It’s time for our regular look at the TV that the BFI is showing, this time in June 2014. This month can best be summed up by two words: Dennis Potter. Here’s Pennies from Heaven: it’s not one of the plays showing in the season, but Bob Hoskins, you know?
Fri 6 June 18:20 NFT2
Stand Up, Nigel Barton
BBC 1965. Dir Gareth Davies. With Keith Barron, Jack Woolgar, Katherine Parr. 72min
Displaying a breathtaking mastery of the possibilities of the TV play, Potter explores his own past to shine a forensic light on class. His school days are portrayed using adults to play children (a technique he returned to in Blue Remembered Hills), while asides to camera and flashbacks mix seamlessly to evoke his home life and its painful contrast with Oxford University. It’s a clash of cultures that leaves Nigel Barton, Potter’s alter-ego, riven with guilt, and which was to inform so much of Potter’s drama.
Joint ticket available with Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton £16.50, concs £12 (Members pay £1.50 less)
Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton
BBC 1965. With Keith Barron, Valerie Gearon, John Bailey. 77min
We now find Nigel standing as a Labour candidate in a solidly Tory seat. Once more, Potter drew on his own experience of standing in the 1964 elections to create a searing indictment of the democratic system, as Nigel is mauled by a cynical party agent and has his principles tested to the limit. Keith Barron gives the performance of his career as the play moves towards its brilliant climax, and Potter gives voice to an inner anger that was never to leave him.
Sun 8 June 18:45 NFT2
BBC 1975. Dir Philip Dudley. With Dandy Nichols, Michael Bryant, Leslie Dwyer. 4 x 50min + interval
Late Call is a fine example of Potter’s great skill at adapting a novel for television. This four-part production of Angus Wilson’s 1964 book deals with an elderly couple adjusting to retirement and the problems of living with their fastidious son. Typical Potter themes such as class division emerge, as well as the notion of time and the distance between generations. Potter also employs a series of flashbacks to denote the psychological state of the mother and, another vital Potter theme, how the past influences who we are in the present.
Tue 10 June 20:30 NFT3
Performance: Message for Posterity
BBC 1997. Dir David Jones. With Eric Porter, John Neville, Sophie Thompson. 90min
Message for Posterity was first written in 1967 and the original production was sadly lost, allowing the BBC to revisit it in this excellent 1997 remake. Radical painter James Player (Porter) is commissioned to paint the portrait of the recently deposed Tory Prime Minister (Neville). For Player this is an opportunity to settle old scores with the British Establishment. A relationship develops between the two men which oscillates between deep mutual respect and ill-disguised loathing for what the other stands for, and this gives the chance for Potter to lay bare political tensions in a deeply moving way.
Thu 12 June 18:00 NFT3
Dennis Potter in Edinburgh + Panel discussion on The Politics of Potter
Ch4 1994. Editor Julie Hall. 70min
In 1993 Dennis Potter was invited to give the centrepiece address at the Edinburgh International Television Festival – the MacTaggart Lecture. He chose the title ‘Occupying Powers’ and used the opportunity to speak his mind about the state of broadcasting. This being Potter, he relates this subject to the wider malaise he sees in society, from Thatcherism to his damning views on the Murdoch empire. It results in one of the most influential lectures of modern times.
Panel to include: producer Ken Trodd, writer Peter Flannery, writer Trevor Griffiths, script editor Roger Smith and actor Pheobe Nicholls (work permitting)
Sun 15 June 15:00 NFT2
Playhouse: The Bonegrinder
ITV 1968. Dir Joan Kemp-Welch. With George Baker, Margaret Tyzak, Weston Gavin. 75min
When American seaman Sam meets respectable British banker George in a pub renowned for prostitution, George’s whole culture and way of life is threatened. Concentrating on the depressing minutiae of English suburbia, Potter skilfully creates an effective allegory on the cultural differences between the UK and the US, exposing both British hypocrisy and US imperialism through a dark domestic tale of domination and blackmail. Margaret Tyzak is magnificent as the wife shackled to a husband she utterly despises.
+ Cream In My Coffee
ITV 1980. Dir Gavin Millar. With Peggy Ashcroft, Lionel Jeffries, Shelagh McLeoad, Martin Shaw, Peter Chelsom. 93min
Cream In My Coffee also deals with unhappiness in a marriage that has a betrayal at its core. This Prix Italia-winning production stars Peggy Ashcroft, who received the BAFTA for best actress. The production lavishly recreates the world of 1930s music, and Gavin Millar’s direction beautifully serves Potter’s collision of past with present and the ominous feeling of impending tragedy.
Tue 17 June 20:30 NFT2
ITV 1971. Dir Barry Davis. With Bill Maynard, John Carson, Aimee Delamain, Desmond Parry. 51min
Drawing on his own brief time working for Fleet Street, Potter takes the opportunity to settle a few scores with this witty and highly inventive take on the insidious headline culture of our tabloid press. Hubbard (Maynard) is about to retire from the paper, but as he reflects on a lifetime of manufacturing the headlines, the futility he sees causes him to take strange and drastic action. The scenario is cleverly framed by a TV critic reviewing the play in vintage 70s style, phoning it in as he watches it transmit.
+ Saturday Night Theatre: Lay Down Your Arms
ITV 1980. Dir Christopher Morahan.
With Nikolas Simmonds, Leonard Trolley, Julia Jones. 73min
Dennis Potter’s secondment to the linguistics division to learn Russian during his national service directly influences this clever play. Private Hawk is conscripted, by virtue of his high IQ and ability to speak fluent Russian, to work for British Intelligence. Yet Hawk’s lowly background clashes with the British Establishment around him, tempting him to tell ever bigger lies, and to start interrogating their unquestioning patriotism. Potter brilliantly shows how the seeds of betrayal are sown.
Fri 20 June 17:50 NFT2
Play for Today: Traitor
BBC 1971. Dir Alan Bridges. With John Le Mesurier, Jack Hedley, Vincent Ball. 58min
Defector Adrian Harris (Le Mesurier) sits alone in a utilitarian Moscow apartment awaiting the arrival of a UK press delegation, and the chance to explain his motives for ‘betraying’ his country. In a series of flashbacks we witness the ritual humiliations Harris suffered at public school. Potter’s fascinating exploration of the innermost psychology of the ‘traitor’ exposes the links between his childhood and the man he himself was to become.
+ Blade on the Feather
ITV 1980. Dir Richard Loncraine. With Donald Pleasence, Denholm Elliott, Kika Markham, Phoebe Nicholls, Tom Conti. 81min
Potter returns to the subject of betraying one’s country, and the link with ‘the playing fields of Eton,’ in this stylish production boasting an incredible cast. When Professor Jason Cavendish (Pleasence) is visited by a strange young man (Conti) who is clearly interested in his past, it quickly becomes apparent that Cavendish has troubling secrets that, in old age, are pricking at his conscience. Richard Loncraine’s direction drips with a brooding menace, and perfectly elucidates this neurotic and morally-bankrupt world.
Thu 26 June 18:10 NFT3
Close Up: Dennis Potter: Under the Skin + Talk with Mark Ravenhill
BBC 1998. Dir Julian Birkett. 45min
This candid documentary looks at how Potter’s psychological make up and background fed into his plays. By interviewing actors, producers and directors who worked with him, the film builds a complex picture of a troubled but remarkable man. Followed by a talk given by Mark Ravenhill, a highly successful contemporary playwright (The Cut, Donmar Warehouse 2006, Terry Pratchett’s Nation, NT 2009) and writer in residence with the RSC, who will be offering his personal response to the work of Dennis Potter.
Champions’ priority booking: May 5
Members’ priority booking opens: May 6
Public booking opens: May 13
Prices (excluding gift aid)
£6.65 (member concs)
£8.15 (non-members concs)
Under 16s £6.00
Prices (including gift aid and voluntary contribution)
£7.50 (member concs)
£9 (non-members concs)
All shows are £6 on Tuesdays. Conc prices are available to senior citizens, students, unwaged and disability visitors. Proof of eligibility may be required.
As always, visit the BFI web site for more details.