Dennis Potter: 3 To Remember

Dennis Potter: 3 To Remember

 

In 1980, British screenwriter Dennis Potter was coming off two major successes: the 1978 miniseries Pennies From Heaven, about a depressed sheet-music salesman who escapes his miserable life by disappearing into the songs he sells, and the 1979 TV movie Blue Remembered Hills, in which a cast of adults enacts the idle (and sometimes cruel) playtime of a group of children. Awash in accolades, Potter struck a deal to pen six teleplays for London Weekend Television, but the plan petered out after the first three, which are now available as the DVD set Dennis Potter: 3 To Remember. While the LWT series collapsed due to budgetary woes, the DVD reveals another possible reason: The movies weren’t all that good.

At their best, Potter’s TV projects used clever postmodern techniques to vivify his pet themes: the life-changing impact of mysterious strangers, the plague of childhood memory, and the comforting plasticity of popular culture. At their worst, Potter’s teleplays were smug and pseudo-sophisticated, dressing up knee-jerk class-bashing with flashes of nudity and profanity. Two-thirds of the films in 3 To Remember fit the latter mold. Blade On The Feather stars Tom Conti as a wily interloper who makes himself at home on a lavish country estate while working to expose the shady past of author/scholar Donald Pleasance. Rain On The Roof has Ewan Stewart as an illiterate teenager who receives reading and writing lessons from a depressed, cuckolded housewife. Both movies are about the presumptions of the privileged, and both erupt in violence, but Rain On The Roof has a slight edge on Blade On The Feather because Stewart’s long, dim monologues are strangely gripping, and because Rain’s borderline-campy potboiler suspense is more entertaining than Blade’s wheezy string of pompous speeches.

Cream In My Coffee, by contrast, has more modest ambitions, and as such is an honest success. Peggy Ashcroft and Lionel Jeffries play an old married couple vacationing at their favorite beachside resort, while Shelagh McLeod and Peter Chesolm play the same characters 50 years earlier, sowing the seeds for what will be a lifetime of petty disagreements and resigned camaraderie. As with Blade and Rain, there’s a fair amount of externalizing the internal in Cream, as characters grunt or gesture or order food in ways that express Potter’s shaky opinion of them. But though Potter may think Cream’s central couple is faintly ridiculous, he displays a lot of affection for their foibles, whether they’re brashly joking about sex as devil-may-care young lovers, or grumbling about their low-salt diet when they’re older. And as is often the case with Potter, the little touches reveal more than broad statements. When we see how the hotel lounge music has changed from orchestral classics to tinny cocktail jazz, it’s a resounding comment on how life can disappoint.

Key features: An hourlong interview with Potter, videotaped for Channel 4 a few months before his death from pancreatic cancer. In a summing-up mood, Potter speaks at length about his creative process and his ways of coping with mortality (though not so much about his specific achievements in film and TV), all while smoking and sipping from a morphine cocktail.

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