STUDIO: Koch vision
MSRP: $39.98
RATED: Unrated
RUNNING TIME: 255 minutes
• Interview w/ Dennis Potter

The Pitch

“Pretend you’re at a festival of one-acts… in your own living room!”

The Humans

Donald Pleasance, Denholm Elliot, Tom Conti, Malcolm Stoddard, Cheryl Campbell, Lionel Jeffries, Peggy Ashcroft., Faith Brook, Martin Shaw.

The Nutshell

This collection features three movies-of-the-week which aired in England in 1980, all written by Dennis Potter. Each are small-scale, limited-cast affairs with emphasis on dialogue and hidden motivations, the kind of exercise in playing within restraints that playwrights excel at.

“I’m Denholm Elliot, and when I’m thirsty for something disgusting, I go for my Robinsons.”

The Lowdown

Dennis Potter’s isn’t a name too well-known around these parts. The Singing Detective is probably his most recognizable credit, but he was a prolific writer and has a library dozens of titles strong. He worked mainly in film and television, but brought a classic, stage-influenced affinity for character interaction to the screen. He also, incidentally, named his terminal cancer “Rupert” after Rupert Murdoch, whom he thoroughly despised.

There’s not much that I — an American, born three years after these movies originally aired — can do to summon the historical context of Potter’s work, but I’ll give a go at highlighting what I think is relevant. Potter, as should be plain from the name of his pet cancer, didn’t have any qualms confronting the rich, powerful, or bullheaded. His social awareness was acute, and often stood at the center of his dramas. Combine this with the fact that a certain Margaret Thatcher had recently stormed the offices of British government when Potter wrote these three shows, and you have a set of stories as gripping in historical resonance as they are in dramatic.

The one negative criticism I have of this set is that, in each case, Potter seemed to want more time to tell his story. He was no stranger to time constraints, but each teleplay here feels rushed through its final act. It’s consistent enough that it might be overlooked as a quirk of the writer, but in each case it does a disservice to the conspiracy, tragedy, or comedy built up behind it.

I’ll take each show on briefly. I can’t help it. I like structure.

Potter was a literary man. You bet your ass this is symbolism.

Blade on the Feather

The most overtly socio-political of these three, Blade on the Feather concerns an aged, reclusive author played by Donal Pleasance who has retired to his country estate with no one but his butler, his wife, and his daughter for company. When a young graduate student arrives, hoping to get a little help on his thesis from Mr. Pleasance, that quiet life spirals out of control.

The big conflict in Blade comes from the political views of the main players, which come into direct contact. The young student takes advantage of the hospitality of the estate, but seems at odds with the mindsets of the people there, and is completely unafraid to antagonize where it might get a reaction. His casual, caustic attitude gradually reveals a motivation for his visit much more sinister than simple academics.

Blade on the Feather most appealed to me out of these three. It’s taut, by which I mean there are no sections of excess flab/wasted time. Perhaps a little too taut at the end, but Donald Pleasance, Denholm Elliot, and Tom Conti trade verbal blows and revelations with such a considered hatred that it’s hard not to get swept up.

You know why the first words out of an angel’s mouth are always “Fear not”?

Rain on the Roof

Where Blade on the Feather involved country-sized ideas writ small, this is more about small ideas writ smaller. It’s a jealousy narrative, the center of which is an extended conversation/teaching session between middle-aged Janet and a young man with an underdeveloped brain and an overdeveloped sense of morality. Whenever sex enters the picture, this young man goes a bit… batty. Unfortunately for him, and for everyone around him who likes to keep their blood on the insides, sex gets brought up a lot.

It’s a bitter, ironic anecdote set in a culture of repression. It’s a decent yarn just as a short story about jealousy between a husband and wife, but it’s not hard to read a parallel between the mental kid and opponents of liberty. There are plenty of examples of stories that paint their opponents as crazed, or violent; only a few go so far as to say that their opponents are downright retarded. Gotta love ‘em.

Thank goodness that some things never change.

Cream in my Coffee

Gradually descending further into quiet moments and introspection, disc number three brings Cream in my Coffee, in which a pair of old lovers revisit the hotel where their romance sprang to life. The narrative pops back and forth between the throbbing 30s and the “present” 1980s, highlighting the strange combination of familiarity, regret, contempt, and comfort that accompanies long-lasting relationships.

It’s not a story that captures any sort of acceptance of such a life, or pair of lives, though. It’s an observation, tracking how problems fester and develop, and how passions swell, release, and fade. It’s the most contemplative of these three stories, and the least rushed. Unfortunately, there’s hardly anyone I can compare in it to Margaret Thatcher, so what the hell use am I?

Dennis Potter was a worthy talent, a man with a keen grasp of subtext and dialogue. His plots don’t feature the same consistency of form or style, but these three stories are entertaining and barely stink of the 80s at all.

Hanged for a hairdo.

The Package

The only bonus is a brief interview with Dennis Potter, who comes off witty and articulate. The interview itself doesn’t go into much depth, unfortunately, so as far as providing context for a viewer who somehow ended up with this set without prior knowledge of Potter it’s not too useful. For a fan of Dennis Potter, it doesn’t really provide any interesting information, either.

7 out of 10