In the ’70s and ’80s Dennis Potter was TV’s most vital, vivid and perpetually crucified writer. Unfortunately, after the creative pinnacle of The Singing Detective in 1986 came a sudden and steep downfall.
Blackeyes, with its grubbily executed exploration of voyeurism and sexism, caricatured Potter as the medium’s dirty old man, and someone whose literary preoccupations were finally out of step with the modern world.
Lipstick On Your Collar was rejected by the BBC, only to later find a home with Channel Four. Despite a long history together, it’s not hard to see why Auntie passed. Like the lip-synching his characters perform, this time to early rock and roll hits, Lipstick feels like karaoked Potter.
All the tropes are there: the fantasy musical numbers; the cultural headbutting of different generations; and the smug belittling of the pretentious airs and graces of its characters – but, unlike his previous works, it has nothing to say.
However, if you wrench the Dennis Potter byline (and thus all the stellar expectations that go with it) out of the equation, Lipstick On Your Collar works pretty well.
Set on the cusp of the Suez Crisis, Britain is at the cultural crossroads, saying a wobbly-lipped goodbye to Empire and a howdy to burger bars, rock and roll and back-alley sex.
The musical numbers are humorously integrated into the plot, deriving mainly from the idle fantasies of Ewan McGregor’s wannabe pop star desk clerk.
The beautiful indignity of seeing middle-aged civil servants sashaying and grinding their besuited Whitehall bodies to ’50s chart pop is visually delicious, and director Renny Rye compensates for the obvious lack of budget (there’s hardly any location work) by having a keen eye for the period.
McGregor’s saddled with the unshowiest role. Instead, Douglas Henshall is properly scary as the bullish Corporal Berry, while Giles Thomas nabs most of the laughs and sympathy as starry-eyed private Francis Francis, wistfully in love with Berry’s Diana Dors-esque missus (Louise Germaine, the only weak link in the cast).
Sat next to The Singing Detective, Blue Remembered Hills or Brimstone & Treacle, this is inconsequential stuff, as throwaway as the music it ironically celebrates.
But it doesn’t disgrace his name. In fact, given today’s genre-driven Brit TV landscape, it looks positively essential – something which can’t be said of the appallingly lacklustre DVD extras.
If you’re new to Dennis Potter, there’s a wealth of better dramas to start with. It also gets a thumbs down for the pitiful extras.