British Drama Series

Pennies From Heaven, a six-part drama series written by Dennis Potter received great popular and critical acclaim, including the BAFTA Award for Outstanding Drama, when it was first transmitted on BBC TV in 1978. This was the first six-part drama by Potter after some 16 single television plays, anticipating in its format and mixture of popular music and dance sequence such later works as The Singing Detective (1986) and Lipstick On My Collar (1993). Potter's ironic handling of music and dance in the television serial was a landmark in British television and his own career. He uses these forms of expression to both disrupt the naturalism of the narrative and to show unconscious desires of individuals and of society (the MGM feature film version failed to capture the seamless flow from conscious to unconscious desires, treated the story as a conventional musical, and was a flop).

The play tells the story of Arthur Parker, a venal sheet-music salesman in 1930s Britain who is frustrated by his frigid wife Joan, and the deafness of the shopkeepers to the beauty of the songs he sells. Although Arthur is "an adulterer, and a liar and was weak and cowardly and dishonest ... he really wanted the world to be like the songs" (Potter on Potter p. 88). He connects the beauty of the songs with his sexual longings when he falls in love with a young Forest of Dean school-teacher Eileen. When she becomes pregnant she has to abandon her schoolteaching career and flee to London where she takes up prostitution to earn a living. After making contact with Arthur once more, she abandons her pimp, Arthur abandons Joan and they set off for the country for a brief experience of happiness. The rural idyll is breached by two murders: Arthur is wrongly pursued for the rape and murder of a blind girl; while seeking a hideaway from pursuers, Eileen murders a threatening farmer. The two return to London where Arthur is apprehended, charged and hanged for the blind girl's murder. Eileen, significantly is not pursued.

The disturbing realities which punctuate the narrative: rape, murder, prostitution, the grinding poverty of the Depression era are counterbalanced by the naive optimism of Arthur expressed through the sentimental love songs of the period. Day-dreams and reality are constantly juxtaposed but Potter does not provide easy evaluations. It is possible to laugh at the simplicity of Arthur's belief in the "truth" of the popular love songs he sells, but scorn the shallow cynicism of his salesmen companions. Arthur's naiveté has to be balanced against his duplicity: although he loves Eileen and promises to help her he scribbles down a wrong address and creates enormous complications for them. Yet, however sentimental the songs are, they point to a world of desire that, in some form, human beings need and which is otherwise unrecognized in popular discourse. Although Potter used popular music and Busby Berkeley type choreography, Pennies is not a conventional musical: the music is not contemporary and thus arrives with a freight of period nostalgia. Moreover, the music is dubbed and the actors lip-synch (on occasion across gender lines) so that the effect is comic or ironic as well as enticingly nostalgic.

If the songs and dance-routines are used to express unconscious desires or those beyond the characters' ability to articulate, another device which provides access to the unconscious and interferes with any naturalistic reading is the use of doubles. Arthur and the accordion man, Joan and Eileen, though physically and in class terms distinctly different, are potential versions of the same identity. While the accordion man is presumed to have raped and killed a blind girl (significantly, not shown), Arthur's barely suppressed wish to rape her shows his equivalence. Similarly, Joan and Eileen, though opposites in terms of sexual repression share a similar shrewd awareness of social reality. The main difference is that Eileen is led to defy social conventions while Joan is content to work within them recognizing their power. Arthur's limited understanding is compensated for by his naive passion for music and love which offers a truth about how the world might be.

Pennies from Heaven
Photo courtesy of BBC

Pennies from Heaven can be seen as a development from the 1972 play Follow the Yellow Brick Road, in which the hero Jack Black, a television actor, shuns the awfulness of the real world in favour of the ideal world of television ads in which families are happy, the sun shines and everybody is optimistic. The earlier play expresses a more bleak Manichean universe of good and evil, while the later work acknowledges the internal nature of good and evil and suggests the possibility of redemption if not accommodation between our lower and higher impulses. At a further remove, Pennies from Heaven, can be seen to pick up the themes of the life affirming power of transgressive behaviour and the comic/ musical presentation of them to be found in Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728).

-Brendan Kenny


Arthur Parker............................................ Bob Hoskins Eileen.................................................. Cheryl Campbell


7 March 1978-11 April 1978


Fuller, Graham, editor. Potter on Potter. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.

Potter, Dennis. Pennies from Heaven. London: Quartet Books, 1981.

________________. Seeing the Blossom. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.

_______________. Waiting for the Boat: On Television. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.

Stead, Peter. Dennis Potter. Bridgend: Seren Books, 1993.

Wu, Duncan. Six Contemporary Dramatists: Bennett, Potter, Gray, Brenton, Hare, Ayckbourn. London: St. Martin's, 1995

Wyver, John. "Paradise Perhaps." Time Out (London), 3 March 1978.


See also Potter, Dennis; Singing Detective