Pennies from Heaven
Television miniseries written by Dennis Potter and directed by Piers Haggard
Looking at the landscape of entertainment displayed across all the delivery mechanisms now available, it does feel like darn near everything is available. Not only is everything available, it is probably being re-made. If they can successfully re-launch Hawaii Five-O, then nothing has ever really departed. I’m holding out for My Mother the Car. It could really use an edgy updating with some unknown actor as the star and Margaret Cho as the voice of the car.
Even if something old isn’t being made anew, then you can definitely look back (in anger or wonder or both) at the shows that started some current trend. Monty Python’s Flying Circus moved the skits out of the sound studio. This is now the dominant comedy anthology format. Radio gave us the rhythm of detective shows where the crime is solved all in one episode. Then British mini-series suggested that the audience would tolerate an extended story. You might disagree. That probably means you have your own ideas about what current show-runners are mining from the past.
But nothing really feels quite like Dennis Potter’s work. Sure, his remarkable ability to pluck the strings of our heart in order to make us feel complex emotions is now the goal of so many shows and movies, but no one brings the same tools to the task. Certainly not…
There are layers upon layers here. Consider the analysis of the way that the music comments on the situation. What about the situation allows a reinterpretation of the song? How about the way that the choreography makes explicit the unexpressed thoughts? Then, on top, there is all the social editorializing..
It is one of the great miracles of classic musicals that they found a way to move the internal life of characters outside where the audience can see them. Surely, television shows have been trying to do this since Buffy the Vampire Slayer did an all-music episode (and probably before that). Yet, the intricacy of Potter’s work on Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective feels to me like it pushed the envelope into territory where only the best artists can tread.
Potter was involved with the Pennies movie adaptation and credited with the Detective movie though it did come out long after his death, but they are distinct works. I like them as well, but (and we all knew that was coming) something about Bob Hoskins and Michael Gambon in those tight spaces with the different expectations…
Maybe Potter is responsible every time an episode of something or other has more resonance than seems sustainable by a mere television show. Maybe he’s just the reason that we can take television so seriously. We go so far as to look back at old shows in wonder, picking them apart with our theses.
And that is why we need a series in which My Mother the Car meets Knight Rider on Route 66. They don’t so much solve problems as meet head-on the current state of the American Dream while blasting pop hits from American history from their speakers.
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You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 54 more to go.
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