Pennies from Heaven (TV series)

Pennies from Heaven (TV series)

"Pennies From Heaven" is a 1978 BBC television drama serial by the highly-regarded television playwright Dennis Potter. The title is taken from a famous song of the same name written by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston. It was noteworthy for being the first of several Potter productions ("The Singing Detective", "Lipstick on Your Collar") which mixed the reality of the drama with a dark fantasy content, having several of the main characters burst into miming to popular 1930s songs.


Starring Bob Hoskins in the role that made his reputation in the UK, the serial was directed by Piers Haggard and produced by (long-time Potter collaborator) Kenith Trodd. Co-starring were Gemma Craven as Joan Parker, Cheryl Campbell as Eileen, Kenneth Colley as the Accordion Man, and Hywel Bennett as Tom. Other notable members of the supporting cast included: Nigel Havers as Conrad Baker (the suave salesman); Rosemary Martin as Marjorie (the Gloucestershire whore); Jenny Logan as Irene (Joan's friend); Freddie Jones as Mr.Warner (Eileen's headmaster); Peter Cellier as (Arthur's) Bank Manager; Michael Biltern as Eileen's dad; Will Stamp as the Barman; Tudor Davies as the cafe customer (Davies was also choreographer for the series); Ronald Fraser as Major Paxville (Eileen's John); Dave King as the police inspector (who visits Joan): Philip Locke as the farmer (killed by Eileen); Peter Bowles as Prosecuting Counsel.

"Pennies From Heaven" also featured various cast who featured in previous and subsequent Potter productions. Bob Hoskins played Blake in "Schmoedipus" (BBC "Play for Today", 1974); Freddie Jones played Joe Jones in "Joe's Ark" (BBC "Play for Today", 1974) and Fall in Potter's adaptation of "The Mayor of Casterbridge" (BBC, 1978); Hywel Bennett played Willy Turner in "Where the Buffalo Roam" (BBC "The Wednesday Play", 1966) and Arthur Mailion in "Karaoke" (BBC/Channel 4, 1996); and Cheryl Campbell played Janet in "Rain on the Roof" (LWT, 1980).

From a technical perspective, "Pennies" was the last of Potter's television dramas to be filmed in a mix of on-location 16mm film and in-studio videotape. The production involved six weeks of filming on location, most of it in Oxfordshire, but with selected shooting in Potter's home county of the Forest of Dean (in Gloucestershire, between the River Severn and the River Wye). The school where Eileen teaches is the actual Forest school Potter attended, and the children who populate the school scenes were local children (cast as extras). In temporary remission from his chronic condition of psoriatic arthropathy (a rare skin and joints disease that first afflicted him at the age of twenty-four), Potter and his wife Margaret were able to visit the location shoot in Dean.

"Pennies" was transmitted in six episodes (each of approximately 75 minutes) from March 7 to April 11, 1978, on the BBC1 channel (the actual lengths of each episode vary). In its year of broadcast, "Pennies" won the British Academy Television Award for Most Original Programme (Hoskins & Campbell were also nominated for BAFTA acting awards). In a 2000 poll of industry professionals conducted by the British Film Institute to find the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century, "Pennies from Heaven" was placed at #21.

Film adaptation

In 1981, the series was adapted as a film, starring Steve Martin. Potter adapted his own screenplay, and Herbert Ross directed. Potter was nominated for the 1981 Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay — according to "The Times", MGM had him rewrite the script thirteen times. By most accounts, the movie was a resounding flop, despite the contributions of Bernadette Peters (as Eileen), Christopher Walken (as Tom) and Vernel Bagneris (as the Accordion Man). The MGM deal with Potter had multiple ramifications. Said producer Trodd in a 1990 "Times" article: "Bob [Hoskins] and Cheryl [Campbell] were terribly upset that they weren't considered for the film. I think they still blame Dennis and me in some way, but there was no way to argue the point with MGM.'"

MGM also required Potter to buy back his copyright from the BBC (according to the same 1990 "Times" article, Potter paid the BBC "something over $100,000" for the script). In addition, MGM prohibited broadcast of the BBC's own production of "Pennies" for approximately ten years. In 1989 or thereabouts, at the prompting of Alan Yentob, the controller of BBC2, Trodd was able to buy back the rights from MGM at "a very inconsiderable sum." The BBC promptly rebroadcast "Pennies" in February of 1990 for the first time since its original transmission.


The original television version was released on DVD by BBC Worldwide in 2004. The first and sixth episodes feature an optional audio commentary from Haggard and Trodd.

Potter's memorial service in November 1994 (at St James's Church in Piccadilly) began with those in attendance singing "Roll Along Prairie Moon" to the accompaniment of a jazz quintet. Cheryl Campbell and Freddie Jones read their scene in the schoolroom from "Pennies": "As Jones stifled his tears, Campbell said: 'Nobody ever ever stops yearning' . . . In a comic interlude Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, Alan Yentob, controller of BBC1, and Kenith Trodd, Potter's producer, read a scene from "Pennies". [And Trodd] told of their last meeting before the playwright's death from cancer: 'Dennis slugging Courvoisier, fortified by liquid heroin and morphine . . . after an hour he seemed to crumple and he said, 'I do have one very real fear of death. It is that you might get asked to speak at my memorial service'." ["The Independent", November 2 1994.]

Further reading

*cite journal |first= John|last= Mundy|year= 2006|title= Singing Detected: Blackpool and the Strange Case of the Missing Television Musical Dramas|journal= Journal of British Cinema and Television|publisher= Edinburgh University Press|url= |volume= 3|issue= 1|pages= 59–71|doi= 10.3366/JBCTV.2006.3.1.59


External links

*imdb title|id=0077060|title=Pennies From Heaven (1978 television drama)
* [ Entry] on British Film Institute's Top 100 television programs
* [ Encyclopedia of Television]
* [ British Film Institute Screen Online]
* [ "Deep in Dennis Potter's Forest"] , "The American Prospect" magazine

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