A little over a week ago, I finally got around to watching the 1978 BBC miniseries Pennies from Heaven, directed by Piers Haggard and written by one of the greatest dramatists in television history, Dennis Potter. Forcing myself to spread the six episodes out, I finished it not that long ago, and I think I'm ready to report: this is why TV was invented.

Now, the idea of a long-form television story, not quite a series and not quite a movie, predates Potter and Pennies from Heaven. But he, by common assent, perfected the style (his other masterpiece, and the only other work known in the United States at all, is 1986's The Singing Detective).

I bring all this up for the simple fact that until the 2004 DVD release, Pennies had been unavailable in this country essentially since its production, due to the squeamishness of American television laws and the existence of a theatrical remake in 1981.

It's the story of Arthur Parker, a sheet music salesman in 1935 London, who is trapped in a sexless marriage with a woman he doesn't love. Arthur is played by Bob Hoskins, in the role that set him on the road to stardom, and it's very possibly the best work he's ever done. The character is a simple, foolish man, with only the dimmest idea of what life is supposed to be like - indeed, his constant complaint is that all of the wonderful songs he sells and listens to don't always match up with reality, and that this is reality's fault. At the end of episode one, he is flattened by his wife's admission that she hates sleeping with him, not because he views it as a betrayal, but because the songs that he listens to always stress how joyful and fun lovemaking can be.

Arthur's job takes him on the road often, and so it is that he ends up in the Forest of Dean, where he spies Eileen, a lovely young schoolteacher, and decides that she represents his fantastic ideal of love. So he seduces her, and begins the long chain of events that spread over eight hours and cover death, murder, prostitution and every other ugly fact of human existence in the face of an overwhelmingly indifferent world.

This suggests a sprawling Dickensesque story, I suppose, and it almost is. But there's just one other element that tips the series into absolute genius: the songs. See, not only does pop music represent Arthur's skewe idea of love, it's also his fantasy life. And so, in nearly every scene of this multi-hour story, there is a musical number, in which Arthur (or another cast member, as time goes on) lip-synchs to a vintage recording. Perhaps it seems silly to describe it that way, but it's bracing and daring in execution. By choice, the recordings are rarely better than servicable. The song that Arthur keeps returning to in his mind is the completely unremarkable "Roll Along, Prairie Moon," with banal lyrics about the singer being lonely. The dance numbers that accompany these songs (and of course there are dance numbers) are amateurish, compared to the numbers even in a cheaply-made work like The Singing Detective, and that's the point: even in these characters' fantasy worlds, they're still clumsy and unglamorous.

The theme of willfully lying to yourself to make everything seem better pervades the series, although it is perhaps most importantly expressed in the treatment of sex. Potter was notably misogynist and he knew it, and the result is the creation of a protagonist who is completely horrified by women. At first, he is angered by his wife's rejection of his every sexual need, but later on, he comes to find Eileen's budding nymphomania repulsive. The result is simultaneously a commentary on the problems of sexual repression (Arthur is called a deviant for some fetishes that are almost charming in their naΓ―vete), and a reiteration of the danger of allowing Tin Pan Alley songs to dictate your views on life.

The performances are uniformly brilliant; unthinkably, except for Hoskins, none of the performers have had any major career successes. Gemma Craven as Joan Parker and Cheryl Campbell as Eileen get the most to do, and they do it well, but there's not a false note anywhere in the cast.

There is much, much more that could be said about this series; but it seems presumptuous of me to do so. I have written this for one reason, and that is to encourage everyone who otherwise might never have heard about Pennies from Heaven to find it and spend some time with it. It is a privilege, and the best justification I have ever encountered for television as an individual art form.