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This Dennis Potter (Karaoke, Cold Lazarus) production from 1993 finds the writer once again employing what had become one of his most recognizable stylistic trademarks: quirky and surreal musical interludes in which the show's daydreaming main character imagines himself and his close associates to be miming performances of established popular songs. The lyrical content of the songs usually serves to reflect the emotions being experienced by a key character or to underline key narrative developments but in some cases the lyrics also inspire interesting, music video-like visual ideas and dance choreography. A similar approach worked to great effect in Potter's earlier Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective and it works pretty well here too. Set in England during the 1950s, Lipstick on Your Collar showcases a fine selection of rollicking period tunes by the likes of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Fats Domino.
Outside of work, Private Francis lodges with his Aunt Vickie (Maggie Steed) and her eccentric husband Fred (Bernard Hill) and he soon becomes infatuated with a stunning blonde cinema usherette, Sylvia (Louise Germaine), who occupies the top floor of their house. At night, Francis can hear that Sylvia is trapped in an unhappy marriage and he dreams of offering her a better life. However, any relationship between the cultured and sensitive Francis and the brassy, good-time girl Sylvia seems doomed from the start. The fact that a sleazy and obsessive cinema organist, Harold Atterbow (Roy Hudd), has convinced Sylvia to accept cash in return for sexual favours doesn't help matters. Across town, Private Hopper lands a dream date with Trekker's visiting niece, Lisa (Kimberley Huffman). Unfortunately, the learned American girl's romantic outlook clashes badly with Hopper's earthy rock 'n' roll lifestyle.
Dennis Potter tended to apply a leisurely pace to the opening episodes of his longer television series-based works and that's certainly the case with Lipstick on Your Collar. A good portion of the show's first episode is devoted to introducing the desk-bound military men and detailing the officious and tedious goings on that make up their daily routine. Potter's pacing here effectively telegraphs the boredom and frustration felt by these formerly-active-in-the-field military types. Although the men dress in civilian clothes, normal army discipline and protocol is in force at all times and the War Office thus becomes a kind of microcosm that reflects the British class system: the posh, private club-attending officers lord it over the rough and ready, pub-attending corporal and his lowly National Service privates, who are expected to act in a suitably deferential manner at all times. Director Renny Rye's establishing shots of the over-sized and ornate office -- which show the officers trapped behind big desks, separated by huge swathes of floor space that make normal verbal communication nearly impossible and dwarfed by imposing walls that stretch up towards ostentatiously high ceilings -- give the impression that these men are now tiny and insignificant cogs in Britain's fast faltering Imperial military machine.
The one thing that all of the men seemingly do have in common -- regardless of their rank or class -- is the acute sense of boredom that they find in their work. Major Hedges counters his boredom by intermittently voicing peculiar but wholly inappropriate obscenities in order to get a headmasterly reaction from the staid Colonel Bernwood. Private Hopper's way of beating the boredom is much more entertaining. When he's not using his daydreams to bring his naked Dream Girl (Carrie Leigh) to life, he's using them to live out his fantasies of rock 'n' roll stardom. Hopper's musical daydreams usually involve himself and other members of the office performing classic rock 'n' roll songs. Hopper looks the part, convincingly imagining himself to be Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, et al, but some humorous sequences arise when the older officers are seen strutting their stuff in a rocking manner.
Initially these musical fantasy sequences can feel just a little too contrived but the quality of the songs that Potter chose to underpin them means that most viewers will stick around long enough to become fully accustomed to the highly idiosyncratic storytelling techniques that the playwright is employing here. We soon learn to recognize the visual cues that indicate that a fantasy sequence is about to kick in (a stylish change of lighting, Hopper adopting a devilish grin, etc) and the musical interludes quickly become accepted as completely natural parts of the show's formal make-up. Before long, a number of the show's characters are having fantasies, daydreams or flashbacks of one kind or another and some of these flights of fancy appear to be communal in nature. Rock 'n' roll imagery is not featured in all of the musical fantasies: a number of the more surreal fantasy sequences come on like wild fusions of visual motifs associated with the British music hall, pantomime and end-of-the-pier show traditions.
When the Suez Crisis arises, Britain's status as a world power is questioned and Colonel Bernwood and his fellow officers feel humiliated and outraged. Brought up to believe in and fight for the British Empire, these chaps are confounded by the way that Britain's leaders are unable to decide upon a speedy response to the crisis. Such concerns are of little worry to Hopper or Francis. Hopper is too busy becoming part of a new and exciting working class subculture: rock 'n' roll, dance halls, coffee shops, hot girls and his drum kit are all that matter to him. In this respect he has a lot in common with Sylvia who is also -- thanks to the Pathe-style newsreels that are screened in her cinema -- wrapped up in fantasies about celebrity culture, consumerism and dancing. Lost in his love for the work of Chekhov, Pushkin and the like, Francis finds it hard to relate to Sylvia's more populist interests but he succeeds in building a relationship of sorts with her. Theatre-loving Lisa would be his ideal date but he remains ignorant of the fact that she shares his passion for classical Russian literature.
Spread over the course of six hour-long episodes, Lipstick on Your Collar really comes into its own when its action switches to events taking place outside of the War Office. Potter's take on political/military satire works well enough but this is essentially a story that is populated with passionate characters who can only truly express themselves when they're freed from the officious confines of their workplace. Alas, when these passions are allowed unfettered expression, the resultant displays of strong emotions and impetuous behavior leads to outcomes that are by turn humorous, disturbing, tragic and farcical. In common with most of Potter's work, the various narrative strands that make up the show are anything but predictable. Consequently, Francis and Hopper's respective searches for love and sex take a couple of unexpected turns. Francis and Hopper's misadventures take place within streets, houses, pubs, dance halls, cinemas and coffee bars that reflect a slowly changing Britain and the show's locations, sets, costumes, etc, possess an authentic period feel. Renny Rye covers both the reality and fantasy-based elements of the series in a sure-handed way, consistently employing interesting angles and effective camera moves.
There's also some noteworthy acting present here. Being at the centre of most of the musical fantasies, Ewan McGregor couldn't fail to make an impact. Giles Thomas does admirable if slightly over-egged work as the outrageously awkward Francis and Douglas Henshall's (Primeval) corporal is a believable bully. Louise Germaine is an inherently glamorous and fetishistic beauty and she looks like she was born to wear Sylvia's 1950s' fashions and make-up. But it's the older actors that make the biggest impressions. Cast against type, funny man Roy Hudd is wholly convincing as the despicable Harold Atterbow. Bernard Hill (Boys from the Black Stuff) almost steals the show as Uncle Fred and he really doesn't get enough screen time. A hard man with forthright views, Fred's recent religious awakening has seemingly provoked a sense of inner turmoil that he is struggling to control. Maggie Steed (Shine on Harvey Moon) gives a knowing performance as his pragmatic wife. But the show really belongs to Peter Jeffrey (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, O Lucky Man!). 1 The Suez Crisis results in the patriotic Colonel Bernwood suffering a mental meltdown and Jeffrey telegraphs the officer's decline in an unforced but highly effective way.
Spread over two discs, Acorn Media's Lipstick on Your Collar has been given a very good presentation here. The show's picture quality is sharp and colourful and its soundtrack is both clear and strong. The Lipstick Jukebox extra feature allows viewers to jump directly to their favourite musical interludes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The casting of Peter Jeffrey and John Cater, the presence of a deranged and obsessive organist and a focus on Egyptian imagery makes us wonder whether Potter was making oblique references to the Dr. Phibes films when putting Lipstick on Your Collar together!
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T'was Ever Thus.