Dennis Potter's Defective Secret Friends... Saved by Indicator/ Powerhouse!

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 would appear that 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.

Update 7/2/15 - 2/22/20: I didn't see this one coming, but I'm sure glad it came. Indicator/ Powerhouse has given us the first, fully functional release of Secret Friends. What's more, it's a sweet, restored edition.  Oh, and P.s.: I also added the DVD edition to the Christmas Horror Story page.
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.
2009 Spanish Cameo DVD top; 2020 UK Indicator BD bottom.
The back of the DVD case says that it's 1.85:1 and 16x9 anamorphic. Fortunately, the 16x9 bit is true, but the image is actually slightly pillar-boxed at 1.67:1. Indicator's new blu retains that same ratio, but includes more picture information on the right, and a little along the top.  That's because, as you can plainly see in direct comparison, the DVD is stretched horizontally, which the BD corrects. Their booklet doesn't tell us much about the transfer, just that "FilmFour's HD remaster was the source of this Indicator edition."  So safe to say this isn't a spanking new 4k scan, or they would've told us here and in the marketing.  But it's certainly a massive improvement to what we had before... I mean, even putting aside the it-doesn't-play thing.  Colors are cooler and a lot more natural, and detail is enhanced beyond the minimum you'd just get from putting the same transfer on an HD disc.  Grain actually looks pretty thorough and natural, rather like a modern 2k scan, in fact. Information that was crushed in the DVD's blacks are brought back to life.
Cameo's DVD has the original English stereo track with forced Spanish subtitles. The subs appear player generated, though, so you might be able to remove them depending on your player.  Indicator also has the stereo track, which we're told was also remastered by FilmFour, in lossless LPCM with optional English subtitles.

There are no extras except for a four bonus trailers for other Cameo releases, including Factory Girl and Il Divo.  But Indicator's blu's extras, while brief, are very satisfying.  We start out with an on-camera interview with actor Ian McNiece, which is only about five minutes long, but still shares some interesting behind-the-scenes memories and opinions.  Other labels may've been tempted to pad it out with clips from the film, opening and closing credits and leaving every non-sequitor he utters in the edit, but here, it's just a clean and engaging little interview.  The only other video extra we get, then, is by Graham Fuller, editor of Potter On Potter, who gives both a critical review of the film and explains a lot of the film's themes and history.  Anyone who walked out of this movie feeling baffled by the film's idiosyncratic storytelling structure will certainly appreciate this.  There's also the a stills gallery and the trailer, plus a very good 36-page booklet, with an essay by film historian Jeff Billington, two vintage interviews with Potter, a couple of vintage critical reactions from 1992.  The blu also offers a reversible cover with the same artwork but minus the rating and logos.
I would've been quite happy with Cameo's DVD if only it had worked. But in 2020, it was time for an HD upgrade anyway, even if there hadn't been anything wrong with the old edition. And Indicator/ Powerhouse gave it everything it deserves: an HD remaster, lossless audio, and compelling new special features.  It's even region free.  And color me optimistic, but with this release coming close on the heels of their Track 29 blu, I hope this is a portent of many more Potter releases to come from Indicator.

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.