I’m too young to know Dennis Potter, a name that is synonymous with British television thanks to his critically acclaimed and very strange reputation born from his series The Singing Detective. He was prominent in the 1980s, I grew up in the 1990s, as such he was always a name that was bandied about but I never got to experience. Until now, and what a baptism of fire 1991’s Secret Friends is. Newly issued by Indicator, Secret Friends is Potter’s only feature film, based on a book he wrote, the film was directed and produced after the controversy of 1989’s Blackeyes to a predictably unremarkable reception for such a difficult film, as verified by the slimline collection of on-disc extras.
Alan Bates plays John and we join him amidst a maelstrom of non-linearity as fantasy and memory play out simultaneously. Other players include Gina Bellman as Helen, who is either a prostitute or his wife depending on the vignette in question, Frances Barber as Angela, Helen’s friend, who could also be a prostitute depending on the given scene. There are also two businessmen who bleed from one scene to the next as played by Ian McNeice (who is interviewed in the extra features) and Davyd Harries. I appreciate describing the film as I have isn’t exactly helpful in placing Secret Friends and how it plays out, so allow me the indulgence of talking out each scenario. First, John and Helen are at home in their lavish country manor bickering on a day that will later play host to a dinner party. Second, John is on a train with the two businessmen, unfortunately, he loses his memory and his place in the world. This is implied to be the present day of the film, with everything else being either a product of fantasy or imagination. Third, Helen is at home alone, succumbing to paranoia. Fourth, John is at a London Hotel having an illicit liaison with Helen, in this scenario she is a high-class prostitute. Fifth, and much more minor, flashbacks to John’s youth with his pious and harsh parents with the only relent coming from his time spent with his imaginary friend – who is another version of him only with far fewer shackles. All these instances and scenes are intercut making for quite a confusing menagerie.
“Bellman does exceptionally well playing at least three different and often opposing interpretations of the same character”
There’s the compelling thing about Secret Friends, as you watch it is very easy to be overwhelmed by a film which is very alienating to those who don’t approach it on the terms it sets out. However, after watching, it is an easier film to piece together. Unfortunately, you don’t watch a film in hindsight, if you did, this sole Potter film may have been received more positively. The big reason for the overwhelming aura the film possesses is through the editing (by 80s and 90s British TV mainstay and regular potter collaborator Clare Douglas). There is no line in which one scene ends and the next begins, in fact in almost all scenes it’ll cut from the middle of one scene to the beginning of the next with the end of the first scene coming somewhere down the line. To describe this as anything other than hard to process would be to undersell the intentions of Potter when he wrote this, however, for it to eventually resemble anything anywhere near as coherent as this is nothing shy of a miracle. A difficult miracle, yes, but a miracle no less.
The cast is all as excellent as you would expect, from Alan Bates down to Tony Doyle (who plays John’s friend Martin) this is, after all, a dramatic piece that focuses on the construction and deconstruction of its principal players. With Potter’s deliberate and very precise scriptwriting methods and a very rich concept to work with, the whole cast brings their very best regardless of what is required of them. From the big dramatic movements to smaller comedic scenes like the one in which the train’s employee thinks that the sole he ordered might have caused John to lose his memory. That being said, Bates’s character is a bit one-note, performed with all the class of one of the great modern British actors, for sure, but no-less repetitive. For me, the main plaudits have to go to Bellman who does exceptionally well playing at least three different and often opposing interpretations of the same character.
From its light tea-room Jazz score by Nicholas Russell-Pavier (Maid Marian and Her Merry Men) to its deliberately bewildering ways, Secret Friends is such a one of a kind that it becomes incredibly difficult to recommend to anyone outside of the Potter completist. Fair enough, Dennis Potter has a lot of fans that appreciate his brand of singular dramatic surrealism but for anyone entering this with no insight into the voice of its creator, I’d recommend that this be given as wide a birth as possible. As much as I tried to get on with these secret friends, it just wasn’t to be.