The bleak series (with each show running about 80 minutes) is set in England in 1935, during the Great Depression, focusing on four individuals. Cockney Arthur Parker (Bob Hoskins) is an unsuccessful sheet music salesman. Married into money, the uneducated, Great War veteran lives with devoted traditional wife Joan (Gemma Craven). She loves her husband but is resolutely frigid, and Arthur's obsession with sex, the kinkier the better, only exacerbates their troubled marriage.
On a sales trip to Gloucester, Arthur meets a pathetic tramp, an epileptic Accordion Man (Kenneth Colley) who plays, badly, nothing but hymns on street corners. In Gloucester, Arthur also encounters a beautiful, virginal schoolteacher, Eileen (Cheryl Campbell), with whom Arthur eventually begins an affair. The four lives intertwine and parallel one another in continually fascinating ways.
To reveal any more would be unfair to first-time viewers: see the show.
Oh, yes. One more thing. Throughout all six episodes, characters frequently mime popular, often sentimental songs of the period. "Roll Along, Prairie Moon," "Down Sunnyside Lane," and, of course, "Pennies from Heaven" to name but three. By design the effect is stunningly dislocating and non-natural. In the first scene, Arthur lip-synchs to Elsie Carlisle's "The Clouds will Soon Roll By," and the effect of Hoskins' mime to a scratchy, early recording by a female vocalist sets the unique style of the program.
During these numbers, the characters sometimes dance to the music, sometimes not. The lighting will frequently change, and at times the numbers have a surreal or even horrifying quality.
Most reviews assert the purpose of these mostly cheery musical numbers is to ironically contrast the bleakness of the characters' unhappy lives, that the songs represent the interior emotions and fantasies of the characters. That's true to a point, but the use of music at times goes far beyond simple irony, sometimes becoming rather like religious psalms (as Potter himself has suggested). At other times they're used purely to express a specific emotional moment, and at other times still the effect isn't clear at all, other than serving to dig deeper into the characters' psyche. Mostly, the effect just feels right and is, perhaps, unexplainable.
The cumulative effect though is one of great emotional and psychological honesty. Rarely have television characters been given such three-dimensional probing. Rarer still is that Hoskins' Arthur is exceedingly unlikable, if sympathetic -- a crude, lying, self-involved loser. Indeed, all four main characters are deeply troubled individuals who, over the course of the six shows, fall even deeper into an uncomfortable realm of depression and insanity. Similarly, Pennies from Heaven is almost remarkably frank and adult in matters of sex, with complex (and often equally uncomfortable) sexual relationships explored with similar depth. The exceedingly well-constructed teleplays take on a real poetry alien to most American and British television and its audiences, and like the best poetry, deconstructing it is almost beside the point.
The series is challenging and despairing, and yet through it all Pennies from Heaven is never less than absolutely mesmerizing.
The series made Bob Hoskins an unlikely star, and should have done likewise for Gemma Craven and especially Cheryl Campbell (Chariots of Fire, Greystoke), the latter going through a character metamorphosis unlike any other.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Kenneth Colley, perhaps ironically best known the world over as the beleaguered Admiral Piett in the first Star Wars trilogy, gives an almost clinically real performance. Freddie Jones, an actor capable of great hamminess (in the best, Vincent Price sense of the word), is equally fine as Eileen's schoolmaster, whose last scene with Campbell is quite touching. Ronald Fraser, the beady-eyed, squashed-nose character actor memorable as the rebellious Sgt. Watson in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), is very good in the antithesis of that role, as a stuffy, hypocritical M.P. Peter Bowles, Barrister Guthrie Featherstone on Rumpole of the Bailey, plays virtually the same part in Pennies from Heaven.
Video & Audio
As with nearly all British shows of the period, Pennies from Heaven was shot in an uneasy mix of 16mm film (for exteriors and location interiors) and videotape (for studio interiors). The effect is rather jarring for those living in countries where this practice isn't the norm, though director Piers Haggard does his utmost to soften the effect by filtering the video footage, in a partially successful attempt to make it look more unified. English subtitles are included, which helpfully indentify song titles and their performers at the beginning of each number. I found this feature especially useful during the songs as a way to focus on their lyrics, and because the early recordings are sometimes hard to make out.
Beyond a meager Photo Gallery, the main extra is an Audio Commentary with Director Piers Haggard and Producer Kenith Trodd on episodes 1 and 6. Their conversation is an important supplement, shedding light as it does on some of the more complex ambitions of the program. The commentary tracks are somewhat hidden; one has to go through the "Set Up" menu to access them.
In their commentary, Haggard and Trodd attempt to define Pennies from Heaven in terms of genre, finally, aptly settling on what they describe as "Potter genre." Dennis Potter's television plays were groundbreaking but they were also like no other. Attempts to film Potter's TV scripts as movies, or adapt his techniques in new material (remember Cop Rock?) have mostly met with disaster. But with shows like Pennies from Heaven finally available in the U.S. (this DVD marks Pennies American home video debut), Dennis Potter's very great legacy can be explored at long last.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.