Dennis Potter At London Weekend Television

Dennis Potter At London Weekend Television


Reviewed by: Ben Sillis

Dennis Potter is better known (if at all) to younger audiences through his television series Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective, the latter having recently been adapted into a film, starring Robert Downey Jr, but it was the single television play format in which he first made his name. In releasing these three plays, all broadcast in 1980, LWT have done justice to an unusual talent, a writer who tirelessly pioneered the medium of television as a valid art form.

In Cream In My Coffee, he reflects on lives lived, loved and lost, as a retired couple (Lionel Jeffries and Peggy Ashcroft, who won a BAFTA award) holiday in a British seaside hotel - you know the type, the faded white Victorian ones on the promenade - where they once spent an illicit week decades earlier as a courting couple. Perhaps, it's a sweet attempt at rekindling the flame that they thought once burnt there, but it soon seems more likely that the decision wasn't really mutual; you can imagine Jean declaring how lovely it would be to go to the seaside and Bernard mumbling some agreement from behind his newspaper.

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The narrative alternates between the elderly couple and the events that took place on their previous trip long before, but it's not so much a contrast between the joy of youth and the crushing reality of old age, as it might seem at first, rather Potter traces the roots of their problems to that first visit, as the young Bernard is called away, due to his father's death, and Jean becomes the interest of a lecherous crooner (Martin Shaw). The optimism of the young couple is revealed to be nothing but fragile and wistful promises, all of which come crashing down in the fatalistic denouement.

Rain On The Roof is perhaps the weakest of the three, although still very much worth watching, a clear indication of their overall calibre. It is a dissection of middle-class values, as a housewife (Cheryl Campbell) teaches a simple but opinionated farm boy how to read, while her husband (Malcolm Stoddard) cheats on her with their friend. The play treads a tightrope between drama and black comedy, with the occasional precarious wobble, creating a slightly schizophrenic impression. Nevertheless, it remains compelling viewing.

The cream of the crop, however, is Blade On The Feather. Potter's superb, twisting script and splendid cast, which includes Donald Pleasance as a venerable academic and Tom Conti as a suave, mysterious visitor to his family's home, help to turn a slightly camp, Hitchcockian premise into a taught drama. The play is less an espionage thriller than an engaging rumination on notions of class and loyalty, both to friends and family, and to one's country. Professor Cavendish is a former Cambridge don, but he clearly hides a murky past - why else does he lead such a reclusive life in a cliff-top mansion and why does his loyal butler (Denham Elliott) carry a loaded pistol?

No doubt, Potter had the infamous Cambridge Five - the spy ring, recruited as undergraduates, that later defected to the USSR - in mind when he wrote the script. The title, which draws from the lyrics of the Eton Boating Song, is here given an interesting new context; it is surely a metaphor for the vulnerability of the impressionable offspring of the dying aristocratic class on the playing fields of Eton and the lawns of Oxbridge. As Cavendish reflects at one point, "Silver spoons tarnish easily."

Next time you find yourself watching Ant and Dec on a pop-reality programme, or some dreadful Robson Green vehicle, put this on and despair at how artistic standards have fallen on Channel bloody Three in the intervening decades.

Reviewed on: 18 Sep 2005
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Three television plays, involving infidelity, spies and memories of passion.
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Director: Richard Loncraine, Gavin Millar, Alan Bridges

Writer: Dennis Potter

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Peggy Ashcroft, Tom Conti, Lionel Jeffries, Denholm Elliot, Cheryl Campbell, Martin Shaw, Malcolm Stoddard, Ewan Stewart

Year: 1980

Runtime: 250 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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The Singing Detective