Friday, January 22, 2021

Moonlight on the Highway

Moonlight on the Highway (SC: Dennis Potter, D: James MacTaggart, GB 1969). Ian Holm as David Peters, the Al Bowlly fan, lip-syncing to "Lover Come Back To Me". My screenshot from YouTube.

ITV Saturday Night Theatre : Moonlight on the Highway
    GB 1969. A Kestrel Production. From London Weekend Television. PC: Kestrel Productions / London Weekend Television (LWT). Original network: ITV. P: Kenith Trodd.
    D: James MacTaggart. SC: Dennis Potter. Cin: b&w – 1,33:1. PD: John Clements. Musical advisor: Kenith Trodd. Sound: mono.
    C: Ian Holm (David Peters), Anthony Bate (Dr. Chilton), Deborah Grant (Marie Holdsworth), Robin Wentworth (Al Bowlly Appreciation Society President), Derek Woodward (first medical student), John Flanagan (second medical student), Frederick Peisley (Gerald), Wally Patch (Old Londoner), Arthur Lovegrove (Landlord), Michael Burrell (Barman),
    Soundtrack listing from Wikipedia (all songs recorded by Al Bowlly and the Lew Stone Orchestra):
"Moonlight on the Highway" (21 March 1938)
"Lover, Come Back to Me" (13 November 1933)
"Just Let Me Look at You" (12 August 1938)
"Easy Come, Easy Go" (15 June 1934)
"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (12 December 1933)
"Oh! Mr Moon" (12 April 1933)
"My Melancholy Baby" (Pathé News film extract)
    Songs quoted in dialogue but do not feature on the soundtrack include: "You Couldn't Be Cuter", "Marie", "Isn't It Heavenly?", "I Love You Truly", "Love Is the Sweetest Thing".
    52 min
    Telepremiere: 12 April 1969 ITV – Independent Television.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 22 Jan 2021.

In memoriam Sir Ian Holm (1931–2020).

Bhob Stewart synopsis from IMDb: "Writing for ITV Saturday Night Theatre (1969), Dennis Potter introduced the notion that popular music expresses the yearning of the human spirit for a better world. A troubled young man, David Peters (Ian Holm), claims, "Once dreams were possible, that's what the popular songs told us." Rejecting rock music of the day, Peters is immersed in the tunes of Thirties crooner Al Bowlly (killed during the London blitz). He collects Bowlly memorabilia, publishes the Bowlly fan-club newsletter, and finds pleasure in lip-synching Bowlly records but his obsession with Bowlly masks certain darker events in his past." —Bhob Stewart <> IMDb

AA: Moonlight on the Highway is a Dennis Potter revelation from the year 1969, made long before the trend-setting Pennies from Heaven (1978), in which actors mimed to vintage popular songs in scenes integrated into the narrative.

In Moonlight on the Highway there is only one scene with direct miming, but it explores old popular music as the soundtrack of our emotions in ways that are already as moving and illuminating as in Pennies from Heaven.

In a National Health Service waiting room the camera tracks from one face to another, and while the title song "Moonlight on the Highway" is played, sung by Al Bowlly, we hear intimate thoughts of patients in a series of interior monologues, all starting with: "I remember, when... ". It is an engaging atlas of faces, caught in expressive close-ups.

The only one who starts with "I don't remember" is David Peters (Ian Holm), who has an appointment with a psychiatrist. When the camera moves to his extreme close-up we see superimposed images that we will learn are from his mother's funeral six weeks ago. All his grown-up life, David has been his mother's caregiver. In another superimposition we see memory flashes from his other major trauma, being sexually assaulted at age 10.

Many familiar Dennis Potter hallmarks are already in place: the presence of the disruptive outsider, the direct camera address, the nonlinear narrative, and the fluid use of flashbacks.

In Pennies from Heaven, a liberal amount of Al Bowlly records was consumed, and reportedly Potter himself was at his most productive at night, with old Bowlly records playing in the background.

Moonlight on the Highway is wholly devoted to Bowlly. Peters is the editor-in-chief of the Al Bowlly fanzine, and the movie ends in an annual meeting of the Al Bowlly Appreciation Society. For Peters, Bowlly records have become superior replacements for his own feelings, for example in the "Just Let Me Look At You" scene with Marie Holdsworth, the researcher working for a television documentary.

Dennis Potter explores the power of vintage songs as a time machine, leading us "down memory lane". These often schmalzy and corny songs can be vehicles of escapism and nostalgia. But perhaps they can also offer a Gegenbild, a counter-image to an oppressive reality, a utopia, helping us survive overwhelming ordeals.

Sir Ian Holm (1931–2020) is at his best in the leading role. One of England's most highly regarded Shakespearean actors, he had made his television debut in 1965 as Richard III in The War of the Roses series edited from Shakespeare's plays.

Holm's interpretation of David Peters is complex and deeply moving, conveying multiple traumata, also wartime shocks from the Blitz years, but also genuine passion, his capacity of love channelled into an Al Bowlly obsession. Ian Holm's performance is a subtle study in psychopathology, covering some of the same ground with Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates and the twisted contortions of Jerry Lewis.


Wikipedia: Synopsis

"Al Bowlly obsessive David Peters (Ian Holm) is visited in his run-down bedsit by Marie (Deborah Grant), a researcher for Severn Television, who is collecting material for a documentary about the singer. David is the editor of the Al Bowlly Appreciation Society fanzine and Marie hopes to secure him as the programme advisor. David is enthusiastic about the offer but has other things on his mind; he has an appointment with an NHS psychiatrist the following day and his anxiety about the meeting, coupled with the novelty of entertaining his beautiful visitor, leads him to make an unwelcome pass at her. Marie fights off his advances and runs out the flat, leaving a defeated David to reflect on his problems."

"In the waiting room the next day, David gets into an altercation with an elderly patient who has never heard of Al Bowlly. By the time he is finally called to see Dr Chilton (Anthony Bate), David is agitated by the older man's ignorance – especially as today is the anniversary of Bowlly's death. The doctor's calm demeanour, however, soon puts David at ease and, with some difficulty, David explains that his mother died six weeks earlier after having nursed her throughout his adult life and harrowingly recounts how, at the age of ten, he was abducted by a stranger and sexually assaulted. Alongside these traumatic events, David hints as some "wicked" acts he has committed but Chilton stops him before he can elaborate on these and prescribes him some anti-depressants. He is warned not to drink alcohol or eat cheese while taking the tablets as they will "make [his] tongue wag.""

"After David leaves, Chilton informs the two student doctors who have been in attendance throughout the session that he believes David's claustrophobic relationship with his disabled mother and the earlier torment of sexual abuse have resulted in a sense of sexual disgust that he overcomes in his obsession with the innocent music of Al Bowlly. Chilton dismisses his junior colleagues' concerns that David may attempt suicide and suggests it is more likely that the desperate desire to discharge his secrets will perhaps lead him to confide in a friend."

"Later that evening, David attends the annual meeting of the Al Bowlly Appreciation Society. Relieved that his ordeal with the psychiatrist is over, David forgets the warning not to mix his medication with alcohol and drinks heavily. After much merriment, the Society President calls David up on stage to talk about the success of the fanzine. As David holds forth in his speech about the beauty and innocence of Bowlly's music his mind wanders back to the sexual assault and, realising he is surrounded by friends whose attitudes to love and sex match his own, reveals that he has slept with 136 prostitutes. As he leaves the stage and the scandalised Society members return to their festivities, a jubilant David approaches a large blow-out of Bowlly mounted on the wall. He smiles: "Good old Al!"


"Kenith Trodd, Potter's producer and long-time friend since their days at Oxford, introduced the author to the popular songs of the 1930s and 40s through an article he wrote for the university magazine Isis. Trodd acted as musical advisor on the play, a role he reprised for Potters later 'serials with songs' and the 1981 MGM film version of Pennies from Heaven."

"Moonlight on the Highway contains a number of semi-autobiographical elements. In 1945 the ten-year-old Potter and his sister June went to stay with their mother's relatives in Hammersmith, West London. Potter shared a bedroom with his bachelor uncle Ernie who sexually abused him. Potter first spoke publicly about the event in his introduction to Waiting for the Boat (published 1984) and later during his James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the 1993 Edinburgh Television Festival. The main character of Moonlight appears to live in Hammersmith and it is established during a montage sequence that the abuse David suffers occurred sometime around VJ Day, as Potter declared his had."

"In Humphrey Carpenter's 1998 Potter biography, Kenith Trodd claimed that at an unspecified point in the early 1960s Potter confessed to having regularly used prostitutes while working in London; the number of women he visited allegedly matched the number of David Peters' conquests in Moonlight. Gareth Davies, who directed several of Potter's plays in the 1960s, also claims that Potter admitted to using prostitutes around this time but this time the number was much higher. These claims, however, have not been substantiated."

"The play text was substantially cut for time, with twenty minutes of material featuring David's encounters with prostitutes being excised.

Style and themes

"The play is structured as a nonlinear narrative. The main action of the drama takes place at Chilton's practice, while other scenes (David's attempt to seduce Marie and the meeting of the Al Bowlly Appreciation Society) are incorporated as flashbacks or flashforwards. David's memories of sexual abuse and the death of his mother are represented with overlays and montage sequences, accompanied by Al Bowlly music on the soundtrack."

"Potter uses Bowlly's songs to represent both David's desire to return to innocence and as a means for the character to express through Bowlly's lyrics the emotions that he can never express in his own words. When David unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Marie he plays her "Just Let Me Look at You" in the hope that Bowlly's words will make her understand his desire, while during his meeting with Dr Chilton he recites the lyrics of several Bowlly songs to explain the horror of his ordeal at the hands of his abuser. Potter's witty resetting of the meaning behind the Bowlly tracks used throughout the drama finds its apotheosis in the extra-diegetic, and ironic, use of "Lover, Come Back to Me" and "Easy Come, Easy Go": the former song accompanying David's memories of the assault, the latter as he attempts to recount his experiences to Chilton – suggesting the nature of his lost innocence.


"Potter would later use popular music as a means to heighten the dramatic tension in his work in the serials Pennies from Heaven (1978), The Singing Detective (1986), Lipstick on Your Collar (1993) and the play Cream in My Coffee (1980)."

"The theme of sexual abuse is returned to in Only Make Believe (1973), Brimstone and Treacle (1976), Where Adam Stood (1976), Blue Remembered Hills (1979), Blackeyes (1989), Cold Lazarus (1996) and the novel Hide and Seek (1974)."

"Characters also undergo psychiatric assessment in Follow the Yellow Brick Road (1972), Hide and Seek and The Singing Detective.
" (Wikipedia)

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