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Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember
Dennis Potter, the late British writer probably best remembered for his epic Singing Detective, excelled at peeling back the layers of façade and persona in the British ruling class, often revealing the rot underneath. It's no mere coincidence that Detective, for example, prominently features a disabling skin disease (from which Potter himself famously suffered), literally exposing its hero to things probably better left unseen. That same penchant for revelatory introspection highlights 3 to Remember, a compilation of a trio of 1980 television films made for London Weekend Television and showing Potter working on smaller canvasses than his longer form Detective and Pennies from Heaven. All three of these films offer superb performances, if dour subject matters and sometimes disturbing content.
The best of the three is "Blade on the Feather" (a line from the Eton school song), a biting and fascinating examination of an aging Cambridge professor (Donald Pleasance), whose pseudo-idyllic life is suddenly intruded upon by an unexpected interloper (Tom Conti). Almost Pinter-esque at times in its use of innuendo and the pauses between dialogue, what starts out as a sort of intellectual duel quickly reveals itself to have unexpected layers, as Pleasance's manservant (the ineffeable Denholm Elliott) seems to be harboring some secrets of his own that are somehow mixed up with British political history. The telefilm actually ends up being as much a spy thriller and trenchant commentary on Thatcherite reactionism as it is a character study of an upper crust gentleman whose delusions about what constitutes the "true Britain" have led to his utter moral corruption. Pleasance, Elliott and Conti are all superb in this piece, with some wonderful twists and turns along the way, culminating in an almost funny, if terrifying, denouement when decades old karma finally rears its ugly head.
Next up is the distinctly disturbing "Rain on the Roof," which, like the film which follows, is at least partially in Albee territory, with the war between the sexes in full flower (and then some). If not quite George and Martha, Janet (Cheryl Campbell) and John (Malcolm Stoddard) preside over a marriage that teeters on the edge of violence throughout the film, and frequently falls over that edge. What appears to be a Peeping Tom early in the episode, actually turns out to be a sort of half-wit feral young man, Billy (a terrifying Ewan Stewart), whom Janet has been teaching to read, so that he can immerse himself in the Bible. Billy pontificates on his interpretation of scripture and the healing power of Jesus, especially after he spies Janet and John engaged in a make-up (i.e., make out) session. This film has a slightly smarmy feel to it, highlighted by a shocking climax that is not very subtly foreshadowed in one of Billy's early scenes. Campbell, Stoddard and especially Stewart are all excellent, if not particularly nuanced, something this perhaps too simplistic script doesn't allow them the chance for. "Rain on the Roof" careens madly along to its inevitable conclusion, and is rather like a train wreck--it's not particularly "fun" to watch, but at the same time, you can't take your eyes off of it.
Least satisfying, despite towering performances by Peggy Ashcroft and Lionel Jeffries, is "Cream in My Coffee," a film that may be most redolent of Pennies, especially, with its frequent use of source music (tunes from the 20s and 30s in this instance, as in Pennies' case) to literally underscore its plot. The celebrated British thespians play an elderly couple, Bernard and Jean, who are returning to the elegant hotel of their first pre-marital assignation. The film then ping-pongs back and forth in time between that first fling and their current, sad state of affairs. It's all just a bit too obvious, with the elderly Jean and Bernard contrasted, supposedly ironically I guess, against the idealistic and hopeful young versions of the couple. There's nothing much here, ultimately, despite some great work by Ashcroft and Jeffries. The purported climax is especially disappointing, leaving the teleplay dangling like an unfinished argument. "Cream in my Coffee" is worth it for the performances only; plot wise, it's a largely wasted effort, and certainly the weakest of the three films featured in this set.
For those of you familiar with the quality of 1980 British television fare, all I hopefully need say is "1980 British television." For the rest of you, these are pretty soft, tepidly colored and saturated efforts, with average detail. "Coffee" is the softest of the bunch, and actually looks like it was heavily filtered, at least in the flashback segments. The other two are marginally sharper, emphasis on marginally. If you're used to filmed British television from this era, you know exactly what to expect.
The DD 2.0 are all quite a bit better than the video, with good fidelity and range. No anomalies or dropouts were noticed, other than three or four "pops" during "Coffee," which almost sounded like editing points. English subtitles are available.
Potter's last television interview, given just weeks before his death from cancer in 1994, is included, and provides a wealth of detail on his career. That's a "morphine cocktail" he's sipping throughout the piece.
Potter rightfully claimed a spot at the apex of British television (and, to a lesser extent, film) writers. While none of these three reaches the heights of Singing Detective or Pennies from Heaven, they all provide at the very least extremely compelling performances, and, especially in the case of "Feather," some fun plot twists to augment the acerbic dialogue. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet