Dennis Potter at LWT Review
In his television work Dennis Potter is most associated with the BBC, but he did occasionally 'defect', so to speak, and do stints for ITV. Back in 1968 he wrote two plays for that channel - The Bonegrinder and Shaggy Dog, and the next year, working with the first ever independent TV drama production company Kestrel, he turned out Moonlight on the Highway and Lay Down Your Arms for LWT's Saturday Night Theatre. A decade later Potter had formed his own independent production company, Pennies From Heaven Ltd, or PFH, with producer Kennith Trodd, and in 1979 they did a deal with LWT to supply a package of nine plays, six of them by Potter. The productions would be lavish, shot on location and on film, with a lot of freedom given to the producer over casting and crewing - a brilliant deal, so it seemed.
The first three Potter scripts were delivered, but soon problems arose over budgeting provisions, which proceeded to get worse and worse as shooting progressed. The relationship between PFH and LWT turned sour, and those three plays - Blade on the Feather, Rain on the Roof and Cream in My Coffee - proved to be its only fruits. They were transmitted over three consecutive Sundays in the autumn of 1980, and have since always been regarded as a group, a trilogy almost. They are in fact quite separate works, each with a self-contained story, and its own cast and director, but they all share one thematic similarity - a father's death looms large in the plotting; and they have the same kind of feel and texture.
At the BBC Potter had recently completed two of his most celebrated works, Pennies From Heaven and Blue Remembered Hills, both noted for being ground-breaking and daringly experimental in their use of non-naturalistic devices. The three LWT plays are, by contrast, much more within the realms of regular TV drama, and though they use flashbacks and different time threads, are entirely naturalistic.
Blade on the Feather (dir. Loncraine) is a tale of the covert world of British espionage, which draws on the Philby, Burgess and MacLean affair, as did Potter's earlier play Traitor. Daniel Young (Tom Conti) turns up unannounced at the country home of Jason Cavendish (Donald Pleasence), a retired Cambridge don. Cavendish is the author of a Tolkienesque fantasy novel, Cloud Cape, and Young professes to be writing a thesis on this as the reason for his visit. But there is an atmosphere of suspicion in the house, most of it coming from the butler Hill (Denholm Elliot), who clearly doesn't have the usual master-servant relationship with Cavendish. In private the two talk as equals and clown about like the students they once were, performing the Eton Boating Song, from which the play's title derives. For his part Young seduces Cavendish's daughter, and later turns his attention to the wife. Of course Young - not his real name - has another agenda, partly to do with his father's death in secret service duties, and slowly details emerge of Cavendish's past as a KGB agent, together with Hill's complicity. And in keeping with the traditions of the good old English spy story, Potter injects a twist in the tail.
As a play Blade on the Feather resembles Brimstone and Treacle in that they both involve a handsome young man entering a household and turning everything upside down, unearthing dark secrets. Unlike Brimstone though, Blade is slow and too talky, and despite its use of film and an Isle of Wight location, has a static studio-bound overall feel, and lacks much of a sense of action and movement. Also the father's death sequence is lifted pretty much wholesale from Traitor. On the plus side though, the performances are a joy, with Donald Pleasence excellent as the elderly, troubled Cavendish, eyes bulging and all a-quiver. Denholm Elliot is great too as the butler whose obsequiousness is all a sham.
If Blade has its weaknesses, then Rain on the Roof (dir. Bridges) is weaker still. Janet (Cheryl Campbell) and John (Malcolm Stoddard) are a couple with problems due to Janet's rightful suspicion that John is having an affair with a family friend. But the bulk of the play's action concerns Janet's relationship with Billy (Ewan Stewart), a backward, Forest of Dean-sounding youth whom Janet is teaching to read and write. In particular Billy wants to be able to read the Bible, so he can come to terms with his grief over his dead father. But Billy has been over-doing the anti-depressants and mixing them with cheese, which causes him to have a blackout and be a danger in other ways.
Again like Brimstone, and also the plays Angels and Schmoedipus, and its later incarnation Track 29, Rain on the Roof reuses the device of an outsider having a disrupting but ultimately liberating effect on an embattled domestic situation. But in Rain it doesn't gel at all well. Billy's relevance to Janet and John's marriage problems isn't made clear in dramatic terms, and the play's violent climax is virtually incomprehensible to anyone but a Potter student who knows where he's coming from because of the previous work. On top of that it's boring: Rain is really a half hour play expanded to fit a longer slot, with the scenes between Janet and Billy going on interminably to fill time. It would have been better to make more of John and his lover, which is dealt with too sketchily. One sniffs a certain 'written-to-order' quality about the piece, with Potter scraping the barrel and recycling former works in order to come up with the goods.
To a lesser extent that criticism is true of all three plays, but the third, Cream in My Coffee (dir. Millar), is definitely superior, and the only one to really stand up as a new work in its own right. Set in the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, it alternates between two time tracks - the early 1930's where a young couple Bernard (Peter Chelsom) and June (Shelagh McLeod) are having a pre-marital fling, and the present (1980), where the same couple (Lionel Jeffries and Peggy Ashcroft), now elderly, revisit the scene of that idyll. The play has a number of Potter touches, such as the use of 30's dance music, and the highlighting of memory and nostalgia, though it works very well on the level of pure observational drama, with superb writing of dialogue, brilliantly executed by the Jeffries-Ashcroft double act.
The patterns of argument and reconciliation in the young Bernard and June are visible in chronic and festered form in the old couple, whose nitpicking and petty squabbling has become the defining feature of their lives. The young Bernard considered June to be his intellectual inferior, and his mother thought her inferior in every respect. Yet when Bernard's father dies and he's called home from the hotel, he makes a point of standing up for June and asserting his wish to marry her against his mother's will. When we see the old Bernard taking June to task, we wonder why he bothered, though the downbeat truth to Potter's message about destiny is undeniable.
In Bernard's absence from the hotel, June falls prey to the advances of spivvy singer Jack Butcher (Martin Shaw), who croons to classic numbers, such as Cream in My Coffee, in a white tux, in front of a big band, just like the Singing Detective. The difference is Jack's singing is what it seems to be, not some metafilmic device. This creates the weird impression that the play is 'in the style of Dennis Potter' rather than an actual work by the man himself. Not that it detracts from the overall effect, which is one of a profound sense of the inevitability of change, and the inescapability from life as it is.
Overall the three plays stand out as different to Potter's classic work, somehow detached from the trajectory of that progression, off on another track. For Potter completists, of course they are a must, as they give unique insights into the recycling process he used again and again, sometimes with great success - as in The Singing Detective - and sometimes not so successfully - as in a movie like Track 29. As pure entertainment they score in the moderate-to-good range, with as much of the pleasure lying in first-rate acting and solid production values as in the writing.
The film originals haven't come across that well in the remastering, with surface dirt noticeable at the beginning of the reels, and a tendency to too high contrast, with bleaching of highlights in outdoor scenes. Funnily the quality of the transfers is in line with the quality of the plays, with Cream the best, Blade second, and Rain last. In parts of Rain there is discolouration, possibly due to moisture. Again the soundtrack follows this same pattern of quality, and despite its mono origins the music in Cream is rich and smooth.
The disc comes without any extras, a barebones offering, but nonetheless one can't be too critical, as it's good to see that ITV in the form of Granada Ventures is prepared to release challenging, not overly commercial work such as this.
For a general overview see: Dennis Potter on DVD