The War Office, London, in 1956, just as the Suez Crisis is looming, and Private Mick Hopper (Ewan McGregor) is looking forward to leaving this behind in a few weeks as his National Service will be over and he can go back to being a civilian. The fears that there will be another war, this time waged with atomic bombs, are very much in the air, but the boredom he feels is overwhelming Mick's other emotions as he stages musical numbers set to the pop hits of the day in his mind simply to have something else to think about aside from poring over Soviet newspapers for clues on their military manoeuvres. And then his replacement, Private Francis Francis (Giles Thomas) walks through the door...
Lipstick on Your Collar was the last production of esteemed writer Dennis Potter to be completed before his death from cancer, though such was his dedication it was not the last to be made. At the time, it was the highest profile work of his since The Singing Detective back in the previous decade, largely because he returned to his trademarked style of staging musical numbers with his cast miming along to old records. These sequences, if anything, are performed with more gusto than before, with the exuberance of rock 'n' roll the ideal accompaniment to Hopper's imaginative way of staving off the boredom of his job. Potter found himself with more freedom to be off-colour in his humour than ever before as well, with the numbers graced with shit-flinging and nudity, among other things.
With this comedy Potter showed he could be very funny for a change, and not simply queasy or offputting as some were apt to find him at times. Certainly the performances lean towards the broad, with the centrepiece of going over the top given over to Thomas as he essayed the role of Francis in a stuttering, buffoonish and hopelessly romantic style, an approach that should have tipped the whole series over into outright farce, yet such was the actor's skill that we never feel we are watching a caricature. No matter how ridiculous the mess that Francis gets into, we always see that he is sincerely trying to muddle through life in spite of it falling short of his beloved Russian literature.
In fact, there was not one wrong note sounded by any of the cast, as each and every one supplied an impeccable performance, all understanding where Potter was going with this, from the examination of the culture of "knowing your place" that was being gradually rejected in the fifties as rebellion became the fashion (though not for everybody), to the inevitable study of the sexual mores of the day. Francis's dream girl is Sylvia (Louise Germaine), the young woman who lives above his Aunt Vickie (Maggie Steed) and boorish Uncle Fred (Bernard Hill). Trouble is, Sylvia is married to an abusive husband, and he happens to be Corporal Berry (Douglas Henshall), Francis's superior in the office he now works in. Can the blundering Welshman "save" her?
Potter's mixture of sentimentalisation of, and lust for, young women is well to the fore in the character of Sylvia, as she finds herself the object of obsession from organist Harold Atterbow (Roy Hudd) who sits in his car outside her home and sweatily tries to win her affections on the pretense of offering her a lift to the cinema she works in as an usherette. With each episode, we can see that trials and tribulations of Hopper, Francis and Sylvia will be heading on a collision course, but not how literal that collision will be, yet the sheer energy that the series projected made Lipstick on Your Collar look like the work of a much younger writer, as if Potter had been revitalised by returning to the years he spent as a young man. There's a joie de vivre about this that puts across its serious points about just how much respect your elders deserve, but still finds time for singing, dancing, gags and an ending that sees the world given over to the dreamers. This was Potter's last real classic.