Are you familiar with the work of Dennis Potter? If not, then when I describe this series as a musical comedy where rock and roll collides head on with the fall of the British Empire, you should be running for the hills about now. As odd as is sounds in premise, this six part mini series is not to be missed.
Set during the Suez Crisis of 1956, two young Russian language translation clerks are counting down their days to freedom while trapped in the marble halls of the War Office in Whitehall.
Private Francis Francis [Giles Thomas] is a sweet but rather gormless young Welsh lad. Saddled with an unimaginative name, a nervous stammer, all the grace of a landlocked walrus and a nationality known for its fondness of sheep bothering, Francis is not prepared for Army life. He has a love of Russian poetry and a crush on his upstairs neighbour, Sylvia, who happens to be the wife of his new Corporal — a dangerous combination.
Private Mick Hopper [Ewan McGregor] is a dreamer. With six weeks of his National Service stint to go, his mind is far from the job. His office hours are whiled away in daydreams where the entire office joins in his song and dance routines of 50s songs. This was Ewan McGregor’s first role out of drama school and he plays Mick perfectly.
Sylvia Berry [Louise Germaine] is the beautiful young wife of Corporal Pete Berry [Douglas Henshall]. Beaten by her husband, tormenting and tormented by Francis’ aunt and uncle downstairs, idolised by Francis and lusted after a mad organist. She is surface fluff that no man, not even Francis, can see through.
With the Suez crisis threatening, the senior staff members are fearful of another war, while the junior staff are more worried about never escaping the Army. Francis has to deal with insane relatives and a beautiful damsel in distress on the home front. Hopper is escorting the daughter of a colleague to the theatre. Sylvia is flirting with Francis and fighting off a colleague of her own. In the end the core cast gets what they were looking for, even if it turns out not to be found where they originally started looking.
The musical scenes are all mimed to the original numbers and get more surreal as the series progresses. This puts any Hollywood musical to shame, this is how music should be used.
The writing, like all of Dennis Potter’s work, shows what film and television should be. It is imaginative and original, realistic and fantastic, and so utterly insane in its concept that only the British could have produced it.
Music is the heart of this show and it is used to the hilt. Much of the music for me is now so identifiable with the series that it has an oddly hypnotic effect on me. As soon as I hear it, I have to see the show again. Look out for Blue Suede Shoes, The Great Pretender, Little Bitty Pretty One, Lover Boy and the unforgettable theme of the show; Connie Francis’ Lipstick On Your Collar.
The lighting is superb and particularly eerie throughout the musical numbers in the office. It sets the scene beautifully without the viewer getting lost in the jump from reality to dream.
Don’t be led astray and think this is something you can plonk the kids down in front of. This is an adult show and quite raunchy in parts. It also has some very adult ideals with spousal abuse, homosexual references, racism, death, prostitution, sex and war all featured to various degrees — some are blatant, but others are quite subtle. And then there’s the naked angel that cavorts through Mick Hopper’s musical fantasies.
This is Dennis Potter’s masterpiece. Far superior to the later contemporary Karaoke and futuristic Cold Lazarus, it is to be classed with the wonderful Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven. This is television at its best. If you love the music or are a fan of Ewan McGregor this is a must for your collection.
Published Epinions — 15.10.2000
Published WrittenByMe — 29.04.2001
Video available from Amazon.