Women Seem Wicked, When You’re Unwanted… Dennis Potter’s SECRET FRIENDS Reviewed

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BD. Region Free. Indicator. 15.

Dennis Potter (1935-1994) was a prolific, idiosyncratic TV writer from 1960 onwards and a gratifyingly ongoing irritant to the Daily Mail tendency. The BBC production of his Brimstone And Treacle (directed by Barry Davis and broadcast in 1976) raised hackles by suggesting the therapeutic benefits of rape (by The Devil, no less). Despite bearing the unmistakable, er, influence of two 1968 films (Pasolini’s Theorem and a certain Roman Polanski effort), Brimstone was cited by supporters as definitive proof of Potter’s ferocious originality though one imagines that, in the post #MeToo era, it (and Richard Loncraine’s 1982 feature remake, in which the execrable Sting replaced Michael Kitchen as the demon lover) would invoke more hostility than ever.

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Potter peaked in 1978 with Piers Haggard’s six part BBC adaptation of his Pennies From Heaven, a narrative tour de force in which song and dance numbers are mimed at apposite points. It didn’t exactly hurt that a perfectly cast (as a romantically inclined but ill-fated sheet music salesman) Bob Hoskins was on superb form (when was he ever not on superb form?) throughout.

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13p?!? Pennies indeed…

“Ferociously original” as he may have been, Potter was never above recycling good ideas that had previously seemed to go over OK. His Blue Remembered Hills (directed by Brian Gibson as part of the Beeb’s Play For Today strand in 1979) revived the “children played by adult actors” gag he first tentatively deployed for Keith Barron’s character in Stand Up, Nigel Barton (a Wednesday Play, directed in 1965 by Gareth Davis). Sometimes, though, the revival of such devices was to distinctly diminishing returns…

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The Singing Detective (1986) shoe-horned Pennies From Heaven’s brilliant narrative conceit into a (rather dull, self-pitying) story where it didn’t really belong. The best thing about this one is that Mary Whitehouse proposed an ingenious, totally baseless theory about Potter’s inspiration for such “dirty” material, a proposal which resulted in her being successfully sued for libel by Dennis’s Mum… oh, how we laughed! Despite Mary’s moral and my aesthetic objections, The Singing Detective became a substantial success. Potter put his first foot seriously wrong, though, with the 1989 four parter Blackeyes, another racy BBC serial for which he insisted on directing his own script.

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Casting my mind back half a life time ago, I can’t pretend (not very convincingly, anyway) that I didn’t enjoy the spectacle of Gina Bellman (who had supplanted Joanne Whalley in the pantheon of Potter’s sexual obsessions) mincing around in various states of undress, but DP’s direction proved embarassingly ham-fisted and (for a writer who habitually took an oblique, allusive tack) sometimes shockingly on the nose.

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Monkeys about to be spanked on a pedestal in Dennis Potter’s Pantheon (caveat emptor, this is NOT a scene from any of the films discussed here)…

Potter’s sophomore and final stab at directing was Secret Friends (1991), a feature adaptation of his 1986 novel Ticket To Ride. Much of its action is set on a train (because it’s a journey of self realisation, right?), bringing to mind (“ferocious originality” notwithstanding) Return To Waterloo (1984), in which similarly over reaching director Ray Davies blotted his brilliant career escutcheon and its brightest adornment.

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Half way through dining on fish in First class, illustrator John (Alan Bates) finds himself in the throes of a profound amnesia attack. “As memories, fantasies and psychotic visions collide” (to quote the blurb), two straight edge businessmen sitting opposite John are drawn into his attempts to get a grip on his shifting “reality”, which notably involves them excitedly goggling at his assignation with an eye-scorchingly glamorous prostitute (Bellman) who, we eventually discover, is John’s wife (nudge, nudge) Helen. John can only, er, “function” in the context of this role-playing scenario but the fantasy is taking over and gradually killing their marriage. John’s whore / Madonna complex seems to stem from his father’s contempt for his mother. It’s also suggested that Dad might have sexually abused young John. Make of all this what you will…

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Limited, like most of the Indicator releases I get to see, to 3,000 copies, Secret Friends is looking good for its UK BD premiere in this HD remaster. Bonus materials include an appreciation of the film by Graham Fuller, the editor of Potter On Potter and a short interview with Ian McNeice, who plays one of those bewildered businessmen. You get the expected trailer and image gallery, plus a 36-page booklet (which I haven’t seen) including interviews with Potter, a new essay by Jeff Billington, full film credits and contemporary reviews. Gina Bellman, who (despite not reciprocating her director’s openly declared erotic fixation on her) has always previously spoken positively about her working relationship with Potter, is not interviewed here. Whether, in the fulness of time and the current climate, she decides that she was exploited, objectified or whatever by him, remains to be seen.

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