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Blackeyes (1989)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Blackeyes (1989)
BBC, 29/11-20/12/1989
4 x 50 minutes, colour
DirectorDennis Potter
ProducerRick McCallum
ScriptDennis Potter

Cast: Michael Gough (Maurice James Kingsley); Carol Royle (Jessica); Nigel Planer (Jeff); Gina Bellman (Blackeyes); John Shrapnel (Detective Blake)

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A novelist writes a book about a beautiful young model named 'Blackeyes' which is actually based on events in the life of his niece Jessica, with whom he has a tortured relationship.

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Dennis Potter followed his staggeringly complex but hugely successful The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986), which was filtered entirely through the eyes and imagination of its male protagonist, with the more straightforward Christabel (BBC, 1988), which used a woman's perspective throughout. In Blackeyes (BBC, 1989), perhaps his most difficult and challenging serial, he attempted to combine both points of view.

After offering it to Jon Amiel and Nicolas Roeg, Potter eventually directed the serial himself, his only television excursion behind the camera. Based on his novel of the same name, it was shot on 35mm film, as it was originally envisaged as both a four-part 200 minute serial and a shorter cinema version. Potter uses exceptionally long unbroken single shots, in a style that might seem reminiscent of his studio-based plays made on video, were it not for his use of extremely complex set-ups in which the roving camera is constantly moving. This technique is seen at its considerable best in the opening sequence, in which Blackeyes (Gina Bellman) is pursued by the camera through a 360 degree set as she tries, unsuccessfully, to hide.

Potter himself, in his unmistakable West Country burr, provides the copious narration, something he had tried briefly in 'Blue Remembered Hills' (Play for Today, BBC tx. 30/1/1979). Potter's delivery is typical of his dark wit and verve, often taking a scatological turn, such as when commenting, "Ah, now you can tell this is a British film," after the appropriately seedy author (Michael Gough) breaks wind. The voice-over was only added in post-production and, although making the highly solipsistic and jagged dream-like plot easier to follow, it also added to the public furore when Blackeyes was first transmitted. Rejected by audiences and critics alike, Potter was labelled 'Dirty Den' by the tabloids for the drama's nudity and dark sexual undercurrents, even in the service of a tale about female exploitation.

Targeting television viewers' passive complicity and complacency and using it against them, Potter bravely injected himself into a narrative which, by dealing in a visceral way with the male objectification of women, was bound to be attacked for doing the same thing itself. It was then, and remains, a deliberately uncomfortable, humorous, densely imagined, frequently powerful if imperfect work, one that practically vanished after its original airing but which, now that its shock value has long been superseded, needs to be re-assessed by a new generation.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Hide and seek (3:22)
2. Post mortem (4:03)
3. Blonde audition (4:52)
Afternoon of a Nymph (1962)
Double Dare (1976)
Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)