Dennis Potter and Bob Hoskins: Behind-the-scenes of ‘Pennies from Heaven’

On a farm in Newbury, a camera crew set-up to film a scene from Dennis Potter’s latest drama series Pennies from Heaven.

Potter was a controversial dramatist, who was praised and loathed in equal measure. His previous single drama Brimstone and Treacle had been banned outright by the BBC for depicting the rape of a disabled woman by a strange, young man, who may or may not have been the Devil. Potter said of Brimstone and Treacle:

“...I had written Brimstone and Treacle in difficult personal circumstances. Years of acute psoriatic arthropathy—unpleasantly affecting skin and joints—had not only taken their toll in physical damage but had also, and perhaps inevitably, mediated my view of the world and the people in it. I recall writing (and the words now make me shudder) that the only meaningful sacrament left to human beings was for them to gather in the streets in order to be sick together, splashing vomit on the paving stones as the final and most eloquent plea to an apparently deaf, dumb and blind God.

“...I was engaged in an extremely severe struggle not so much against the dull grind of a painful and debilitating illness but with unresolved, almost unacknowledged, ‘spiritual’ questions.”

Set in the 1930s, Pennies from Heaven told the story of a sheet-music salesman Arthur, played by Bob Hoskins, whose life and fantasies were reflected through the prism of popular songs of the day. Potter said of the Arthur:

“Lacking any sense of God or faith, he literally believes in those cheap songs to the depths of his tawdry, adulterous, little lying soul.”

When Hoskins first read the script he thought it “lunacy”. A second-reading convinced him it was something very special. He was right, Potter had written a brilliant and original series, which proved to be an enormous success when first broadcast on the BBC. It went on to win a BAFTA for “Most Original Programme”, and earned Hoskins and his co-star Cheryl Campbell best actor and actress nominations.

The series was remade (badly) by Hollywood (no surprise there) with Steve Martin in the lead, in 1982. Hoskins went on to international success with the gangster classic The Long Good Friday, while Potter returned to his mix of drama, fantasy and song with his acclaimed series The Singing Detective in 1986.

Previously on Dangerous Minds

Cast and Crew: The making of ‘The Long Good Friday’

With thanks to Nellym.

Posted by Paul Gallagher
07:11 pm
For Your Consideration: Mr. Rod Serling

Years ago a friend wrote me a story about how we all started talking but in doing so, stopped listening to each other. It was a short and simple story, adapted I believe from its Aboriginal origins, that also explained how our ears developed their peculiar, conch-like shape.

Like all the best tales, it began: Once upon a time, in a land not-so-very-far-away, we were all connected to each other by a long umbilical loop that went ear-to-ear-to-ear-to-ear. This connection meant we could hear what each of us was thinking, and we could share our secrets, hopes and fears together at once

Then one day and for a whole lot of different reasons, these connections were broken, and the long umbilical loops dropped away, withered back, and creased into the folds of our ears. That’s how our ears got their shape. They are the one reminder of how we were once all connected to each other.

It was the idea of connection - only connect, said playwright Dennis Potter, by way of E. M. Forster, when explaining the function of all good television. A difficult enough thing, but we try. It’s what the best art does - tells a story, says something.

It’s what Rod Serling did. He made TV shows that have lived and grown with generations of viewers. Few can not have been moved to a sense of thrilling by the tinkling opening notes of The Twilight Zone. The music still fills me with that excitement I felt as a child, hopeful for thrills, entertainment and something a little stronger to mull upon, long after the credits rolled.

Serling was exceptional, and his writing brought a whole new approach to telling tales on television that connected the audience one-to-the-other. This documentary on Serling, starts like an episode of The Twilight Zone, and goes on to examine Serling’s life through the many series and dramas he wrote for TV and radio, revealing how much of his subject matter came from his own personal experience, views and politics. As Serling once remarked he was able to discuss controversial issues through science-fiction:

“I found that it was all right to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say.”

His work influenced other shows (notably Star Trek), and although there were problems, due to the demands of advertisers, Serling kept faith with TV in the hope it could connect with its audience - educate, entertain and help improve the quality of life, through a shared ideals.

As writer Serling slowly “succumbed” to his art:

‘Writing is a demanding profession and a selfish one. And because it is selfish and demanding, because it is compulsive and exacting, I didn’t embrace it, I succumbed to it. In the beginning, there was a period of about 8 months when nothing happened. My diet consisted chiefly of black coffee and fingernails. I collected forty rejection slips in a row. On a writer’s way up, he meets a lot of people and in some rare cases there’s a person along the way, who happens to be around just when they’re needed. Perhaps just a moment of professional advice, or a boost to the ego when it’s been bent, cracked and pushed into the ground. Blanche Gaines was that person for me. I signed with her agency in 1950. Blanche kept me on a year, before I made my first sale. The sale came with trumpets and cheers. I don’t think that feeling will ever come again. The first sale - that’s the one that comes with magic.’

Like Richard Matheson, Philip K Dick, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Serling is a hero who offered up the possible, for our consideration.


Posted by Paul Gallagher
08:27 pm
Dennis Potter’s parting shot at Rupert Murdoch
10:04 pm


“When groundbreaking television writer Dennis Potter learned he was dying of cancer, he sat down with Melvyn Bragg for a final interview. The subject of media mogul Rupert Murdoch came up.”

Yes it did! OUTSTANDING!

Thank you, Jonathan Owen!

Posted by Richard Metzger
10:04 pm