Dennis Potter's Defective Secret Friends

A lot of Dennis Potter's work has been issued on DVD, especially if you're prepared to import from the UK (or just happen to live there, of course). But a lot isn't. And some of it is, but only on rare, long out of print, obscure releases, MODs and the odd foreign disc. And I do mean odd. What we have here is one of Potter's lesser known later works, Secret Friends, available on DVD from the Spanish company Cameo. And it's quite possible their entire run is defective.

1991's Secret Friends is the film Dennis Potter not only wrote, but directed, loosely based on his novel, Ticket To Ride. Dennis Potter was, deservedly, a critical darling in the UK for a very long time, but had just experienced his biggest failure, Blackeyes, which was his directorial debut for the BBC. This was to be his follow-up (not that the stories are connected at all), but after Blackeyes had been so thoroughly rejected by audiences and critics, the BBC went cold on the project, and Potter wound up making this as a small theatrical film instead. It didn't do very well and is consequently pretty obscure - Potter never directed again - but it's actually not a bad little film.
It feels a bit like The Singing Detective on a train. Almost all of Potter's recurring themes check in here: a story fragmented in time, 1930s music, miserable childhoods and very dark themes unafraid to thoroughly explore sex and death. Alan Bates, who previously starred in Potter's excellent adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge, is our lead here, an artist who's having some sort of severe identity crisis in a dining car, sitting across from two very unhelpful fellow passengers. We journey through his memories and fantasies, from a painfully strict religious upbringing, to rendezvous with his wife at a hotel where she pretends to be a prostitute. It's a sort of murder mystery explored through one man's interior mind. It can feel a bit redundant if you're familiar with Potter's past works, but parts of it, at least, are still quite effective. It's lesser Potter certainly, maybe a bit lazy; but as his fans know, even bad Potter is a strangely riveting viewing experience, if only because his subjects are so personal and directly attacked.
I spotted this disc online years ago when I was searching for any more of Potter's work I hadn't yet seen, because I'd just devoured all of the available releases in the US and UK. I immediately ordered a brand new, shrink-wrapped copy and it didn't want to play. I put it in one player, and it wouldn't load. In another, it started to play, but then froze... after a while it would play a bit, but then freeze again, getting increasingly unplayable as the film progressed. So I returned it for another brand new copy, and it behaved the same way. I saw one user reviewed it on Amazon expressing the same issues with his copy. So I guess there's just something wrong with all of them?
BUT I did manage to get it to play all the way through. And thankfully, I was smart enough to be recording during that one time, because it's never been able to play to the end again. So I have a DVD-R of it, but unfortunately the picture is a little softer and duller than the actual on-disc image of the official copy. The real disc absolutely will not boot up or be ripped on PC, though (I've tried many times with many programs, on more than one computer), so I've had to take my screenshots from my home-made DVD-R. So bear in mind, while these screenshots essentially tell the story of the framing and image on Cameo's disc, the actual DVD looks a little better. ...If you can get it to play at all, that is.
The back of the case says that this is 1.85:1 and 16x9 anamorphic. Fortunately, the 16x9 bit is true, but the image is actually slightly pillar-boxed at 1.66:1. The framing looks pretty good, though, so I imagine it's pretty accurate, or at least close, to the OAR. It's certainly very preferable to some 4:3 pan and scan kinda thing.

This disc has the original English audio with forced Spanish subtitles. The subs appear player generated, though, so you might be able to remove them depending on your player. There are no extras except for a four bonus trailers for other Cameo releases, including Factory Girl and Il Divo. But what more would you really expect from a Spanish DVD of an otherwise unreleased Dennis Potter adaptation. The fact that it's in widescreen and looks and sounds fairly good already exceeds any sort of dubby, VHS-rip I would've anticipated.
I would be quite happy with this release, if only it worked. At least I was able to get a watchable experience out of it, though; and I'm very glad to have been able to see this rare movie by one of the great contemporary screenwriters. You might think it's silly of me to review a defective disc like this, but I don't truly know that the whole line of these are defective. I got my copy back around 2009 and it's still apparently in print. Cameo still sells these new directly from their site and on So maybe they fixed the issue, or maybe me and that other Amazon user just got particularly unlucky with three bad discs (though neither of my copies appeared scratched, dirty or in any way physically damaged, for the record). Meanwhile, nobody else has expressed any indication of an interest releasing this in any other country, so this Cameo disc may well be your only chance and quite possibly worth the risk.

1 comment:

  1. When I was living in London I had a grandstand view (from my flat) of the filming of an 8-second scene from Secret Friends (A taxi screeches to a stop on a damped-down road; the driver gets out and shouts at the passenger something like 'Hey, what the bloody hell are you doing in the back of my taxi!', then Alan Bates gets out and runs down a side street). The filming of the scene was repeated several times, which took all evening, only to be cut from the final film. I still have a hand-made signpost for the production that was left behind on a lamp-post after they finished.