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Pennies From Heaven (1978)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Pennies From Heaven (1978)
Six episodes of 455 minutes total
Production CompanyBBC
DirectorPiers Haggard
ProducerKenith Trodd
Written byDennis Potter

Cast: Bob Hoskins (Arthur Parker); Cheryl Campbell (Eileen); Gemma Craven (Joan Parker); Kenneth Colley (accordion man); Nigel Havers (Conrad Baker)

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A songsheet salesman struggles to keep his dreams alive during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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With the six-part serial Pennies from Heaven, distinguished TV playwright Dennis Potter achieved his first real popular success. Transforming his career, it would eventually lead to a lucrative spell working in Hollywood.

The serial was conceived as the equivalent of a 'television novel', giving Potter a larger canvas than the one-off television plays with which he had made his name. It also arose from a desire to foreground the sweet and sentimental melodies of the 1930s popular songs of which both he and Pennies' producer, Kenith Trodd, were devoted fans.

The way Potter did this helped revolutionise the creative possibilities of television drama. In Pennies, characters intermittently step out of the drama to mime and dance to original recordings from the 1930s. In this way, the romantic hopes and dreams expressed in the songs reflect the genuine yearnings of ordinary people trapped in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

As realised on videotape by director Piers Haggard and choreographer Tudor Davies, the songs function as 'pennies from heaven': little interludes of brightness and happiness in an otherwise dark '30s tale of murder, lust, betrayal and frustration, in which the lead character, salesman Arthur Parker, is eventually hanged for a crime he did not commit. Potter himself went so far as to compare the songs to 'psalms', in as much as for characters struggling in the teeth of Depression, they encapsulate a similar, almost religious yearning for the world to be a better place. In this way, the drama balances itself on a knife edge between optimism and pessimism - the Eden-like non-naturalistic realm of the songs offering a brighter alternative to the downbeat naturalism of the more materialist world-view of Britain in the grip of Depression.

Millions were enthralled by the resulting concoction when it was first transmitted by BBC1 in March and April 1978. The serial went on to win awards and made a star of its lead actor, Bob Hoskins, who played Arthur Parker.

In 1981, a big-budget Hollywood version of Pennies from Heaven (US, d. Herbert Ross) was released, based on a new screenplay by Potter and starring Steve Martin as Arthur. Yet despite Potter being nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay, the film failed to make the same impact as the earlier TV version, perhaps suggesting that Potter's bold miming device worked most powerfully within the more confined space of the small screen.

John R.Cook

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Video Clips
1. Getting off early (3:48)
2. The accordion man (2:57)
3. Arthur and Eileen (2:23)
4. Arthur and Joan (2:57)
Complete Episode: 'Down Sunnyside Lane' (1:11:52)
Production stills
Havers, Nigel (1949-)
Hoskins, Bob (1942-)
Jones, Freddie (1927-)
Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)