Pennies From Heaven
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For the past quarter century, American audiences only knew of Pennies from Heaven by way of the 1981 film adaptation that starred Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. The highly regarded 1978 BBC miniseries that inspired the Hollywood film adaptation remained unreleased on home video in America. However, now—at long last—BBC Video (in cooperation with Warner Home Video) has made the original BBC production of Pennies from Heaven available to American viewers.

This is a startling miniseries that mixes hard-hitting, gritty social drama with ultra-optimistic musical interludes. Prior to 1978, audiences had never seen anything like this before, and audiences have seen little like it since. Writer Dennis Potter was the genius behind this project. Television writers in England have traditionally received much greater credit as creators than their American counterparts. The series' credits even say "Pennies from Heaven by Dennis Potter." But even a casual glance at this series must acknowledge its status as a writer's showcase. The series' audacious central concept guarantees this.

Back in the 1970s, British television productions didn't have the polish of theatrical films. Camera setups were relatively few with a proscenium arch typically being dropped into each setting and artificial lighting creating the pallor of stage drama. These limitations affect Pennies from Heaven; however, because Potter's concept is so bold and original, the limitations are minimized.

Bob Hoskins stars as Arthur Parker, a sheet music salesman during depression-era England of the 1930s. Arthur is an optimist who lies habitually to help inflate his meager existence and unsatisfying home life. His wife, Joan (Gemma Craven), is frigid and uninterested in sex, but Arthur's exuberance for life means he is constantly randy. (Why Joan ever married Arthur isn't explained.) As a result, Arthur looks to express his sexual urges outside of his marriage—lying outrageously to a rural school teacher (Cheryl Campbell) and working his way inside her knickers. This situation looms toward disaster when a blind girl is murdered and circumstantial evidence places Arthur in the vicinity of the crime and his litany of past lies throw doubt on his every word.

A simple recitation of the plot provides a dark and somber picture of this drama, and yes, the story is about as downbeat as anything imaginable—in the manner of fatalistic German dramas such as Diary of a Lost Girl and Pandora's Box—especially as the school teacher becomes pregnant, loses her job, moves to London, can't find a job, and must resort to prostitution in order to survive. This drama is so bleak it hurts to watch it unfold. However, Potter juxtaposes the dark drama with ironic counterpoint interludes of pie-in-the-sky pop music, all delivered by way of musical sequences in which the characters lip-synch to vintage style performances of "Blue Moon," "Down Sunnyside Lane," "Easy Come, Easy Go," and many others—not to mention the title song. These sequences will no doubt leave the uninitiated viewers scratching their heads and staring in disbelief; however, these sequences point out the conflict between the optimism embodied by the '30s era music ("Every time it rains it rains pennies from heaven") and the absurdly repressive state of '30s era British society.

This approach helps make the potentially depressing drama palatable as it stresses the resilence of human spirit when faced with total humiliation; however, it accomplishes this with much repetition. Whenever a character breaks out in song, the show grinds to a halt as the same old set of conflicts are presented yet again. From one musical sequence to the next, these conflicts are tweaked slightly, but the lyrical variety doesn't provide much room for emphasizing different issues and varying the arguments. So the novelty of the situation wears off fairly soon and then we're left with the mechanical responsibility of the show's construction to repeat the alternating pattern of drama and music. This weakness of the miniseries was likely minimized as the series was originally broadcast weekly, with each of the six episodes carrying a running time of 80-90 minutes. However, when all the episodes are tagged together on DVD, the repetitions become overbearing. (Of course, the easy solution to this problem is to simply pace yourself with just one episode per week.)

Bob Hoskin's performance as Arthur Parker helped turn him into a star. Soon afterwards he received his career-making role in The Long Good Friday. Gemma Craven as Arthur's wife doesn't exactly take your breath away the way that Hoskins does, but she has at least one great scene. It comes after Arthur has spent several days roaming the countryside following a spat with Joan. She is in shock at the prospect of life without a husband. She's all about order. So she's ready to finally acquiesce to Arthur's desires—which in this case means following his request to paint her nipples red. This was no doubt a shocking scene in 1978 when Craven undid her nightgown to reveal her bosom to her astonished husband. Back in 1978, Craven was primarily known for playing Cinderella in The Slipper and the Rose. Meanwhile, Bob Hoskins meets his match in Cheryl Campbell, particularly as Arthur and Eileen go on the lam after his picture ("Have you seen this man?") appears in the newspaper. No matter that her prospects are headed for the dumpster, Eileen still credits Arthur for turning her dull life around. She eagerly leaves her stultifying role as domestic servant to her father and forever-quarrelling brothers and never looks back.

Seldom does Piers Haggard's direction in Pennies from Heaven reach the same level of inspiration as Potter's writing or the excellent lead performances. However, it's difficult to place sole blame on the director for the generally bland, straight forward renderings of the dramatic scenes. The problem may have more to do with the ingrained BBC production methods or the limited budget. The musical sequences occasionally rise to a higher level (as during a lively number staged inside a schoolhouse or the fantastic ending of episode four aboard a 78 platter in space), but more often the musical sequences are just as guilty of blandness as the rest of the show (with characters captured in soft focus as they merely prance around a living room or a tavern).

In this respect, the Herbert Ross-directed Hollywood adaptation is an improvement as it provides Busby Berkeley-inspired musical numbers with extravagant choreography that generates geometrical patterns. The BBC's Pennies from Heaven never rises to the level of Busby Berkeley. It rather stays at the less inspired level of pre-Berkeley, early-sound-era musicals (circa 1929-1931). (But it's not really fair to accuse the producers of not having the same resources as a Hollywood production. They most likely did the best they could considering the budget limitations.)

BBC Video's presentation of Pennies from Heaven doesn't contain many extras. You'll find no information about Dennis Potter, no essays about the show's reception upon its original broadcast, no biographies of the cast and crew, no interviews. The disc does contain a small stills gallery, and the biggest extra is an audio commentary track for episodes one and six. This commentary is provided by director Piers Haggard and producer Kenith Trodd. (Of course, commentary by Potter would have been preferable, but he died of cancer in 1994.)

BBC press releases claim this edition of Pennies from Heaven has been "impeccably restored"; however, you'll see little evidence of restoration on these discs. The digital transfer has been culled from materials with noticeable fading of colors, a slightly soft image quality throughout, and frequent dust flecks. Whatever the case, though, the DVD set is most welcome; even if it's not perfect, it allows us to see a television series that American audiences could not previously experience without shelling out generously for imported videos or DVDs.

Pennies from Heaven is now available on DVD from BBC Video (distribution by Warner Home Video). This three-disc set includes a stills gallery and audio commentary (for episodes one and six) by producer Kenith Trodd and director Piers Haggard. Suggested retail price: $59.98. For more information, check out the BBC America Web site.

Photos courtesy of Warner Home Video.