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Arthur, a sheet music salesman, has an ear for the hit tunes, but nobody will trust it. And his imagination often bursts into full song, building musical numbers around the greatest frustrations in his life. He meets an innocent young school teacher, Eileen, who seems to hear the same music, but when Eileen learns that he's married, and that she's pregnant with his child, she runs away. Arthur gives up everything to find and protect her, but fate and the music haven't finished with Arthur Parker. Written by
The BBC original was composed of six episodes, each a bit over an hour long. Their titles are: 1: Down Sunny Side Lane 2: Love Is The Sweetest Thing 3: Easy Come, Easy Go 4: Better Think Twice 5: Painting The Clouds 6: Says My Heart See more »
Hang on! I've got an itchy conk. I said hang on! Will somebody scratch me nose for me? Bloody hell.
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A rich and complicated musical parable from the mind of Dennis Potter
By the time Pennies From Heaven was first broadcast in the spring of 1978, writer Dennis Potter had already attracted a fair share of positive and negative criticism for his preceding works, Moonlight on the Highway, Double Dare and Casanova. This troika of bleak works, all of which were deeply self-referential and used the subtext of popular songs as an underpinning for the dark themes lurking beneath the polite veneer of normality, would very much define the style and concept of Pennies From Heaven; with Potter being awarded a greater degree of control over his material for the first time following the success of the three plays listed above and of course, the mass tabloid controversy surrounding his previous work, Brimstone and Treacle. Despite the originality of those plays, it is safe to say that this was a definite turning point for Potter, and a work of unbridled and undiluted creativity that would go towards the creation of later classics like The Singing Detective, Black Eyes and Blue Remembered Hills.
The plot, as covered in more detail by other reviewers, seems fairly simplistic. Arthur, a amiable working-class Cockney, is trapped in a sexless marriage with staunched middle-class wife Joan, works long hours as a travelling sheet-music salesman, partakes of the occasional affair and, indulges himself in bouts of wild exaggeration amongst the other familiar-faced salesmen that he meets on his weekly rounds. For Arthur, this isn't just a job, but also an escape (both literal - in the sense that it gets him out of the house and away from the watchful eyes of polite society - and metaphoric, also), as he takes solace in the words and music of the romantic ballads that he foists upon local music shop stockists for the odd bob or too. The way in which Potter uses the songs and the way in which they have been integrated into the action is superb and still seems revolutionary some thirty years after the programme's initial conception, as is the opening scene, in which Arthur gazes wistfully into the bathroom mirror before suddenly breaking into song - or maybe not - as the rough and very much manly Arthur is merely lip-synching to some heartbreaking ode sung by some delicate young woman! This first instance of musical underpinning - as Potter not only hints at Arthur's state of mind through the contemplative lyrics, but also hints at a deeper fragility and sensitivity that is often lost in the pursuit of macho bravado - is still completely astounding, with Potter and director Piers Haggard setting a scene that is surreal, fanciful and entirely fabricated, but also overflowing with pain, angst, longing and degradation.
It is important for us to remember that Arthur, although out of step with the repressed, stiff-upper-lipped society in which he inhabits, is a creature desperate for love and physical understanding. His actions throughout the series might suggest otherwise (the frustration, sexual tension and occasional bouts of misogyny), he nonetheless is capable of moments of real warmth and tenderness, which is best illustrated in his growing relationship with Eileen. Although very much about Arthur and his journey, Potter also offers us two very complex female characters with Joan, Arthur's prim and proper wife of traditional middle-class values, and Eileen, the naïve yet passionate schoolteacher from the sheltered reaches of the forest of Dean (a continual point of influence in Potter's work). Both women love Arthur despite his actions and the reactions of those around him, and yet, we are left questioning throughout as to whether or not Arthur is the mind-mannered, though sexually frustrated dreamer we originally though, or if he is, perhaps, something much darker, and more predatory?
It would be wrong to go into any greater detail regarding the deeper implications of the plot, not least for those who have yet to see the programme, but also, because I'm not entirely sure I've grasped everything that Potter was suggesting. Like his later masterpiece The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven is a series that works on multiple levels. On the one hand, it's a character piece... a journey for the character tied neatly into a format of the "road-movie". On top of that, it's a morality story... a play on the notion of fidelity and infidelity, love and lust, longing and perversion. On top of this we have a police story blurred by elements of self-referentialism, and then we have the music! The music is perfectly chosen, not only fitting the mood of the scene that it accompanies, but also revealing more about the characters and their situations through the lyrics and the tone of the singer's delivery. Sometimes the use of music can be comedic (or, darkly comedic), like, for example, in The Bad Man number, or it can be quite sinister; like the piece with the accordion man in the homeless shelter. More often, however, it evokes the sadness and longing at the heart of the characters.
The choreography, lighting, design and direction is impeccable throughout, with the crew using the limitation of having to combine studio filming and location filming to their advantage, by further juxtaposing the real with the surreally fabricated. Although it's not as great as the Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven is no less a work of bold genius. Though at times it can be quite frustrating, it is, nonetheless, a series that benefits greatly from multiple viewings, with each new viewing revealing further interpretations that we may have previously missed. The performances from the three leads are all great and help to carry the emotional weight of the project well, although it is the lead performances from Bob Hoskins as the complicated Arthur that is the real draw. Like most of the work of Dennis Potter, Pennies From Heaven is a rich and complex musical parable that has stood the test of time perfectly.
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