Pennies from Heaven (1978) is the TV show that pre-dated the 1981 Steve Martin movie about a song salesman on the road to trouble. It’s an all-singing, all-dancing bleak drama by Dennis Potter, starring Bob Hoskins. It takes place in the 1930s and is filled with pop music songs of the day, like “Roll Along, Prairie Moon.” You can rent it from Netflix or Facets. Amazon‘s selling the region 1/NTSC DVD set for $12.
What Pennies from Heaven teaches us first is that, wow, Bob Hoskins is a really good actor. You’ll learn this for yourself when you watch his crooked character go from lustful to liar to adulter to coward and yet still brings to the surface qualities that, if not redeemable, then are at least sympathetic. If you don’t believe me, just ask BAFTA, who nominated Hoskins and co-star Cheryl Campbell for best actors the same year Pennies won for most original program.
Hoskins plays Arthur, a failing sheet music salesman who is unhappy at home. It’s unclear whether his wife is cold to him because of the way he is (as suggested when she fantasizes about him being dead) or if he’s become the way he is because she’s cold to him (as he might claim). His business trips take him to a small town where he meets Eileen, a naive school teacher. After following her home, he seduces her in her living room after claiming to be unmarried. When he discovers he’s gotten her pregnant, he disappears. Eileen is fired from the school house for her indiscretion, moves into the city, where no one is hiring, is forced into prostitution to pay the rent, and winds up in the arms of a pimp who pays for her abortion. Only then does Arthur re-appear in her life. He dashes his dreams of owning a record shop and runs away with Eileen, filthy rich on the earnings of her wayward career. But all is not well with Eileen, who’s gone a bit funny in the head after all she’s been through. While on the run from the police, after being mistaken for the murderer of a poor young blind girl, Arthur endures Eileen’s murder of an old war buddy of his, and everything spirals out of control.
Arthur, though wicked in many ways, is also a true romantic. He’s just got his romance misplaced and in too many baskets. He bounces back and forth between his wife and Eileen through most of the show, and it’s understood that if his wife had accepted his advances, he may not have fallen in love with someone else, but it’s hard to say. Further highlighting his romantic nature, Arthur believes whole-heartedly in the ideal life that the songs he sells promise. When life doesn’t live up to the expectation of the songs, he loses his way, becomes confused and frustrated, with nowhere to turn. They are his Bible, and he spends most of the show singing and dancing to these tunes that he loves so much. This is what makes Potter’s series stand out from the other dramas on television at the time. No matter how serious the scene, how wicked the characters, at the drop of a hat, the lighting would change and they’d be lip-syncing with some classic 30s pop tune, dancing around the set like buffoons. You wonder if it’s supposed to be funny and can’t help laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, even when the story may be about lusting after a blind school girl or wanting to kill a spouse. But it’s difficult not to laugh when all of a sudden Bob Hoskins is doing a jig in a barn and the hay stands up to dance with him.
The final gem of Pennies is Kenneth Colley, who plays the epileptic accordion-playing beggar. He stands on the corner with his case open, saying, “Thank you very, very much, sir,” even if there’s no one giving him coins. Another complicated character, one you love almost instantly and pity for his misfortunes, even though it’s revealed that he has a dark, murderous streak, one that Arthur gets accidentally wrapped up in. Oddly, without Arthur’s wife even knowing that Arthur had given the accordionist a lift in his car, she saw the man in a street, and momentarily mistook him for Arthur, despite their different looks. What does this mean, do you think?