Bob Hoskins Tribute: “Pennies From Heaven” (1978)

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Our Bob Hoskins tribute on View From Across The Pond concludes with the role that was his first leading role and made him known to a wide announce, Dennis Potter’s “Pennies From Heaven”.  Now you might be thinking to yourself, “Wait a moment, this was with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, not Bob Hoskins! You are lying Mr. Dawson!” Actually, “Pennies From Heaven” was a British TV miniseries that was later turned into the underrated classic starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters.  The plot of the film and the TV miniseries remain actually the same, with the TV miniseries being more fleshed out because it is a TV show.  Anyway, now that distinction is cleared up, here is the review.

Bob Hoskins as Arthur and Cheryl Campbell as Eileen.

Set in Great Britain during the Great Depression, “Pennies From Heaven” follows the adventures of Arthur Parker, a down-on-his-luck sheet music salesman who sincerely believes in the emotions of the songs he is selling to music shops.  He lives with his harpy wife Joan (Gemma Craven) who always tells Arthur to shut up and to not worry so much about his songs.  As a result of this mismatch, Arthur routinely cheats on her with a bevy of women, including small-town teacher Eileen Everson (Cheryl Campbell).  The result of this affair with Eileen creates serious repercussions for all the characters in the drama.

While “Pennies From Heaven” is rightly classified as a magical realist musical, it is not a musical as you would see in a Broadway show or in Hollywood. Potter oftentimes turns what the audience knows of the traditional Broadway musical and turns it in on its head in nontraditional musical numbers that are oftentimes filled with melancholy.  In the clip before, Arthur is commiserating with a Tramp (Kenneth Colley), when the Tramp (who has done nothing of importance so far in the story) immediately breaks out lip syncing the song “Pennies From Heaven”:

The song reflects what is going on in Arthur’s mind, and not what the Tramp is feeling by singing.  This is a genius idea on the part of Potter in spinning the conventions of the movie musical in a new direction.

While this idea of flipping musical conventions is interesting, the result can often times be grating.  The lip syncing of songs sometimes feels weird and out of place, and often distracts from the story being told.  Oftentimes characters will break into lip syncing and there are moments when it seems that Potter wanted to showcase his favorite songs from the 1930s instead of actually telling a coherent story.   This is apparent in a notable scene when Eileen is fired from being a school teacher because she is carrying Arthur’s child.  The dialog in this scene is absolutely devastating and brilliant, and the actors carry this scene to great heights; the problem comes when Potter decides to put a little musical number into the scene which interrupts the flow (number starts at 10:22, but watch the full scene for full effect).

Inserting musical numbers into scenes that do not necessarily need them interrupts the viewers frame of mind and makes it more of an escapist reality than it already needs to be.  Perhaps Potter was trying to disengage the audience by constantly reminding them that they are watching a musical instead of a Kitchen Sink Drama, but if this was the case, the plan backfires and causes an annoyance for the audience that was trying to take in the fullness of the scene (and several other scenes in the series).

While featuring great scenes and performances, especially by Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell, “Pennies From Heaven” is not for everyone and can often times feel long and grating.  In fact, this is one occasion where the remake was actually better than the original.  That’s right: the “Pennies From Heaven” film is much much better than this.  If any of the viewers to this site wish to compare, rent both the miniseries and the film and post in the comments what you think of them both.  I can guarantee that the film version is much better told and more cohesive compared to its British TV counterpart.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 Stars.

Fun Fact: Features  performances from Phillip Jackson (Inspector Japp from “Poirot”), Kenneth Colley (Admiral Piett from Star Wars), and Peter Bowles.

Fun Fact Deux: Potter also wrote “The Singing Detective”, a series in the same style as “Pennies From Heaven” that was also turned into an American film.

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