Lipstick on Your Collar Review
First transmitted on Channel 4 in 1993, Lipstick on Your Collar is a classic late Dennis Potter serial that proved popular at the time and has long merited a DVD release. Potter, trying to find his feet after his failures as a director of his own work with Blackeyes and Secret Friends, played safer with a tried-and-trusted formula, and he took a more backseat production role as executive producer, hiring director Renny Rye, who would go on to direct Karaoke and Cold Lazarus after Potter’s death.
On the writing front, Lipstick is a prime example of Potter’s tendency to recycle material, in that it takes an old single play from 1970, Lay Down Your Arms, and expands it to fit the format of a six-episode serial with lip-synched old songs that was so successful with Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. Lay Down Your Arms’ central character, Private Bob Hawk, is imported virtually unaltered and becomes Private Francis Francis—a gauche, inexperienced, working-class young man, who puts his foot in it all the time, yet is highly intelligent and a lover of the arts. Doing his National Service in 1956, Francis arrives in London from Wales to work as a translation clerk at the War Office, joining a group consisting of five officers of the rank of major or above, fellow Private Mick Hopper (Ewan McGregor) and the bullying Corporal Pete Berry (Douglas Henshall).
Francis is lodging with his Aunt and Uncle (Maggie Steed and Bernard Hill), who coincidentally live in a flat below Berry and his voluptuous, Diana Dors-like wife, cinema usherette Sylvia (Louise Germaine). The couple are not happy and Berry sometimes beats his wife, witnessed by the shocked Francis, who develops a crush on Sylvia and wants to save her. And he’s not alone, for the pervy cinema organist Harold Atterbow (Roy Hudd) is similarly enamoured, spending hours sitting in his car watching Sylvia’s window. Soon the Suez crisis starts to brew, undercutting the monotony of life at the War Office and focussing everyone’s attention on the possibility of it igniting World War Three.
Lipstick has far less plot and narrative complexity than Singing Detective, and in its simplicity of form harks back more to Pennies from Heaven. With six hours to fill, the pace is leisurely, taking time for detailed observations of the minutiae of domestic life and office politics. The fantasy lives of its protagonists are hugely important, and here the trademark lip-synched musical sequences come into play, becoming an end in themselves, the showcased raison d’être for the production, for Lipstick is so clearly a derivation rather than a continuation of the trend established by its two predecessors. One could be unkind and say that Potter is guilty of self-plagiarisation; or one could be forgiving and say it’s good to have more of the same, albeit in somewhat watered-down form.
In the early episodes the musical sequences are frequent, Pennies-style, starting simple and becoming progressively more elaborate; in the later stages, as the underlying story gains in pace, they are more intermittent but more sophisticated in narrative resonance, Singing Detective-style. Props range from a life-sized stuffed camel, to condoms, to Roy Lichtenstein-style cartoon billboards, and the surreal feel of Dennis Potterdom is again nicely evoked. Here the character Mick Hopper functions as daydreamer in chief, conjecturing his straight-laced colleagues bursting into song-and-dance routines as he smiles and inwardly laughs. As a drummer, Mick longs to play the new rock ’n’ roll rather than the bland dance music of the previous generation. Constantly he projects himself centre stage in his fantasies, crooning into the mike and doing the moves—the best example being the ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ routine, its lyrics neatly serving as a riposte to Nasser for nationalising the Suez Canal. In this respect Mick is the equivalent of Arthur Parker in Pennies, and Ewan McGregor performs wonderfully in these scenes, looking every bit the star he would soon become.
At the heart of Lipstick, as in so many other Potter works, lies the theme of sexual obsession, and the narrative becomes an exploration of the objectification of women—the familiar madonna/whore dichotomy, with Louise Germaine occupying the same pedestal that Gina Bellman did in Blackeyes. Whilst Francis grapples with the philosophical side of love in this respect, looking to Pushkin and Nietzsche for guidance, Atterbow angles for more immediate gratification, and the downstairs neighbours see Sylvia for what she ‘really’ is: a ‘tart’, a ‘slut’, a ‘Jezebel’. Not dissimilarly, Mick Hopper transfers his lustful urges from the imaginary Dream Girl (Carrie Leigh), who appears nude in his musical fantasies, to the flesh-and-blood Lisa (Kymberley Huffman), only to find himself out of his intellectual depth when she tackles him with Chekhov. As a drama Lipstick is very good at showing the gap between people’s aspirational fantasies and the reality they’re presented with instead.
And there is much else to recommend it, not least a set of finely drawn characters and some great, well-cast performances. Giles Thomas works very well as the two-left-footed hopeless case, the flipside of McGregor’s cool, and Douglas Henshall’s overblown despotic NCO is spot on. The suave officers are a fine collection of ‘types’, exaggerated perhaps but accurate, and Peter Jeffrey’s stiff-upper-lipped colonel, going slightly bonkers with the stress of Suez, is particularly entertaining. Bernard Hill makes a fine bulging-eyed bigot and Roy Hudd is superb, totally convincing as a ‘dirty old man’, yet lending the character a degree of sympathy and pathos. And that leaves Louise Germaine, who, thanks to Potter’s personal tutoring, completely inhabits her character, perhaps because she’s largely playing herself.
When first aired, Lipstick suffered critically by comparison to the illustrious Singing Detective, a high water mark it couldn’t possibly hope to emulate. But it has stood the test of time well and now, looking fresh on DVD, can be appreciated on its own merits. It’s not an innovative masterpiece like its predecessors, but on the nostalgia front it still works beautifully, doing for the 1950s what Pennies did for the ’30s and Singing Detective did for the ’40s. Its period evocations stay with you and resonate, from the cinema newsreels to the bleak streets of terraced houses, the military protocols highlighting the tenets of the British class system, the embryonic café culture, and the strong whiff of change in the air, heralded by the music, naturally the music.
The six episodes are equally split between the two discs, with a Lipstick Jukebox extra on each and Cast Member Filmographies and a Dennis Potter Biography on Disc 1. Presented in non-anamorphic 4:3 ratio, the transfer looks very good, with no artefact problems and only slight impressions of grain. The contrast is fine and the colours are vibrant, with good saturation, which well befits the fantasy nature of many of the scenes. The mono soundtrack is similarly problem free, even throughout, with the recordings of ’50s songs all crisp and clear.
The Lipstick Jukebox extra on each disc consists of the musical sequences listed separately for easy navigation purposes. Numbering nineteen in all, they make up a substantial part of the show.
The Great Pretender
Little Bitty Pretty One
Garden of Eden
Don’t Be Cruel
Blue Suede Shoes
Raining In My Heart
I See the Moon
I’m In Love Again
It’ll Be Me
Love Is Strange
Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)
Lay Down Your Arms
The Cast Member Filmographies show that most everybody has been in regular employment since Lipstick, though Louise Germaine hasn’t worked since the late ’90s. The Dennis Potter Biography gives a brief history, with an emphasis on the musical works leading up to and including Lipstick on Your Collar.
A light extras package, but this is not surprising for a production originating on Channel 4, where no suitable Potter documentary or other archive material exists. Still, this is a good-looking release of an important late Potter work, for which there has long been a demand. As the final example of his lip-synch technique, it completes the trajectory that had its roots in the play Moonlight on the Highway, developed into the beauty of Pennies from Heaven and found its apotheosis in The Singing Detective. And the technique, which can be regarded as an addition to the syntax of film, available to others, has had a diverse influence, ranging from the Steve Bochco series Cop Rock to the more recent BBC drama Blackpool, to Alain Resnais’s On Connaît La Chanson, and Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud as well as innumerable TV commercials.
For a general overview see: Dennis Potter on DVD
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