Brash 'Pennies' to Rain on KCET

Desperate, down-on-his-luck Arthur Parker urges a banker to loan him money to open his own business. The prudent banker wants collateral. Arthur has none. The banker refuses the loan. Arthur pleads. The banker isn't moved. Arthur protests. The banker won't budge. Arthur is outraged. The banker orders him out. Livid with anger, Arthur opens his mouth. . . .

And sings.

Then Arthur and the banker dance. . . .

With each other.

Well , this is grand nonsense, the kind of refreshingly audacious and utterly charming entertainment epitomizing "Pennies From Heaven," an 11-year-old BBC series being consolidated into three weighty chunks on KCET Channel 28. Starring Bob Hoskins as Arthur, the repackaged 2 1/2-hour episodes air at 9 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Wednesday.

Despite its period setting, there is nothing dated about the message of human resilience in "Pennies From Heaven." Made into a theatrical movie starring Steve Martin in 1981, this earlier BBC rendering of Dennis Potter's Depression-era story, about the adventurous stumblings of a traveling sheet music salesman, explores the popular culture of the 1930s with a boldness and brashness almost alien to American-made television. Often, it just knocks you out.

This is a play with musical exclamation points. Characters suddenly break into song, miming old tunes of the period that evolve into lilting, melodious, fully choreographed daydreams that fleetingly relieve the drabness of their lives. It's like singing in the shower--with someone else's voice and without the shower.

"I know the kind of songs that sell, I do," Arthur boasts. Nevertheless, sales are down as he motors through the English countryside peddling his pop songs, depressed about business and his sexually aloof wife, Joan (Gemma Craven), who is at home with her own musical daydreams.

Blue moon,

You saw me standing alone,

Without a dream in my heart,

Without a love of my own.

Meanwhile, the hard-laboring Arthur is relieving his anxieties in a pub, when he suddenly breaks into mimed song ("Zing Went the Strings of My Heart") and dances with his fellow patrons, including a local tart with whom he concludes the evening in the back seat of his car.

Soon, however, he goes "zing" over prim schoolteacher Eileen Everson (Cheryl Campbell), a closet romantic who in one especially funny sequence in a church, is at the pulpit ready to read a psalm in front of the congregation and a stern pastor, but insteads begins miming, "You've got me cryin' again. . . ."

Wonderful!

Although a bit disjointed at times, "Pennies From Heaven" has a fine cast and a director in Piers Haggard who is adept at staging musical sequences in a broad way that conveys Potter's irony and mocking intent.

And what delicious incongruities, as confrontations dissolve into song, transporting that dancing fireplug Hoskins into a dreamy realm that becomes a sort of reality. In a sense, Arthur is living the very pop tunes he's selling. His lips part, and from his mouth comes a crooning tenor, a jolting, almost-tinny sound absurdly out of sync with with the seething, gruffly passionate man who has just been speaking.

Because of the contrast in their styles and personas, Hoskins is more effective in the role than was Martin, from whom the bizarre and outrageous are almost expected.

As they are from the ingenious Potter, who is Britain's most celebrated, best known TV dramatist. He wrote "Pennies From Heaven" before writing that acclaimed miniseries "The Singing Detective" and the equally improbable "Blue Remembered Hills," a BBC play about a group of 7-year-olds playing and fighting together on a summer day in 1943. The children were played by adult actors.

The outlandish elements of "Pennies From Heaven" speak for themselves, including a mysterious street accordion player (Kenneth Colley) who acknowledges nonexistent applause and a door-to-door salesman (Nigel Havers) who joins Joan in singing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

Typical of Potter, "Pennies from Heaven" has its dark twists, with the luminous Eileen taking up an unlikely new profession and Arthur being accused of murder--all of this punctuated by happy tunes. That is the point, of course, for these pop musical interludes are rays of optimism brightening dark times, infusing jolts that affirm something very positive about the human spirit.

"Pennies From Heaven" is a little bit of heaven from Britain.

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