Books: The beast and his many beauties
Blake Morrison goes beyond the medical and sexual obsessions of the revered and reviled Dennis Potter
Sunday 30 August 1998
by Humphrey Carpenter Faber pounds 20
The life of Dennis Potter has the shape of a medieval allegory. Born in an Enchanted Forest (the Forest of Dean), the Boy with hair like fire is uprooted and sent to the Wicked City (London), where the Serpent (an uncle) seduces him. Undeterred, he flourishes, first at the Place of Dreaming Spires (Oxford), then in the Street of Lies (journalism) and at the Castle of Visions (the BBC), though his real ambition is to enter the Corridors of Power (as an MP). He discovers his Rock (called Margaret), and marries her. Then he receives his Wound (psoriasis), which afflicts him severely for the rest of his life, even after the Miracle (the relief- giving drug Razoxane).
He visits Harlots. He falls in love with Beauties but cannot sleep with them because he feels a Beast. He battles with the Ogre of Censorship (Mary Whitehouse) and slays the Dragon of Stale Convention (documentary realism). Finally he unearths the Treasure, which isn't Gold (though it makes him rich) but Artistic Consummation. He dies young (short of 60) and unlaurelled (no Knight) but without self-pity. His Queen and Nation mourn him.
By the standards of most writers' lives, it was a dramatic one, and Potter himself saw it in Biblical terms. He likened psoriasis to "one of the plagues of Egypt" and, when Razoxane worked its wonders, he spoke of picking up his bed and walking. The scales that had fallen from his skin till then - so badly that when he stayed in hotels he used to request rooms with a beige carpet, so the bits wouldn't show up - now fell from his eyes. "It's shining, the whole place, shining," says Arthur in Pennies From Heaven, the series Potter, now calling himself "a religious writer", wrote straight after his cure.
In legend, illnesses are metaphors and miracle cures last forever. In reality, disease, despair, narcissism and sexual guilt soon occluded Potter's vision again. He never ceased being a sick man - not sick as the tabloids meant it when they called him "Dirty Den" (in retrospect, many of his sex scenes seem touchingly innocent), but racked by the effort of dissecting himself for the sake of art. "I feel as if I've scraped out my bone marrow to offer viewers," he said after The Singing Detective. Flayed skin, aching joints, nausea, alcoholism, workaholism, insomnia, smoker's cough (he said he didn't know how to write a sentence without a fag in his mouth), chronic shyness, depression, unprovoked anger and at the end a very public cancer - "Rupert", as he liked to call his tumour: it's no wonder Humphrey Carpenter's authorised biography sometimes reads like a medical textbook. But Carpenter is also alert to the psychosomatic - and even mythic - aspect of Potter's condition. What, he wonders, were its origins? Were there traumas that might have triggered it? Can we pinpoint the Fall?
The obvious culprit - the snake in the garden - is Potter's wicked Uncle Ernie. Forced to share a bed with him in Hammersmith, the boy woke up to find his penis in his uncle's mouth. This happened between VE Day and VJ Day, when Potter was 10, but he didn't speak about the abuse for many years. When he did, towards the end of his life, he was ambivalent about its significance, on one occasion saying that it nurtured a sympathy for victims in all his work, on another warning would-be biographers not to read too much into it.
Carpenter perhaps overdoes the sex abuse, as biographers must, but it does seem to have made Potter sexually insecure. Friends observed the insecurity at Oxford. With his shock of red hair, his sardonic contributions to Union debates, and his controversial editorship of Isis, he was in most respects an extrovert - a boy on the make, as he later admitted. Before graduation, he'd already appeared at length on a BBC television documentary (to talk about being an upwardly mobile miner's son) and had been commissioned by Victor Gollancz to write a book. He enjoyed fame - notoriety, too. Yet he was shy, and the clever, middle-class girls at Oxford scared him rigid. Which was part of why he married Margaret, who was local, and uneducated, and less intimidating.
What marriage couldn't satisfy was Potter's romantic yearning and sexual obsessiveness - all the more so after the psoriatic arthropathy began at 27. He yearned to be touched, and to touch others (beautiful women, television audiences), but touch was intensely painful, and in any case he felt "unclean", like a leper, with webbed fingers. Paying for sex was an obvious solution. Potter liked to exaggerate and shock, but the mounting numbers he confessed to friends or in his plays - 98, 100, 136, 150 - suggest a consistent pattern, and there was no particular reason for him to lie.
In virgin contrast to the prostitutes was a series of women he idolised and became fixated with, among them the novelist Margaret Forster (a contemporary at Oxford), Caroline Seebohm (who had to flee to America to escape him), and the actresses Kika Markham and Gina (Blackeyes) Bellman. Potter's wheedling self-abasement towards those he saw as angel-sirens, at its worst in a long letter to Seebohm reproduced here, is about as unattractive as the casually vehement insults shouted by his male characters at wives, girlfriends and tarts. Both traits proceed from the same misogynistic source: a need to manipulate and control. Most of the women quoted were wise to Potter's ways, but also fond of him, and understood his loyalty to his wife. Gina Bellman - demolishing the myth that actresses are dumb - is especially articulate about him.
If Potter was soppy-sick with women, with men he was jealous, competitive and prone to power games and "tests". With his friend the producer Kenith Trodd, who emerges from the book as something of a hero, the tests included Potter spitting wine in his face. "There's much more drama swilling around my work than there actually is in it," Potter once said, and we see some of that here, including his irascibility towards fellow writers and critics. (The only critic Potter seems to have admired was the long-dead Hazlitt.) Surprisingly, once his plays went into production, he kept out of the way. But towards the end of his life even this changed and, disastrously, he chose to direct Blackeyes himself. In art as in sex, his fantasy was to have total control. Even on his deathbed, he was busy fixing things for after.
For the biographer, the problem with Potter isn't so much that he is difficult or megalomaniac (nothing new there), but that the ground his art covers is so narrow. His early life was more interesting than most. Still, there is only so much art a life can take before, like a Forest of Dean coalmine, it gets used up. Potter acknowledged this himself and talked of ploughing the same small field in the hope of turning up buried coins. But even he must have wondered if he'd ever find them. And despite the spaciousness of Humphrey Carpenter's 670-page biography, there's a point about halfway through when the reader feels claustrophobic, walled up with the same few grim psycho-sexual obsessions.
Then - Eureka! - comes the Razoxane and Potter's euphoria at feeling whole. The use of popular song and lip synch opens up brighter horizons; he discovers the New World (visiting New York, his first trip abroad), and he coaxes out the "better and more wholesome writer" he knew was there. Pharmaceuticals aren't exactly the heroes of the book: the drugs that saved Potter later gave him cancer. But they had a deeper effect than Uncle Ernie did. Without them he'd not have written his masterpieces: Pennies From Heaven, Blue Remembered Hills, Cream In My Coffee and The Singing Detective.
As a Radio 3 stalwart and biographer of Auden, Britten and Ezra Pound, Humphrey Carpenter mightn't seem the most obvious choice to write about Dennis Potter. But his qualifications are firmly stated in the prologue - they include running a dance band called Vile Bodies, which specialised in Thirties popular songs - and he proves a highly readable guide. Many pages are taken up with plot synopses, but since so much of Potter's work is unknown or unavailable this seems perfectly sensible. Even the cuttings from articles by and interviews with him, which look like padding at first, turn out to contain some of his most quotable remarks. These range from epigrams - "Nostalgia is a means of forgetting the past", "Who wants to plod down the middle of the road? It's in the verges that all the interesting animals are" - to a 1976 television review comparing Margaret Thatcher (not then Prime Minister) to Lassie, since both ladies prompt the thought "Oh look - she wants us to follow her".
When he was young, Dennis Potter thought of the "A" in Art as the gable of a house built to lock out the masses. Later, he tried to make television that would welcome the masses in. He kept screwing up the design. He refused to make it easy. But in the end he got there. His art is vulgar- smart and pagan-Christian, like Stanley Spencer's. But the best of it will survive. Humphrey Carpenter's fine biography shows what went into it and what it cost.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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