Pennies From Heaven is a 1978 BBC television drama serial by the highly-regarded television playwright Dennis Potter. The title is taken from a famous song of the same name written by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston. It was noteworthy for being the first of several Potter productions (The Singing Detective, Lipstick on Your Collar) which mixed the reality of the drama with a dark fantasy content, having several of the main characters burst into miming to popular 1930s songs.
Pennies From Heaven also featured various cast who featured in previous and subsequent Potter productions. Bob Hoskins played Blake in Schmoedipus (BBC Play for Today, 1974); Freddie Jones played Joe Jones in Joe's Ark (BBC Play for Today, 1974) and Fall in Potter's adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge (BBC, 1978); Hywel Bennett played Willy Turner in Where the Buffalo Roam (BBC The Wednesday Play, 1966) and Arthur Mailion in Karaoke (BBC/Channel 4, 1996); and Cheryl Campbell played Janet in Rain on the Roof (LWT, 1980).
From a technical perspective, Pennies was the last of Potter's television dramas to be filmed in a mix of on-location 16mm film and in-studio videotape. The production involved six weeks of filming on location, most of it in Oxfordshire, but with selected shooting in Potter's home county of the Forest of Dean (in Gloucestershire, between the River Severn and the River Wye). The school where Eileen teaches is the actual Forest school Potter attended, and the children who populate the school scenes were local children (cast as extras). In temporary remission from his chronic condition of psoriatic arthropathy (a rare skin and joints disease that first afflicted him at the age of twenty-four), Potter and his wife Margaret were able to visit the location shoot in Dean.
Pennies was transmitted in six episodes (each of approximately 75 minutes) from March 7 to April 11, 1978, on the BBC1 channel (the actual lengths of each episode vary). In its year of broadcast, Pennies won the British Academy Television Award for Most Original Programme (Hoskins & Campbell were also nominated for BAFTA acting awards). In a 2000 poll of industry professionals conducted by the British Film Institute to find the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century, Pennies from Heaven was placed at #21.
In 1981, the series was adapted as a film, starring Steve Martin. Potter adapted his own screenplay, and Herbert Ross directed. Potter was nominated for the 1981 Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay — according to The Times, MGM had him rewrite the script thirteen times. By most accounts, the movie was a resounding flop, despite the contributions of Bernadette Peters (as Eileen), Christopher Walken (as Tom) and Vernel Bagneris (as the Accordion Man). The MGM deal with Potter had multiple ramifications. Said producer Trodd in a 1990 Times article: "Bob [Hoskins] and Cheryl [Campbell] were terribly upset that they weren't considered for the film. I think they still blame Dennis and me in some way, but there was no way to argue the point with MGM.'"
MGM also required Potter to buy back his copyright from the BBC (according to the same 1990 Times article, Potter paid the BBC "something over $100,000" for the script). In addition, MGM prohibited broadcast of the BBC's own production of Pennies for approximately ten years. In 1989 or thereabouts, at the prompting of Alan Yentob, the controller of BBC2, Trodd was able to buy back the rights from MGM at "a very inconsiderable sum." The BBC promptly rebroadcast Pennies in February of 1990 for the first time since its original transmission.
Potter's memorial service in November 1994 (at St James's Church in Piccadilly) began with those in attendance singing Roll Along Prairie Moon to the accompaniment of a jazz quintet. Cheryl Campbell and Freddie Jones read their scene in the schoolroom from Pennies: "As Jones stifled his tears, Campbell said: 'Nobody ever ever stops yearning' . . . In a comic interlude Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, Alan Yentob, controller of BBC1, and Kenith Trodd, Potter's producer, read a scene from Pennies. [And Trodd] told of their last meeting before the playwright's death from cancer: 'Dennis slugging Courvoisier, fortified by liquid heroin and morphine . . . after an hour he seemed to crumple and he said, 'I do have one very real fear of death. It is that you might get asked to speak at my memorial service'.