he has enough evidence to convict Arthur and has had a mugshot of the man suspected of murdering the blind girl splashed all over the newspapers. The pair of them go on the road in earnest now, and end up sleeping in the barn of a mad farmer who comes across them with a shotgun as they are having carefree sex to console themselves as the hideous net closes. Eileen is inspired to taunt the crazy old man that they will perform for him if he doesn’t hurt them, and after he has put down the gun, she lifts it up and blasts him dead, in a fit of surreal hubris which indicates she is becoming more and more amoral and less and a less a fairytale princess. Improbable coincidence then looms all too conveniently, for the mad farmer turns out to be Arthur’s regimental commander during WW1, who injured during battle had had a metal plate inserted in his head and had obviously turned crazy since. Arthur eloquently laments his kindly commander but that doesn’t stop the pair of them emptying the house of valuables, including the commanders’s VC medal, which they reckon together will net them about £50.
Soon after the car breaks down and Bonnie and Clyde are nabbed by the Gloucestershire police, whereafter Arthur alone is transferred to London and eventual trial in the high court (parenthetically, why Eileen was not arrested for the mad farmer’s murder is never explained). In rapid order the prosecution barrister played by Peter Bowles (born 1936 qv the comedy series To The Manor Born) builds up a damning picture, for aside from the murder of the girl, this monster has been living a life of luxury thanks to his girlfriend’s immoral earnings. Arthur is speedily found guilty by the jury and transferred to a condemned cell where 2 kindly prison officers try and distract him with card games and later with tender reminiscences of childhood including schoolboy games of who can pee the highest. It is at this point and earlier in the court proceedings that the business of conflicting emotional registers to a considerable extent makes a complete nonsense of the entire drama, for just as Arthur as a character is all over the place, so those registers are all over the place and often making nil authentic imaginative sense. Thus in the court Peter Bowles when calling for the ultimate punishment for this monster suddenly obviates and effectively cancels all dramatic power by bursting into vaudeville song and sticking a straw boater on top of his wig. Even worse when the prison officers start guffawing about boyhood peeing competitions with the condemned man, they too along with Arthur suddenly burst into cheery 30s lyrics and a coloured rainbow forms above them, presumably the rainbow arcs mimicking the arcs of the pissing schoolboys of yesteryear. This chronic mismatch and effective destruction of aesthetic registers goes the whole way through the drama, so that when for example Joan, Arthur’s wife is telling the inspector about her husband’s perversions and his monstrous request that she rouge her nipples for his delectation, she goes from melodramatic censuring to sudden sprightly vaudeville and starts to pirouette around her sitting room with Dave King behind her doing a Strictly Come Dancing sequence three decades before anyone had heard of it.
Finally of course and you’ve guessed it, as principal fudge, after he has been hung and buried inside the prison, and Eileen is standing over the Thames planning possible suicide (reprising the Accordion Man who unable to bear his guilt as a murderer had finally drowned himself) Arthur the revenant springs out of nowhere, alive and well somehow, perkily informing Cheryl Campbell that their drama couldn’t possibly finish without a happy ending! So there you go, folks, and we might add, take it or leave it. But the important point worth stressing is that the overall feebleness in dramatic terms induced by excessive easy symbolism and the ad hoc clashing of emotional registers so that we go from e.g. sadness to vaudeville and then back again with no clear logic…that this was what Potter had to do by way of apprentice work before he could achieve the masterpieces (also laden with song and dance but integrally, subtly, and with imaginative consistency) of The Singing Detective and Lipstick On Your Collar. To stand back and put things in perspective, uneven, dated and at times quite ridiculous, Pennies from Heaven served its crucial constructive purpose, and to that extent we should be grateful that it took Potter along the path that would lead him to his greatest and remarkable achievements.