Writer: Dennis Potter
Director: Gavin Millar
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The teleplays of Dennis Potter use richly textured language and pop culture from various eras to elucidate his major themes of memory, sex, and deep religiosity. The crucible in which all of these elements worked to their utmost was The Singing Detective (1986), a 415-minute miniseries that showed a creator in complete command of his métier. Of course, the elaborate play of illness, fantasy, nostalgia, pop music of the 1930s, and love’s failures found in that herculean drama did not spring from Potter’s head fully formed. Six years earlier, Potter premiered Cream in My Coffee, a well-developed prototype for some of the more fanciful and rawly emotional elements of The Singing Detective. A drama of domestic disharmony, Cream in My Coffee moves between 1934, when Bernard Wishler (Peter Chelsom) and his girlfriend Jean (Shelagh McLeod) are trying on sex before marriage at Eastbourne’s posh Grand Hotel, and 1980, when Bernard (Lionel Jeffries) and Jean (Peggy Ashcroft) return to the seaside resort in an attempt to repair Bernard’s dying body and their cancerous marriage.
The grandiloquent world in which Bernard and Jean’s love flowers is already in decline, but patrons of the Victorian-era resort are determinedly taking no notice. A large contingent of impeccably appointed servants whose manners and solicitude have taken on an entitled edge attend to the ladies and gents who take tea to the strains of a string trio and dress in formal wear for dinner and dancing to the orchestra playing in the hotel’s grand ballroom. As Jean and Bernard move excitedly to their suite (“one of the best in the hotel,” their porter [Will Stampe] assures them), the sound of wooden curtain pulls knocking against a hall window attracts Jean to look out and admire the grounds. Once in the room, they marvel at how wonderful it is, as the porter stands ready to escort them to any corner of the suite, including the bedroom. A shy and embarrassed Bernard declines and overtips the porter. “I’m not good at these things,” he says to Jean, who is shocked by his extravagance.
The present-day trip to the same room is decidely less a shared thrill for the older Bernard and Jean. Jean, trying to get into the spirit of an enjoyable holiday, stops to admire the sound of the seagulls outside that same hall window. The porter (Leo Dolan) says the sound can make one quite barmy after a while; Bernard, assessing the porter, offers an insulting “clearly.” After a quick inspection of the room, Bernard can only say that it seems small and shabby. Jean says, “We’ve gotten used to better things,” and chirps that at least it’s close to home. “Close to the hospital you mean,” Bernard says. “No, close to home,” she retorts and then decides to unpack. Her hurry to settle in irritates her husband, though she says sensibly, “We don’t want our clothes to crease, do we?” Uttering this rhetorical question further angers Bernard, who accuses Jean of constantly trying to make up his mind for him.
The old saying that familiarity breeds contempt certainly applies to Jean and Bernard as they suffer their way through a long, ill-fated marriage. The two are from different social spheres, with Bernard the educated heir to a retailing fortune given to metaphorical thinking and Jean a literal-minded postal clerk who seems to live quite literally in the moment. Even during their romantic getaway, the pair fights constantly, with Bernard fearing looking ridiculous because of Jean’s obvious and gauche behavior while behaving like a snob and bigot himself. But familiarity in the biblical sense may be the worse problem. Although Jean and Bernard say they are to be married in September, it seems rather likely that Bernard could be exaggerating his commitment simply to bed Jean, whom he finds voluptuously beautiful. Jean is almost certainly not a virgin, and she flirts with Jack Butcher (Martin Shaw), the oily, seductive singer with the dance band, in front of Bernard. Despite his jealous protectiveness toward Jean, Bernard leaves her alone at the hotel to rush home on learning his father has been killed. She views his stiff arm to her involvement with his family as another slight to her standing in his life, gets drunk, and screws Butcher. Like other cuckoldings in Potter’s work, the long-term effects are corrosive.
Cream in My Coffee spends most of its time in the past, giving us a chance to contrast the elegance and romance of Empire England with the erosion not only of Jean and Bernard’s marriage, but also standards of service and cultural wit. The popular songs from the ’30s—a Potter trademark—are clever and danceable, certainly a huge improvement over the ’80s rock music the Wishlers are subjected to in the ballroom (“I want to go to the movies/Why don’t you take me to the movies/Flicker Flicker Flicker Flicker/Movies/Why don’t you take me to the movies”). Nonetheless, this seemingly graceful world is a worm-riddled phantom corporealized only within Victorian throwbacks like the Grand Hotel, and the changing times reveal not only what was lost, but also what needed to go. The mature Bernard is incredibly rude to the immigrant wait staff, hurling slurs with a venom that has Jean apologizing in embarrassment all through her meals, and Bernard’s unrestrained verbal abuse of his wife is shameful.
Watching Shaw lipsynch from the bandstand presages the look Michael Gambon would assume in The Singing Detective for his fantasy singing interludes. Butcher is a far more dubious character, however, than Philip Marlow, thus the lyrics, while offering an ideal of love to which Bernard and Jean aspire (“You’re the cream in my coffee/You’re the salt in my stew/You will always be my necessity/I’d be lost without you”), seem particularly hollow and ironic. The songs of sexual innuendo Shaw sings (“Thank your father/Thank your mother/Thank them both for meeting up with one another/Thank the horse that drew the buggy that night/Thank your dad for being just a bit tight”) seem more to the point.
The play offers beautiful dreams of happiness wrapped together with disappointment and death. Bernard enacts a sweet, almost childish seduction of Jean, only to be interrupted by the phone call informing him of his father’s death. The mature Jean watches some young men toss a young woman into the pool below their window despite her protests that she can’t swim. Her body sinks, and the boys jump in to rescue her, only to find she has been playing a trick on them. Most affecting, the knocking of the wooden curtain pulls spook Bernard every time he hears them, conjuring premonitions of death, “like knocking on your coffin,” he says with a shiver. The association of sex and death is plain and yet artfully rendered.
The production design and cinematography are particularly noteworthy for a television play. A gauzy glow inflects the flashbacks, but the present isn’t completely present. A warm sepia envelopes the modern hotel environs. Bernard complains about the old people in the sparsely populated tea room, seemingly unaware that he’s pushing 70 himself. Later, Bernard finds himself thrown back in time, hallucinating that the young people at the hotel for a dinner/dance of the type that was a nightly occurrence in his day are actually people from the ’30s. Some interesting camera angles frame Bernard and Jean as relics of the past; for example, in one scene, when Jean is returning to her room, a shadow of the Victorian ironwork in the hallway mixes with her shadow, as though she were a piece with it, as well as a prisoner of a bad choice made long ago.
Cream in My Coffee and two other Potter productions from 1980, Blade on the Feather and Rain on the Roof, are available on a three-DVD set called Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember. The set also includes Dennis Potter’s last interview. This collection, of which Cream in My Coffee is the standout, provides an excellent look at Potter’s work near the height of his powers.