Blackeyes (TV series)

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Blackeyes is a BBC television miniseries first broadcast in 1989, written and directed by Dennis Potter based on his own novel of the same name.

Broadcast as four 50-minute episodes, first screened weekly from 29 November 1989 to 20 December 1989 on Britain's BBC2 channel,[1] Blackeyes starred Gina Bellman as the title character, an attractive model, with Michael Gough in a key role as her uncle. It was described in the press TV listings as "a quirky, dark and sexually charged drama".[2] Potter described the series' theme as the objectification of "young and attractive women as consumer goods in a way that brutalizes both sexes".[3]

Production[edit]

Following the successes of The Singing Detective and Christabel, the BBC awarded a budget of £2.4 million to the production of Blackeyes. It was shot on 35mm film and took 18 months to complete.[4]

Despite illness, Potter opted to direct the entire series himself, the first and only time he ever did this for TV. He had considered both Jon Amiel and Nicolas Roeg for the job, both of whom he had recently collaborated with.[5] Later he considered the decision to direct to have been a mistake.[6]

In 2007 an article in The Guardian written by Jon Wilde revealed that the journalist had been the inspiration for the character of Mark Wilsher, "an insufferably smug hack" in episode 2 of the series.[7]

Press Coverage Before Broadcast[edit]

In advance of its initial broadcast the series was eagerly anticipated, six months before screening it was promoted on the cover of The Listener with an image of Gina Bellman in role as the title character and the caption "Potter's Dream - Beyond The Singing Detective".[8] James Saynor, the magazine's sub-editor at the time, wrote inside of Potter's ambitious desire to subvert the norms of film grammar in the series following an on-set interview with the fledgling director.[9]

In the lead-up to broadcast Potter promoted the series by appearing on TV chat-show Saturday Matters with Sue Lawley and was interviewed in newspapers such as New Statesman and The Observer. Each time he made reference to "falling in love with Blackeyes", making clear how personal this project was to him.[10]

However, a press screening on 22 November of the entire completed series provoked negative responses in several of the journalists and reviewers present. It was described in previews as "soft porn"[11] and "a simple turn-on for male viewers".[12]

Some journalists used their reports as excuses to attack Potter himself, in City Limits Deborah Orr described him as "unpleasant",[13] Maria Lexton condemned him in Time Out as "a very sick man...[with a] twisted attitude to women and fucking"[14] and in the Evening Standard he was dismissed as "a dirty old man".[15] The Daily Mirror created a new nickname for Potter when its front page headline asked, "All clever stuff - Or just Dirty, Den?"[16]

Sally Payne summed up the tension between Potter's intentions and their execution in the Sunday Times: "My gut feeling was distinct unease which verged on outrage the more I thought about it. I became convinced that Potter was guilty of the crime he was condemning".[17]

Initial Reception[edit]

Following transmission, favourable comments were offered by the reviewers of several broadsheets. Mark Lawson applauded Potter's willingness to take risks,[18] comparing him to novelist Martin Amis, while Christopher Tookey linked Potter to August Strindberg and Jonathan Swift and described Blackeyes as possibly "the most interesting, original and honest work he's done since Pennies from Heaven.[19]

However, the majority of the British press reacted negatively to the series, many highlighting the amount of sex and nudity as cause for complaint. The Sunday Express called it "the world's most complicated porn film" fit for "the wastebin"[20] while the Sunday Times reasserted its antipathy to Blackeyes at the series' conclusion, summing it up as "Porno Twaddle".[21] The series was also attacked for being "a load of old cobblers!" in The Sun [22] and "immensely boring" in the Daily Telegraph.[23]

Blackeyes was the subject of mocking cartoons in several tabloids, again focusing on the programme's on-screen nudity. The Daily Mirror featured a cartoon by Charles Griffin depicting a naked Potter tapping out a script at his desk with a caricatured Bellman (also naked) sitting alongside his typewriter. The couple are being interrupted by campaigner Mary Whitehouse who is waving her fist at the writer and exclaiming, "Potter! I'll give you flamin' Blackeyes!"[24] The Daily Star presented an image of a BBC Drama department office in which all the staff are going about their business either naked or in underwear. A bank of TV screens show titles such as 'Brown Eyes', 'Square Eyes' and 'Slant Eyes' while another reads 'Blackeyes - Get em off'. A man dressed in black lingerie is sitting beside bundles of letters labelled 'Complaints' and speaking into a phone saying, "OK, so a girl walks about half-naked - is that so unusual?"[25]

No stranger to controversy, Potter was stunned by the level of press negativity, and was particularly saddened at the way he was labelled with nicknames such as "Dirty Den"[26] and "Television's Mr Filth".[27] He described himself as being "in the pit of a real depression" and upset by the personal comments made about him in City Limits and Time Out.[28] In a Radio 2 interview he suggested his writing career might be at an end.[29]

The criticisms also enabled Potter to speak directly about his own experience of child-abuse, which he had attempted to address in Blackeyes, an element of the series that had seemingly been overlooked by its critics: "If you listen to the voice-over [in the last episode] you'll see it's very clear why [child-abuse] strikes my heart. I've never been able to speak directly about it - no one who's had such an experience has ever been able to speak about it except obliquely. It sits there and makes me sweat even now."[30] In addition the Sunday Telegraph acknowledged Potter's childhood experience as "the source of the harrowing scene in the last episode".[31] The sequence in question involves the character of Maurice Kingsley about to sexually abuse his niece Jessica until Potter's voice-over interrupts: "No, you'll have to imagine the rest if you must... the snake in his hand has become the worm in her soul. Recollections of abuse - my god - they're hard to deal with - even though I try... There are times when the pen in your hand becomes... becomes - yes - a knife in someone else's."

Later Reactions[edit]

In 1993 Potter summed up the initial press reaction to Blackeyes by calling it "a tide of polemical abuse of such huge proportions in the English tabloids that it was almost proof I was stepping on the right nerves, if not totally in the right way".[32]

With a few years' distance from the project he admitted responsibility for some of the negative reaction, saying, "there were too many strands, and the style, which is very alienating, it was so successful it alienated every fucking person who ever saw it!"[33] and "I did fail. If there's such universal rejection and opposition and incomprehension then it's extremely likely that it was either badly written, or badly done, or both."[34]

Critical Reaction[edit]

Graham Fuller describes Blackeyes as "a complex analysis of institutionalized sexism" and an "abstruse but in many ways extremely courageous post-feminist revenge thriller" in his 1993 book Potter on Potter, a collection of interviews with the writer. Acknowledging the original press reaction, he describes the series as being "condemned for feeding the very sickness it claimed to be diagnosing" and defends Potter by asserting that the programme's explicit scenes were "unintended to be titillating to viewers who would elect to see them that way".[35] Twenty years later Fuller continues to challenge the tabloid view of Blackeyes in Sight & Sound, "Advertising is the arena in which Blackeyes throws herself to the lions...auditioning in a bikini for salivating ad executives...[the scene is] intercut with fragmented moments from the history of Jessica Kingsley...as a sexual-abuse victim who eventually drowns herself - how could Potter not have been taken seriously?"[36]

Sergio Angelini calls Blackeyes "a deliberately uncomfortable, humorous, densely imagined, frequently powerful if imperfect work, one that practically vanished after its original airing but which, now that its shock value has long been superseded, needs to be re-assessed by a new generation".[37]

Cast[edit]

The cast includes: Gina Bellman (Blackeyes), Michael Gough (Maurice James Kingsley), Carol Royle (Jessica), Nigel Planer (Jeff), John Shrapnel (Detective Blake), Colin Jeavons (Jamieson), Charles Gray (Sebastian), Dennis Potter (Narrator (uncredited)), Louise Germaine (Model (uncredited)). Jeavons had previously appeared in Potter's Blue Remembered Hills, Bellman also appeared in Potter's Secret Friends while Germaine went on to star in Lipstick on Your Collar and Midnight Movie.

References[edit]

  1. ^ British FIlm Institute SIFT database.
  2. ^ "Daily Mail". dailymail.co.uk. 
  3. ^ Graham Fuller, Dennis Potter (interview), American Film, March 1989, p.55.
  4. ^ Graham Fuller, Potter on Potter, Faber and Faber 1993, p.125.
  5. ^ "BFI Screenonline Blackeyes". screenonline.org.uk. 
  6. ^ "Daily Telegraph obituary". thetelegraph.co.uk, 8 June 1994. 
  7. ^ "How I became a character in Dennis Potter's Blackeyes". Theguardian.com. Retrieved 12 December 2007. 
  8. ^ "The Listener Magazine June 1989". theguardian.com. 
  9. ^ The Listener 1 June 1989
  10. ^ New Statesman 24 November 1989
  11. ^ Daily Star 23 November 1989
  12. ^ Sunday Times 26 November 1989
  13. ^ City Limits Magazine, 30 November 1989
  14. ^ Time Out Magazine, 22 November 1989
  15. ^ Evening Standard 23 November 1989
  16. ^ Daily Mirror 29 November 1989
  17. ^ Sunday Times 26 November 1989
  18. ^ Independent 30 November 1989
  19. ^ Daily Telegraph 30 November 1989
  20. ^ Sunday Express 3 December 1989
  21. ^ Sunday Times 24 December 1989
  22. ^ The Sun 30 November 1989
  23. ^ Daily Telegraph 7 December 1989
  24. ^ Griffin's Eye, Daily Mirror, 30 November 1989 (reproduced in Dennis Potter - A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, Faber and Faber 1998, image no. 36)
  25. ^ Bill Caldwell, Daily Star, 1 December 1989, reproduced "British Cartoons Archive". cartoons.ac.uk. 
  26. ^ Interview with Gina Bellman, quoted in Dennis Potter - A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, Faber and Faber 1998, p.504
  27. ^ Interview with Martina Devlin, Edingburgh Evening News, 10 February 1990
  28. ^ Independent 21 December 1989
  29. ^ Dennis Potter interview on The John Dunn Show, BBC Radio 2, 13 December 1989
  30. ^ Independent 21 December 1989
  31. ^ Sunday Telegraph 31 December 1989
  32. ^ Quoted in Graham Fuller, Potter on Potter, Faber and Faber 1993, p.133.
  33. ^ Quoted in Graham Fuller, Potter on Potter, Faber and Faber 1993, p.132.
  34. ^ Quoted in Graham Fuller, Potter on Potter, Faber and Faber 1993, p.134.
  35. ^ Graham Fuller, Potter on Potter, Faber and Faber 1993, p.126.
  36. ^ Graham Fuller, Angels and Devils: The Dark Dreams of Dennis Potter, Sight & Sound Magazine, July 2014, p.41.
  37. ^ "BFI Screenonline Blackeyes". screenonline.org.uk. 

External links[edit]