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Dennis Potter's PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is a masterpiece of both style and
substance. It is a masterpiece of style in that it vividly conjures the
look and atmosphere of mid 1930s England. This setting perfectly
complements the original recordings of Depression era songs that emerge
the characters' mouths when they try to express themselves. It is a
masterpiece of substance in that it is a riveting drama, sometimes
exhilarating, sometimes poignant, sometimes both simultaneously.
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN dramatizes the trials and tribulations of Arthur Parker (Bob Hoskins), a song sheet salesman who unceasingly hopes the lyrics of the music he tries to peddle will become reality. It is a compelling story not only because of the novel use of lip synching to illustrate Parker's and the other characters' fantasies, but because of Potter's stark contrast between the songs' cheery lyrics and the characters' troubled lives. PENNIES also benefits from the cast's persuasive performances, especially Hoskins, Gemma Craven as his repressed wife Joan and Cheryl Campbell as a shy schoolteacher Arthur's infatuated with. One feels great empathy for the characters, even though they are flawed, because one can easily identify with their wishes and frustrations.
On one level, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is a chilling cautionary tale- a warning that dreams of paradise are folly because life is cruel and hard. On another level, it is an inspiring story of hope- that even when life is at its most grim, we can always lift our spirits with those same dreams. Whatever message one may perceive, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is thoroughly moving and absorbing, a testimony to the late Dennis Potter's genius.
I was 14 when Pennies From Heaven came out on our TV. The year was
1989. I didn't see it from the start and I was very fortunate indeed
than I managed to see it at all. I always remember that magical moment
when I saw three women dancing and singing "You Rascal You". From that
moment I was totally hooked. I hardly could wait the next week
episodes, and after them I was floating somewhere in the sky for
After that TV-series I have never seen anything else which has affected me as it did. There was some magical aura about it, something which you can hardly explain. The actors were great, especially Sherilyn Campbell were adorable. Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in that movie version were nothing compared to these original 'lovebirds'. And of course those songs, those wonderful partly forgotten old dance numbers were the salt and soul in Pennies From Heaven.
I think it goes without saying that the Brits are geniuses of making great TV-drama. And that TV-series is an unique example of their craftsmanship in that area.
To evaluate Pennies from Heaven solely in terms of its use of 1930s
dance tunes is at best blinkered and at worst deeply stupid. What
Potter did with those tunes was to point up how his characters sought
refuge in what now would be called 'pop culture' to escape the grim
realities of the time - and he was writing about the 1930s: the
Depression, Fascism, Stalinism, etc. And Potter was genuinely fond of
the 30s tunes that were used: I don't think the series mocks the songs
at all, but their up-beat denial of misery is what makes their use so
powerful as they counterpoint the characters' despair.
Whatever else Dennis Potter might have done (I am not an unqualified fan) this series is just about the greatest drama series ever seen on British TV; except, that is, for Potter's last word on his 'lip-sync' method, The Singing Detective, from 1987.
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
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Occasionally a work comes along whose mood is so unique and so vividly communicated that it can't be forgotten. This is one of those. The feeling in it that clutches at one right away is that of desperation. I don't know of another work in any medium that conveys it so intensely as this does in the opening scenes of Bob Hoskins's character trying, and failing, to get it across to his thunderingly oblivious wife. He wants so little and he can't get it, can't understand it, can't even express it except that it's what's in the songs he sells. He's troubled by his sexual desires, is perhaps even more troubled by his glimmers of spiritual yearning, in his feelings for the blind girl, and is too simple to sort it all out. The woman who's able to take him out of it, for a brief space anyhow, amazingly embodies everything that the songs promised but that he never hoped to see realized, and his gratified delight, blooming unexpectedly out of his life of despair, is very inspiring--ironically so since his behavior toward her has been shameful and her behavior worse, by conventional standards, and will become worse still, to the point that he finds himself embroiled in a lot more than he bargained for. "Why?" he asks; "Because I felt like it," she says, and he sees her point: never before were they been able to do what they felt like, and this is it, for better or worse. It's his way out, if it is a way out; the story is profoundly, irresolvably ambiguous about it, to the last minute. Was he--are we--damned from the outset? Asked where things went wrong, he says the day he was born. Or are we saved from the outset? The story says we couldn't go through all this without a happy ending--just like the songs. Is what they have to offer a fantasy, or a glimpse of the only thing worth holding on to? All this is just a tiny fraction of all that could be said about the series. Dennis Potter never did anything like as good again (and neither has anyone else); Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell gave the performances of their careers, in roles most actors would die for. Every part was a great part; every scene was something that had never been seen before. There are faults, too, but they only point up what an amazing achievement this was. (To its admirers the film version must seem catastrophic.) And when it isn't sad, very funny. This is the best television I ever expect to see.
This series first aired when I was completing my school career and
encouraged me to watch other Dennis Potter work. I have watched re-runs
and the series on DVD many times since and I am still struck by new and
startling elements in it's writing. It is one of the finest pieces of
television the BBC ever produced. Dennis Potter was a unique talent
with an ear for how people spoke and the ability to cut through the
words to get to the truth. Not all his work was to the standard of
Pennies From Heaven but it was always engaging and thought-provoking.
This series is in the top 25 of the BFI's poll of best television and
If you have never seen it, watch it and if you saw it years ago, it bears re-watching. Great writing like this always offers something new and fresh.
Thanks to the PBS Network, KCET 28 Los Angeles, I was able to see "Pennies From Heaven" years ago during a tribute to writer, Dennis Potter. I throughly enjoyed this tv mini-series. To be honest in this review, I did not get to see the last episodes of "Pennies From Heaven" because my VHS video tape cut off after six hours of recording. The last scene I saw was when Bob Hoskins and the blonde lady were eating at a ritzy restaurant and had just tasted the wine. But I throughly enjoyed all that I had seen. The drama, the comedy and the good ole music is fantastic. Bob Hoskins is a young 36 in this film. Handsome and dashing. He is perfect in the lead role. It is fun to watch him lip-syncing. Bob Hoskins acting is the best and the top. His clarity of emotions that he brings forth (to the camera, to the viewer) is impeccable. Oh, how I wish this fine production were available on VHS video or DVD. I guess the only chance of seeing this tv mini-series again is if the PBS network in Los Angeles broadcasts it again. The 25th Anniversary of this "Pennies From Heaven" tv-mini-series is on March 7, 2003.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I just saw this on DVD, after seeing the film with Steve Martin, which
I also thought was good, but this version is great. I am inspired to
write my first comment for IMD after seeing this. Don't miss this. It
had me in tears and laughing. So many truths about life, exposing what
idiots we humans are, and what really makes life worth living.
It appears that Chicago (the musical) was also inspired by the trial sequence (absent in the movie version).
The whole story is better in this long format.
What a creative geniuses Potter was. The abrupt changes of movie format (people breaking out singing in voices not there own) has an effect that must be experienced.
The way it points out the hypocrisies re sex is great (one is tempted to say "we are past all that now", but are we?).
I remember seeing this on TV when it first came out. I was changing
channels, and here were these woman, tap dancing on a coffin, lip syncing,
"I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you." I was
It was the first time I ever saw Bob Hoskins, who managed to make a character who was truly awful somehow loveable.
It's a depression-era story, and while the story itself is grim, somehow the telling is joyful, with the cast breaking into "song." The songs are wonderful old songs, and they just mouth to them, and it creates a surreal feeling, but one that works, because it's as if this is what they are feeling (and could have felt at the time in the vernacular of the old songs).
The whole telling of this story is so original and vivid that you must watch it when you can.
==> Don't confuse this with the movie version, directed by Herbert Ross, with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters has spectacular production values (unfortunately, the biggest production number was actually cut), but Steve Martin, great as he is, just doesn't make you like and feel for him the way Hoskins does. Bernadette is sufficiently waif-like, but she lacks Gemma Craven's grittiness.
Christopher Walken is the highlight of the film, doing an incredible song/dance/striptease on a bar that shows what a great dancer he is.
With all the characters suddenly bursting into song, thankfully mimed to the original artists, this series made new ground. Very entertaining, lots of obscure but brilliant supporting actors, and a great script. The central role was brilliantly portrayed by Hoskin's frustrated salesman, trying to be taken seriously but also looking for satisfaction from his hopelessly frigid wife. His lust interest is one of those women who ooze sex appeal, and it's easy to understand how a man could fall when confronted with such unbridled passion. The whole series focuses on repressed desires and imagined hopes, as expressed by the episodes of song and dance. Notable is the courtroom scene in which the entire jury bursts into a routine. One to buy and keep.
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