13th 02 - 2014 | 4 comments »

Pennies from Heaven (1981)

Director: Herbert Ross

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

As a diehard fan of television playwright Dennis Potter, I have endeavored to view as many of his works as humanly possible. While some of his plays remain hard to secure, I had no explanation for the shamefully gaping hole in my Potter completism that comprised the TV and film versions of Pennies from Heaven. The 1978 miniseries starring Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Crawford as the marginalized losers trying to find happiness in 1930s London continues to elude me, but I don’t have to see the six-part, 450-minute miniseries from the BBC’s golden age of television drama to suspect that it is richer in story and characterization than the 108-minute film, even as adapted for the big screen by Potter himself. And thank heaven for that! Although MGM and Herbert Ross seem fairly obtuse about how Potter used pop music to increase the bitter irony of his plays, Potter’s story and sharp edges remain.

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It’s not hard to imagine the meeting that led to the greenlighting of this project. Coming off the surprise success of the indie film The Jerk (1979), Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters must have attracted the bean counters at MGM. Executive producer Rick McCallum was relatively untested, though this first taste of Potter would lead to many more creative projects with the writer, including Dreamchild (1985) and the miniseries “The Singing Detective” (1986) and “Blackeyes,” (1989). Herbert Ross had had a string of successes working with material from playwrights, like Arthur Laurents (The Turning Point [1977]) and Neil Simon (The Sunshine Boys [1975], The Goodbye Girl [1977], and California Suite [1978]), so working with a TV playwright must have seemed a great fit. Finally, the musical aspects of Pennies from Heaven must have been irresistible to “house of musicals” MGM.

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Whether or not you love the film Pennies from Heaven may depend upon your relative affinity with the Potter worldview. A man tormented by psoriatic arthritis, a condition that began in his 20s, Potter had an overweaning nostalgia for his childhood in the rural mining community of the Forest of Dean, in Glouchestershire, from which he was culturally separated by attending Oxford. He escaped from his physical pain and deforming condition through writing that drew on his life’s preoccupation with romantic fantasies surrounding women other than his wife, a longing for the idealized world portrayed in many popular songs from the 1930s, and a savage disappointment in the corruption and failures of those in whom he put his trust. Despite the particularity of Potter’s obsessions, his idealism and, as he put it, “tender contempt” for his naïve youth are touching, and his willingness to expose the sizeable warts on his own, as well as other people’s, bums offers an arresting honesty that’s fairly rare.

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The Ross-MGM Pennies from Heaven doesn’t completely jettison Potter’s critique of an immoral, delusional, sheet music salesman and the corrupt society in which he lives. In a twist on the usual New York setting for such films, Chicago is the town where traveling salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) makes his home. This choice may have been a way to tap into Chicago’s “city on the make” image as well as the Midwestern provincialism that would cause Arthur’s wife Joan (Jessica Harper) to hate sex and his mistress Eileen Everson (Bernadette Peters) to be fired from her school-teaching job in the hinterland Arthur visits for becoming an unwed mother-to-be. Arthur being Arthur, he threatens Joan with an abandonment he would never consider due to her sizable inheritance and promises Eileen that they will be together forever while giving her a fake address to keep her from finding him. Arthur gets the money he wants to start his own music store, as well as the lipsticked nipples Joan reluctantly reveals to him, as her peace offerings. Eileen gets a new name (Lulu), an abortion, and a new career in prostitution in the big city, where she and Arthur eventually reconnect. Pile on a mentally disturbed religious fanatic listed only as the Accordion Man (Vernel Bagneris) and a blind girl who gets murdered (Eliska Krupka), and the stage is completely set for a cynical night at the movies.

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That’s not what we get, however. Potter’s plays are not musicals; they only use musical interludes of lipsynching and simple dancing to suggest the state of mind of the characters—and usually only one character—that does not necessarily reflect the rosy lyrics of true love, prosperity or naughty flirtation contained in the period songs. The Ross-MGM Pennies from Heaven largely transforms Potter’s very dark tale into a literal homage to 1930s musicals, with 17 different musical numbers. It has the economic misery of the Great Depression in common with its most obvious model, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Ross stages numerous Busby-Berkeley-inspired production numbers; the title tune “Pennies from Heaven” is outlandishly choreographed, with the chorus girls sporting the penny hats from the “We’re in the Money” number in Gold Diggers of 1933. If only some of these production numbers approached the poignancy and bitterness of Gold Diggers’ “Remember My Forgotten Man.” Alas, the film adopts the strategy of using the lyrics to tell the story, a technique that postdates the period Ross is recreating.

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I found the musical interludes confusing. In a modern musical, it makes sense for Arthur to lipsynch “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” when he first sees the beautiful Eileen. But whose fantasy is “Let’s Misbehave”? Is it Eileen’s, when she first meets Tom (Christopher Walken), a pimp who does a striptease to reveal a tattoo heart on his chest with “Lulu” scrawled across it? Or is it Tom’s, who might be trying to entice Eileen to come into his stable? Maybe it’s both, as when Arthur and Eileen mimic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” on the stage of the movie theatre where they are seeing Follow the Fleet (1936). Frankly, I don’t think it matters all that much to this film, and thus, the consequences Arthur faces for a crime he didn’t commit—or the sense that perhaps he deserves to be punished on general principle for his boorish, lying behavior and business failure—don’t come into focus. When Joan screams, “Cut his thing off and bury it,” we can’t share her sense of rage; indeed, by 1981, more people would be angry with Joan for being such a frigid bitch than would blame Arthur for cheating on her and pushing her to give in to his kinks and dreams.

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I don’t think Steve Martin was ready to play this role. He has considerable acting chops, but he was still very new to dramatic acting when Pennies from Heaven was made, and was still afflicted with the comedians’ curse, the need to please, that kept the savage fires safely below the grate. There are moments when Arthur is cruel and dangerously lascivious, but Martin is helped neither by Ross nor the tame approach to the material to bring them roaring to life. Better cast are Bernadette Peters and Jessica Harper, who burrow deep to bring out some interesting shades in their characters. The scenes with the blind girl and the Accordion Man are confusing as to location and timing, and I blame these miscues on bad editing forced by the studio. The one completely unmitigated joy in the film is Christopher Walken. We all know he can play crazy mean, but who knew he could do a striptease that even Gypsy Rose Lee would envy. He is perfect, but with only one scene, the pleasure is short-lived.

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I think it’s rather telling that the go-go 80s started with a mixed-message musical that seems prescient about how the socioeconomic fortunes of the country would go. The blind brutality of a narcissistic schemer, the moralizing vengeance of a rich woman, and the mostly willing descent into prostitution of a small-town girl are redeemed by lavish costumes and sets, perfectly executed production numbers, and a mandated happy ending—which, of course, Potter wrote himself as the measure of denial toward which we were heading. Even if the film had gotten everything right, it was destined to be the flop it was. We just didn’t want to know.


30th 01 - 2011 | 6 comments »

Cream in My Coffee (TV, 1980)

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.


9th 09 - 2008 | 11 comments »

Persons of Interest: Dennis Potter

A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Yesterday and today, as I read the fallout of MSNBC’s decision to demote Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann from their anchor duties for the 2008 General Election, I saw feminists hail it as a welcome kick out the door to two of television’s most popular and voluble misogynists. The United States’ “paper of record,” which I have demoted by not naming it, cites the following: “The McCain campaign has filed letters of complaint to the news division about its coverage and openly tied MSNBC to it. Tension between the network and the campaign hit an apex the day Mr. McCain announced Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.”

The paper made no mention of the fact that both Matthews and Olbermann tarred presidential candidate Hillary Clinton repeatedly over the course of her campaign with misogynistic language (maybe because the newspaper’s columnists did, too) and that the network refused to rein either of them in by demoting them despite repeated complaints from Senator Clinton’s campaign staff, Media Matters, and the National Organization for Women. Clearly, when Republican presidential candidates talk, major media listens. Don’t look for Sarah Palin to get the same treatment the former First Lady did at this newspaper or other major media outlets.

Upset about the further degradation of civic discourse as I used to know it, I suddenly found myself thinking about the last interview BBC writer Dennis Potter gave before his untimely death in 1994. This deeply intelligent, self-aware man brimming with appetites, ideas, nostalgia, and a clear-eyed understanding of social intercourse and the ways it can be twisted and degraded is best known around the world for his television series The Singing Detective, a brutal, inventive, compassionate look at a tormented soul that puts most television dramas to shame. I find it ironic that the demotion of two real misogynists by a cynical network with a political agenda was the type of act predicted by a man who was wrongly accused of being a misogynist for his sexually charged series Blackeyes, which sought to reveal how men, “the newest ruling class” according to Potter, use and coerce women as things. This comment and many others in these, his last public words, lift me out of the mire of media, politics, and commercial slop by which I feel assaulted on a daily basis.

Fortunately, YouTube has Dennis Potter’s last interview, Without Walls: An Interview with Dennis Potter, available. Watching any part for however long you can is worth the time. Watching the interview in its entirety just might change your life.


13th 08 - 2006 | 2 comments »

The Singing Detective (TV, 1986)

Director: Jon Amiel
Writer: Dennis Potter

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can’t do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right? I can sing the singing. I can think the thinking. But you’re not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir. —Detective Philip Marlow, The Singing Detective

In 1986, the 6-part miniseries The Singing Detective exploded onto British TV screens like a bomb during the Blitz—a bold, inventive exploration into the heart of darkness and the rise to redemption of one man, Philip E. Marlow, a writer of detective novels who suffers from a horrifying case of psoriatic arthropathy. Reactions were equally strong, and mixed. Some viewers decried the play (as writer Dennis Potter and his colleagues always called them) as obscene and an unpleasant way to relax at home. Others were moved by the raw emotional journey of a deeply troubled man. When the series came to U.S. television the following year, the raves were unanimous. Dennis Potter had conquered America.

Dennis Potter was the son of a miner who grew up in the Forest of Dean, on the English side of the border with Wales in Glochestershire. A rural, isolated place with a unique, archaic dialect, the Forest was Potter’s refuge and creative source after he had left it for an education at Oxford and a successful career as a writer of television plays during the golden age of television drama at the BBC. While all of Potter’s plays deal with his obsessions, particularly sex, The Singing Detective is his most autobiographical work.

Potter suffered from chronic psoriatic arthropathy, a disfiguring illness characterized by inflamed, flaking skin and pain and stiffness in the joints. Potter had to wear pajamas under his clothes with their pantlegs tucked into his socks to prevent a trail of dead skin from following him wherever he went. He spent considerable time in hospital, and that is where his stand-in, Marlow (Michael Gambon), spends the duration of this series, lost in a sea of memories, fever-induced delirium, and battles with patients, doctors, nurses, and his wife Nicola (Janet Suzman).

When we first encounter Marlow, it is on his admittance to the mockingly named Sherpa Tensay ward of a London hospital inhabited primarily by cardiac patients. Most have been confined to their beds there for a long time, and their peculiarities are on full display. Mr. Hall (David Ryall) is a fussy, lonely complainer who is irritated routinely with Reginald (Gerard Horan), whose bed is next to Hall’s but who constantly has his nose in a detective novel. (Later, Reggie and Hall will be surprised that the author of the book Reggie is reading, The Singing Detective, has been sharing their ward with them.) We get an immediate sense of the boredom and rhythms of the ward as Hall squabbles to a half-listening Reggie and mumbles across the room at the loathsome Nurse White (Imelda Staunton), who has yet again started the beverage trolley rounds on the other side of the room.

Marlow arrives bellowing in pain and yelling at the orderly to draw the curtains around his bed as he changes into his pajama top. When we see the horrible flaking on his back, we understand the humiliation Marlow must be feeling. It is compounded when the pretty Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley) rubs grease on his thighs, causing him to have an erection and climax on her. He tries to explain, but only succeeds in embarrassing her and himself more. Marlow is emotionally and sexually repressed, and it is tempting to consider his outward appearance a reflection of an inner filth.

Soon thereafter, a team of doctors comes to visit him. The senior physician asks questions of Marlow, only to be answered by the attending doctors who flank him. In a fit of pique, Marlow interjects, “Why is it when you lose your health the entire medical profession takes it as axiomatic you’ve also lost your mind?” and then begins a tearful, impassioned plea for understanding. The doctors, bone dry of the milk of human kindness, immediately discuss a mental health consult and start naming medications to improve his attitude. At this point, Marlow hallucinates an incredible production number to the song “Dry Bones” and featuring lip-synching and dancing doctors, nurses in white showgirl costumes, and gaudy lighting.

The musical numbers are a large part of this work, all songs from the 30s, and all lip-synched as Marlow’s father used to do at a local Forest pub. Potter was a man who believed in the ideals expressed in these songs, that life really was full of love and purest longing. The contrasting of such tunes as “After You’ve Gone,” “The Teddy Bear Picnic,” and “We’ll Meet Again,” with the harsh realities of the ward, Marlow’s condition, and the crucible traumas Marlow suffered as a boy both reflect and deflect real events.

Marlow also writes a new Singing Detective novel in his head to pass the time, a tale of espionage that involves a client named Mark Binney (Patrick Malahide) who comes to the character of Detective Marlow after a Russian whore he met the night before in the Skinskapes nighclub and slept with ends up dead in the Thames. The imaginative scenes use the language of a Raymond Chandler novel, not the sort of thing Marlow had set out to write. When asked by Dr. Gibbon (Bill Paterson), the psychotherapist he finally agrees to see, what sort of writer he really would have wanted to be, Marlow gives the somewhat surprising answer that he would have wanted to write praises to a loving and merciful god. Yet he heaps contempt upon some evangelical Christians led by one of the doctors who invade the ward for a revival meeting. When the doctor loses his temper and says, “those who are not with us are against us,” we realize that Marlow may not be as jaded as he seems and can smell a phony a mile away.

Or can he? He is also filled with paranoia, particularly toward his wife, whom he believes is trying to steal a screenplay from him for her lover, Finney (Malahide), to pass off as his own to a Hollywood producer. This paranoid fantasy intercuts with memories Dr. Gibbon stirs of his childhood in the Forest, his parents’ unhappy marriage, and an injustice he committed against a schoolmate that has haunted him all his life. The series intercuts each thread–the present, the hallucinations, the past, and the novel–as a kind of detective story of its own. We try to piece together the “truth” along with Marlow, and are fed clues—fragments of scenes that grow longer and more revealing as the series moves along and we watch Marlow progress physically and emotionally. It boggles the mind how Potter sustained and expanded upon all these threads over the course of nearly seven hours. The writing is literate and absolutely brilliant, and the cinematography and direction give us parallel movements (a raised hand reminds Marlow of his father [Jim Carter] waving good-bye at a train station) and line readings that can be interpreted in more than one way. He even leaves us with one “truth” about Philip’s mother of which we may never be sure.

The cast is first-rate. I found Lyndon Davies, the young actor who plays Philip at age 10, particularly spellbinding. His earnest, open feelings and sad face while he prays to God from the top of a tree give the poignancy needed to feel sympathy for the adult Marlow at his most venomous. Michael Gambon’s tour de force performance ranks among the finest you will ever see on stage, screen, or television.

A work of this magnitude has many, many surprises and rewards I will leave for the viewer to discover, not the least of which is the exquisite evocation of the Forest of Dean and its people. What is most important about The Singing Detective is the profoundly unsparing humanity it offers its audience. No, this is not a show of escapism. This is meat and sinew, bone and blood. This is nourishment for the mind and the soul, both of which were deeply precious to Potter. Thank goodness there was a time when television writers talked up, not down, to their audience. Let’s hope such a time comes again.

Dennis Potter contributed the screenplay for the 2003 film The Singing Detective, starring Robert Downey, Jr. This is a highly truncated, but still interesting work that I enjoyed. DVD recordings of The Singing Detective miniseries are available. The BBC Video version has a nice extras disc with reactions to the show from the time, an interview with Potter, and a short documentary about Potter, among other features. Finally, a viewing of Dennis Potter: The Last Interview is a must.


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