Wednesday, July 25, 2007


This isn't Chicago after all — it's London

BLOGGER'S NOTE: In order to truly compare and contrast why the original British miniseries of Pennies From Heaven is superior to Herbert Ross' 1981 film version starring Steve Martin, many spoilers are necessary. So, if you plan to ever watch either and don't want plot details revealed, read no further.

By Edward Copeland
When I recently reviewed the 1981 film version of Pennies From Heaven, I guessed that the original British miniseries would work better and feel less truncated and now that I've seen it, I see that my intuition was correct. Whereas the movie focused so heavily on Steve Martin's version of sheet music salesman Arthur Parker that it seemed odd when other characters burst into song (or more accurately burst into miming songs). The 1978 British miniseries while still focusing on Arthur as the main character (here played by Bob Hoskins) also makes the characters of his wife Joan (Gemma Craven) and his eventual lover, schoolteacher turned prostitute Eileen (Cheryl Campbell) equally pivotal, so their musical turns make sense. In fact, the viewer meets Eileen before Arthur even does.

Also, the very minor character of The Accordion Man gets much more development and significance as played by Kenneth Colley in the miniseries version. Granted, it's easier to add depth when you are given six episodes running between 70 and 90 minutes each than when you are trying to squeeze everything into a two-hour film, but even then some of the choices the film version made seem counter to writer Dennis Potter's original vision. In the DVD commentary track of the miniseries' first episode, director Piers Haggard discussed the insistence by Potter for the first song to seem to come out of Hoskins' mouth be the version of a song by a female singer. Haggard told Potter they could find a rendition by a male singer, but Potter would have none of it because his goal was to create as much dislocation for the viewer as possible. The title for this post comes from a moment late in the series when Arthur goes missing, wrecking his music store ahead of time, leaving the impression of foul play. Joan tells the police investigator that Arthur couldn't have just gone missing because "This isn't Chicago after all — it's London" and that draws real contrast to the movie version which is set in 1938 Chicago as opposed to 1935 England as in the miniseries.

What really provides the crucial difference in making the miniseries superior (though I still prefer Potter's miniseries of The Singing Detective with Michael Gambon) is Hoskins and his portrayal of Arthur versus Steve Martin's Arthur. While both Arthurs certainly are selfish, Hoskins' Arthur proves much more sympathetic as a "right bleeding washout" who "dreams of a world where songs are true." Even more important, with a few exceptions, the miniseries avoids the film's tendency to make each musical number a lavish production that wouldn't seem out of place in classic 1930s movie musicals. For the most part, the songs are staged within the confines of the period setting. (An interesting television note, which was slightly distracting at first: All interior scenes are on videotape while exteriors are on film, but you get used to it after awhile.)

The plots of both versions mainly follow the same throughline, though the miniseries has room to add more story strands that didn't make the film and is all the richer for it. For one thing, the evolution of Eileen from naive schoolteacher to hardened prostitute seems less abrupt in the miniseries than Bernadette Peters' Eileen was able to do in the movie. In fact, Eileen in the miniseries becomes the hardest, most calculating character of them all, not only embracing prostitution as a way to make ends meet but even eventually committing a murder of opportunity. The character of Joan also gets much more to chew on in the hands of Gemma Craven than Jessica Harper got to work with in the movie, where she was entirely prudish and only turns on Arthur late and suddenly. The TV Joan has true misgivings about her husband from the beginning, including fantasizing with her friends about killing him. Even more touchingly, even after her betrayal sends him to the executioner for a crime he didn't commit, she still loves the cad anyway.

The miniseries also downplays more of the romanticized moments of the movie. Whereas Arthur and Eileen's first encounter is framed by a heart in the movie's image, the miniseries stays closer to its theme by inserting the new lovers within a piece of sheet music that Arthur keeps peddling. The pimp Tom, so well played in a single scene by Christopher Walken in the movie, only appears in one episode of the miniseries, but that allows him to achieve more importance in the hands of Hywel Bennett and to even interact with Arthur. The main plot turn, namely Arthur's arrest and conviction in the murder of a blind woman, plays much better in the series. The movie shows you the murder immediately, so you know that The Accordion Man is responsible. In the miniseries, you don't know for sure that Arthur didn't do it until a later episode when the guilt-ridden Accordion Man starts confessing to strangers and is haunted by the dead girl. In fact, it appears that Arthur has an alibi at first, making me think that perhaps he will get off without being implicated, but that still comes about once Joan talks too much about his unusual sexual preoccupations.

Hoskins truly is remarkable, especially for those more familiar with him from his later film work. He's much slimmer, but his more ordinary bloke plays much better than Steve Martin's, who never quite sells the idea that he's a complete putz creating his own catastrophes. It's also interesting to note how even nearly 30 years ago, British television was so much more mature than its American counterpart in terms of language and nudity. (If you ever longed to see Hoskins nude...) Pennies From Heaven the miniseries is well worth your time, especially if you've seen Herbert Ross' version. It makes clear what could have been.

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I've seen both versions, and while I admit the miniseries is richer (just like Traffik vs. Traffic), I didn't find either version interesting. The one good thing I can say about Ross' version, besides the awesome Chris Walken-as-Billy Flynn cameo and the kid number, is that it's shorter. I never bought Steve Martin nor Bernadette Peters in their roles and, unlike Josh, I thought Jessica Harper was horrible. Hoskins is certainly the better choice and is far more convincing.

I got an eyeful watching all those British shows like I, Claudius and Masterpiece Theater on PBS when I was growing up. The Brits are far more advanced and mature in terms of nudity and language on TV. They treated them like everyday things, which they are. American TV looks at the concept of nudity as something sinful and alien--witness the titty on the Tiffany Network a few years back--and approaches it like a 13 year old male religious zealot with a boner.

As for butt ass naked Bob Hoskins, he's full frontal in Mrs. Henderson Presents. Judi Dench pullin' 'er tit out would have caused the art house theater to explode.
I forgot about him in Mrs. Henderson Presents, but he was full frontal in Pennies From Heaven as well.
I could not disagree with you more.

Having seen and loved the film when it came out - I had read for years about Dennis Potter's assertion that the TV version was far 'better' (this before things like that were available on VHS, mind you) and therefore spent years dying to see it.

I can't tell you how disappointed I was in the TV version - and let me put this in context.

As typlified by the odious TV show "Keeping Up Appearances', the Brits have a general tendancy to have nothing but contempt for those of the 'lower orders' who strive for something better.

In the TV version of "Pennies" - the main characters as presented as credulous peasants being sadly misled by pop culture into aspiring to a life beyond their lowly status. The key to the TV version is that the music sequences view the characters from the outside - exposing their 'dreams' for the pathetic nonsense the director/screenwriter think they are.

In keeping (I think) the less class-obsessed American POV, in the FILM version, the music sequences are presented from INSIDE the characters heads, granting them a certain nobility and pathos denied to them in the TV version.

Personally, I found the TV version unremittingly grim, misanthropic and after awhile tedious (and this is from someone among whose other favorite films is Satantango).

I think the film has FAR more complexity in its juxtiposition of human baseness and beauty.

It also has some of the greatest cinemotagraphy ever committed to film by Gordon Willis. And I am not only talking about the brilliant 'reproductions' of famous paintings and photos, but almost each and every frame of the film is a gem (I used to have a copy of the film on video, and would look over and over again at the subtle lighting shift between 'reality' and 'fantasy' in the "I Wanna be Bad" number). You also have to had seen the film on a BIG screen (I saw it at the Zeigfield in NYC) to know the astonishing effect of Martin/Peters dancing in front of the screen in the Astaire/Rogers number (in a real theater, Martin/Peters seemed to be REALLY there in person, dancing in front of an Astaire/Rogers film).

The only real problems I have with the film are that many of Marvin Hamlish's 'additional' orchestrations' are far too 60's Brassy, and the ending, while good in concept, is poorly executed.

Otherwise, a great and unjustly regarded film.
I agree that the movie had great production values, but I didn't find nearly the depth of characterization that I did in the miniseries. Granted, I didn't grow up in the British class system to have that sort of perspective, but the TV version evoke much more sympathy from me than the film version, especially since it focused so heavily on Martin's Arthur character to the exclusion of the others. Still, of the Potter miniseries, I thought The Singing Detective was a much stronger work.
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