61 of 63 people found the following review helpful
Releasing this Dennis Potter masterpiece on DVD is probably the smartest thing the BBC will do this year. In an age of throwaway programmes, endless reality shows and a production culture that is risk averse and aimed at the lowest common denominator, here's a chance to see how it used to be. Yes folks, telly generally was better all those years ago - and Pennies From Heaven sums up the era well. The passage of time proves that quality writing, acting and production never go out of style. What strikes me most about Pennies From Heaven now is how long it is - a 6 part serial that allowed the characters to develop, the story to unfold. Now, sadly, it would probably get the 2 hour treatment with the news bunged in the middle.
Previous reviewers have really said it all - and this DVD allows us to enjoy again and again what happens when fine writing, acting and production all magically come together. Outstanding central performances from the cast, with wonderful support from the likes of Freddie Jones and Hywel Bennett - and even a very youthful Nigel Havers! DVD extras are kept to a minimum - but this 3 disc set allows the beauty and craft of the story to come through strongly, proving the point that less can be more.
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Inevitably it is with some caution that one sees again tv programmes which in the memory stand out as remarkable. Dennis Potter produced so much work in the 60s, 70s and 80s which I remember as being quite astonishing in both content AND in the audacity of method (Blue Remembered Hills with adults playing children!)that one wonders if it will seem mannered and rather passe. Well Pennies is as wonderful as it seemed, perhaps MORE so when viewed from a time when tv drama is so predictable, dull and quite simply not grown up. The music is intrinsically charming, but it takes Potter's genius to recognise the importance of popular song to us all and embed it in a drama which explores the fantasy lives, aspirations and repressions of his characters. Though it is a period piece (1970s drama, 1930s songs) it is, like all the very best drama, about people as they are, no matter what the time, and in this it is fresh minted. Any one with happy memories of the original broadcasts will not be disappointed. Anyone too young to see them will be stunned by the seriousness (though not po-faced) of the enterprise. Where did tv like this disappear to?
46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on 11 January 2005
Bowled over by this when it was first shown on PBS, back in the late seventies I think, I've been impatient for a revisit ever since, and snapped it up the minute it appeared on DVD. Does it live up to my own pre-billing, after more than 20 years? In summary, yes. In fact it far exceeds it, even though it isn't what I recall.
First of all my memory contains a black-and-white version and this one is in colour, so whether our TV at that time was B&W or PBS showed it that way, I'm not sure. Secondly it stands so far apart from anything I've watched on TV in the two decades since I first saw it that it shocks like an ice-shower. "An outstanding example of how television can be a distinctive art form," says the snippet from John O'Connor of the New York Times on the box. Agreed whole heartedly, but who has followed that example? "Pennies from Heaven" throws a harsh light on the banalities we accept as entertainment from today's TV. It is tough, uncompromising and scathingly honest about us and the world we live in, in ways that Hollywood and the major TV producers cannot begin to imitate. Even some of the acclaimed BBC imports of recent times, Zhivago, Lost Prince, pale alongside it and as disturbing a film as American Beauty (which I like) feels manipulative and lacking in conviction by comparison.
The performance of Hoskins is as outstanding as I had recalled. But I had forgotten how good the rest of the cast is: Gemma Craven strangely evoking the corseted girlfriend in Billy Liar; Cheryl Campbell a dazzling concoction of primness, sensuality and inner steel; Kenneth Colley the epitome of all the world's discards - subtly painted as a Hoskins minus the panache and after a few wrong turns in the road. Even Hywel Bennett (whatever happened to him?) produces a fine ten-second-smoothie/pimp. Potter's grit, in-your-face talent and sheer imagination shines through more than seven hours of tour de force. Of course there is unevenness: the first episode takes a while to catch its rhythm and, to me, Hoskins' soul-baring speech to his salesmen cronies at the breakfast table, meant to be one of the keystones of the piece, doesn't quite come off. But these are minor quibbles set against the stratospheric standard of the series as a whole.
I hesitated to enter this opinion because the review by Gavin Wilson just about says it all. But in a TV world of artistic forgery, bluster, throw-away drama and just plain dross, a work like this deserves all the promotion it can get. No, it is not "entertainment" in the currently-accepted sense of the word. It demands too much of you. Potter seems to recognize that by inserting a kind of "faux happy ending" as if to mock us and our expectations of popular TV. But if you care about drama, acting, and the state of the human spirit, you need to see Pennies from Heaven.
However many stars Amazon lets you attach to a review, this work warrants them all.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 6 June 2004
Late 1970s Britain was not particularly accustomed to campaigning graffiti, but in 1978, there was an explosion of slogans on railway bridges etc declaring that 'George Davies is Innocent!' It says something for the power of this TV series that a few wags wrote 'The Accordion Man is innocent!' in public places.
(For those unaware of the plot, the accordion man is a key character in this six-episode series. When a blind girl is raped and murdered on the road to Gloucester -- the plot was conceived long before the Fred West crimes, by the way -- the accordion man is the principal suspect. Another suspect is the music salesman Arthur Parker, who we know to be a liar, cheat and two-timer with slightly unusual fetishes.)
If you haven't seen this series before, you'll be startled by the lip-synching. On several occasions each episode, at the end of a dramatic piece of dialogue, the lighting will suddenly change, and the characters will start to mime and dance to a piece of 1920s/1930s music. When the song is finished, the characters return to precisely where they were before the musical interruption. It's a strange device -- quite different from conventional musicals or operas -- but extremely powerful in showing how music transports people to another world. Tolkien uses a ring to transport Frodo to another world, Pullman uses the Subtle Knife to transport Lyra, and Dennis Potter uses song. There is a very powerful speech in episode #2 where Bob Hoskins, playing Arthur, describes the impact of love and song as "pennies from heaven", very much as a religious experience.
For me, this is Potter's masterpiece. It's less polished than the Singing Detective, but I think that this helps to frame the principal issues of love, sex, death, music and spirituality more starkly. Many of the settings come from Potter's own experience -- the Forest of Dean, the village schoolroom etc.
There are two very beautiful actresses in this production -- Cheryl Campbell and Gemma Craven -- and it's difficult to convey the shock created in 1978 by the scene in which Craven bears her rouged nipples. (Previously she had been known only for appearing in the children's film of Cinderella, and she played her Potter character in a very child-like way until this scene.) It's all very tame now, but the scene still has some power, provided you can overcome any disbelief that the Craven character would ever marry Hoskins!
The 3-DVD set comes with precious few extras -- just a photo gallery and a commentary on episodes #1 and #6 -- and as you would expect, the production is in a 4x3 frame and monaural. Picture quality is cleaned-up 70s standard, and the sound quality is OK. Many of the records that the characters mime to are presented with all their scratches. (Curiously these scratches aren't so audible on the 2-CD collection that used to accompany the series.)
This is a fantastic series, but I don't pretend that it's for everyone. It comes from an era when TV playwrights aimed to produce more than just entertainment.
George Davies, by the way, may have been innocent of whatever he was originally jailed for. But he was back in prison several years later on a totally separate conviction that people didn't seem to dispute.
As for the Accordion Man, well ... you'll just have to watch the series!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 18 April 2012
Watched this when it was first televised. It remains visually stunning and memorable, with wonderful performances from the perfectly cast ensemble. Casting is an art and mis-casting even a minor part can jar in an otherwise good production. No worries on that score here. These Dennis Potter stories (see also The Singing Detective) are classics which I believe will remain pertinent and accessible to many generations. Really enjoyed it second time around and definately one to keep in any collection.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is a masterpiece, an all time great. Although it's a musical all the characters are well drawn and realistic with the viewer being able to relate them to real life people without any difficulty. Sadly, they don't make 'em like that any more. All the settings are redolent of Nineteen Thirties England and life in that decade is captured and portrayed very well indeed. As a small child in the Thirties I can recall people being dressed just as portrayed in this TV Drama and I can remember those kind of cars too. Of course, there weren't anything like as many cars around in those days when there were still quite a number of horse drawn vehicles on the roads, and, of course, no motorways. Bob Hoskins, Cheryl Campbell and Gemma Craven are all superb as are all the other actors in the drama.
The songs are cleverly spaced and progress perfectly along with the drama. Listening to them I couldn't help thinking that popular music in those days was every bit as enjoyable as anything that has been composed since. I would say this is a folk opera of the very highest standard and I wonder what younger people think of it. One thing I can tell them is that it paints an accurate picture of what life was like for at least some people in the nineteen thirties. This is an all time winner paramount within its genre.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
'I wanted to write about the way popular culture is an inheritor of something else. You know the cheap songs so-called actually have something of the Psalms of David about them. They do say the world is other than it is. They do illuminate..,' Dennis Potter, 1994.
'Pennies from Heaven' is one of Potter's key-works (see also The Singing Detective, Blue Remembered Hills, Brimstone & Treacle, Double Dare, the neglected Black Eyes, the Nigel Barton plays...)- probably his signature-work, most notable for the way it uses music of the 1930s, lapsing into lip-synching to popular-songs, expressing another world and saying what the characters could not. The six-episodes, originally screened in 1978 (though not declared a classic until after the success of The Singing Detective), tell the story of a travelling sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker (Bob Hoskins) who is trapped in a marriage with Joan (the gorgeous Gemma Craven), until he crosses paths with a mysterious-down-&-out (Kenneth Colley)& a schoolteacher from the Forest of Dean Eileen Everson(Cheryl Campbell).
The story shifts between the Forest of Dean, to the Parker's suburbia, to the grimier side of London as Arthur & Eileen are put through traumas. Eileen is perhaps the Forest of Dean equivalent of the femme-fatale, Arthur's way to her leaves of trail of coincidences that lead toward the scaffold.
Of course, the dialogue is brilliant here- 'Pennies from Heaven' remains a very funny-series, I found myself laughing at the dialogue (e.g. "You've got your organs and all, Arthur", "Nah- just dippin' me wick", "I painted lipstick on the points of my bosoms", "Remember to pull them back up" etc). The effect of the 1930s songs, a conceit that certainly works for the whole-series, is also comic, but frequently revealing and sometimes tragic. It shows that an alternate-approch, other than the obvious common to TV can be made- & pop-songs can express what people can't put into words (as PIL said, "Words cannot express"). 'Pennies from Heaven' strikes me as a perfect series in every detail...
The cast is brilliant- Hoskins, Craven & Campbell brilliant as the principles with great support from Colley, Nigel Havers, Hywel Bennett, Ronald Frazer, Freddie Jones, Peter Bowles, Dave King & many other faces common to British television.
'Pennies from Heaven', along with 'The Singing Detective' (1986) remains one of Potter's two complete-masterpieces and more than stands up today. Like 'Twin Peaks' it's a reminder of how potent and unconventional the medium of television can be (it's all list-shows, reality-shows, soap-operas, serial-killer-cliches and repeat, repeat, repeats these days...). Its incfluence is more than apparent in such films as 'Blue Velvet', 'Everyone Says I Love You', 'Mulholland Drive', & 'Moulin Rouge'; avoid the dubious Hollywood-movie of this starring Steve Martin however...
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 6 March 2006
By the time Pennies From Heaven was first broadcast in the spring of 1978, writer Dennis Potter - the enfant-terrible of British televisual drama - had already attracted a fair share of positive and negative criticism for his preceding works, Moonlight on the Highway, Double Dare and Casanova. This troika of bleak works, all of which were deeply self-referential and used the subtext of popular songs as an underpinning for the dark themes lurking beneath the polite veneer of normality, would very much define the style and concept of Pennies From Heaven, with Potter being awarded a greater degree of control over his material for the first time following the success of the three plays listed above and, of course, the mass tabloid controversy surrounding his previous piece, Brimstone & Treacle. Despite the greatness of those plays (Double Dare and Brimstone & Treacle in particular), it is safe to say that 'Pennies...' was a definite turning point for Potter, and a work of unbridled and undiluted creativity that would go into the creation of later classics like The Singing Detective, Black Eyes, or the earlier hit, Blue Remembered Hills.
The plot, as covered in more detail by other reviewers, seems fairly simplistic. Arthur, a amiable working-class Cockney, is trapped in a sexless marriage with staunched middle-class wife Joan, works long hours as a travelling sheet-music salesman, partakes of the occasional affair and, indulges himself in bouts of wild exaggeration amongst the other familiar-faced salesmen that he meets on his weekly rounds. For Arthur, this isn't just a job, but also an escape (both literal - in the sense that it gets him out of the house and away from the watchful eyes of polite society - and metaphoric, also), as he takes solace in the words and music of the romantic ballads that he foists upon local music shop stockists for the odd bob or too. The way in which Potter uses the songs and the way in which they have been integrated into the action is superb, and still seems revolutionary some twenty-six years after the programme's initial conception, as that opening scene, in which Arthur gazes wistfully into the bathroom mirror before suddenly breaking into song - or maybe not - as the rough and very much manly Arthur is merely lip-synching to some heartbreaking ode sung by a delicate young chanteuse!! This first instance of musical underpinning, as Potter not only hints at Arthur's state of mind through the contemplative lyrics, but also hints at a deeper fragility and sensitivity that is often lost in the pursuit of ladish bravado, is still one of the most astounding TV moments, with Potter and director Piers Haggard setting a scene that is surreal, fanciful and fabricated, but also overflowing with pain, angst, longing and degradation.
It is important for us to remember that Arthur, although out of step with the repressed, stiff-upper-lipped society in which he inhabits, is a creature desperate for love and physical understanding. His actions throughout the series might suggest otherwise (the frustration, sexual tension and occasional bouts of misogyny), he nonetheless is capable of moments of real warmth and tenderness, which is best illustrated in his growing relationship with Eileen as the story progresses. Although very much about Arthur and his journey, Potter also offers us two very complex female characters with Joan, Arthur's prim and proper wife of traditional middle-class values, and Eileen, the naïve yet passionate schoolteacher from the sheltered reaches of the forest of Dean. Both women love Arthur despite his actions and the reactions of those around him, and yet, we are left questioning throughout as to whether or not Arthur is the mind-mannered, though sexually frustrated dreamer we originally though, or if he is, perhaps, something much darker, and more predatory?
It would be wrong to go into any greater detail regarding the deeper implications of the plot... not least for those who've yet to see the programme, but also, because I'm not entirely sure I've grasped everything that Potter was getting at. Like his later masterpiece The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven is a series that works on multiple levels. On the one hand, it's a character piece... a journey for the character tied neatly into a format that has an almost "road-movie" quality to it. On top of that, it's a morality story... a play on the notion of fidelity and infidelity, love and lust, longing and perversion. On top of this we have a police story blurred by elements of self-referentialism... and then we have the music. The music is perfectly chosen, not only fitting the mood of the scene that it accompanies, but also revealing more about the characters and their situations through the lyrics and the tone of the singer's delivery. Sometimes the use of music can be comedic (or, darkly comedic), like, for example, in The Bad Man number, or it can be quite sinister... like the piece with the accordion man in the homeless shelter. More often, however, it evokes the sadness and longing at the heart of the characters.
The choreography, lighting, design and direction is impeccable throughout, with the crew using the limitation of having to combine studio filming and location filming to their advantage, by further juxtaposing the real with the bizarre. Although it's not as great as the Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven is no less a work of genius. Though at times it can be quite frustrating, it is, nonetheless, a series that benefits greatly from multiple viewings, with each new viewing revealing a further interpretations that we may have missed before. The performances from the three leads are all great and help to carry the emotional weight of the project well (special mention to the supporting actors, dancers and technicians too) although it's Bob Hoskins lead performances as the complicated Arthur that is the real draw. Like most of the work of Dennis Potter, Pennies From Heaven is a rich and complex musical parable that has stood the test of time perfectly.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 3 October 2009
The scene where the headmaster reveals he knows Eileen is pregnant, forces her to resign, then obliquely tells her he loves her and gives her a wad of cash, is possibly the best five minutes ever on British TV.
There are more fans for the Singing Detective, but I think this is Potter's best work and one of most ambitious and (don't be put off) complex things ever on TV. For starters our hero, Arthur, is often unlikeable. He gets angry too quickly, he is stupid, a dreamer, a compulsive liar. And yet his love of life and music in a dour, conservative, petty and straight laced Britain of the 1930s draws him to us. At times it feels as if he has been cruelly put on some time machine that has taken him from the present day to this grim, starchy world.
So much for Arthur, as the music is the other star here. While times were tough and limited, the songs on the radio were heavenly and often refer to an American way of life, that is dazzling and free spirited compared to a country that is not looking to budge with the times. Watch this series now!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 19 September 2013
The DVD is as good as I remember the original series. Contrasts between dramatic moments and light heartnedness. The accordion player's fit is a masterpiece while the dance routines bring a smile to my face. Why can't television produce things like this any more?