Late 1970s Britain was not particularly accustomed to campaigning graffiti, but in 1978, there was an explosion of slogans on railway bridges etc declaring that 'George Davies is Innocent!' It says something for the power of this TV series that a few wags wrote 'The Accordion Man is innocent!' in public places.
(For those unaware of the plot, the accordion man is a key character in this six-episode series. When a blind girl is raped and murdered on the road to Gloucester -- the plot was conceived long before the Fred West crimes, by the way -- the accordion man is the principal suspect. Another suspect is the music salesman Arthur Parker, who we know to be a liar, cheat and two-timer with slightly unusual fetishes.)
If you haven't seen this series before, you'll be startled by the lip-synching. On several occasions each episode, at the end of a dramatic piece of dialogue, the lighting will suddenly change, and the characters will start to mime and dance to a piece of 1920s/1930s music. When the song is finished, the characters return to precisely where they were before the musical interruption. It's a strange device -- quite different from conventional musicals or operas -- but extremely powerful in showing how music transports people to another world. Tolkien uses a ring to transport Frodo to another world, Pullman uses the Subtle Knife to transport Lyra, and Dennis Potter uses song. There is a very powerful speech in episode #2 where Bob Hoskins, playing Arthur, describes the impact of love and song as "pennies from heaven", very much as a religious experience.
For me, this is Potter's masterpiece. It's less polished than the Singing Detective, but I think that this helps to frame the principal issues of love, sex, death, music and spirituality more starkly. Many of the settings come from Potter's own experience -- the Forest of Dean, the village schoolroom etc.
There are two very beautiful actresses in this production -- Cheryl Campbell and Gemma Craven -- and it's difficult to convey the shock created in 1978 by the scene in which Craven bears her rouged nipples. (Previously she had been known only for appearing in the children's film of Cinderella, and she played her Potter character in a very child-like way until this scene.) It's all very tame now, but the scene still has some power, provided you can overcome any disbelief that the Craven character would ever marry Hoskins!
The 3-DVD set comes with precious few extras -- just a photo gallery and a commentary on episodes #1 and #6 -- and as you would expect, the production is in a 4x3 frame and monaural. Picture quality is cleaned-up 70s standard, and the sound quality is OK. Many of the records that the characters mime to are presented with all their scratches. (Curiously these scratches aren't so audible on the 2-CD collection that used to accompany the series.)
This is a fantastic series, but I don't pretend that it's for everyone. It comes from an era when TV playwrights aimed to produce more than just entertainment.
George Davies, by the way, may have been innocent of whatever he was originally jailed for. But he was back in prison several years later on a totally separate conviction that people didn't seem to dispute.
As for the Accordion Man, well ... you'll just have to watch the series!
From his early days, Dennis Potter was obsessed by the nature of the religious experience, particularly the Christian version. The black and white 'Son of Man' play for the BBC examined the earthly life of Jesus. 'Brimstone and Treacle' examined the possibilities when the Devil visits one home.
'Pennies from Heaven' took elements from the gospel story and mixed it with a Bonnie and Clyde story of a man and his lover on the run. Thus Arthur Parker tries to evangelise the world with his musical message -- he gets very few takers, at least initially. In the end, he is tried by a Pilate-like figure and executed for a crime he didn't commit. Having been hanged, he then appears to the Mary Magdalene figure (Cheryl Campbell playing a prostitute). The analogy falls down with the Accordion Man, a key character in the play who has no direct biblical equivalent -- although he may be a Judas Iscariot figure who, burdened with guilt, commits suicide. But the most heretical aspect of this analogy is that Arthur Parker as a Christ figure is such a duplicitous liar and cheat.
The casting in this magnificent production is excellent. The part seemed tailor-made for Bob Hoskins, and it's hard to imagine Steve Martin playing this role in the American film version. The two leading ladies are outstanding: Cheryl Campbell a superb actress whose dancing improved immensely, and Gemma Craven a great dancer whose acting ability surprised many critics at the time.
I don't doubt that this is one of the most important musicals yet made, and along with 'The Singing Detective', it's a fitting tribute to the genius of Dennis Potter. Just before the hanging in the final episode, there's a hint that pennies from heaven are nothing more than the arc of urine created by schoolboys competing to see who can aim highest. That at the very last gasp Potter tries to trivialise the entire concept with this joke is a mark of his mastery of the dramatic form.