Why have we disowned Dennis?

An American film of The Singing Detective is now in the multiplexes. But British television neglects its most famous innovator, and little of his work is on video or DVD. What a shame, says Johann Hari, that TV is scared of Dennis Potter
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The Independent Culture

Dennis Potter is twitching back into life. Since his death in 1994 - after a TV interview with Melvyn Bragg during which he sipped morphine and emotionally pressured the BBC and Channel 4 to co-operate in producing his final scripts - his work has been entirely absent from our screens. Once the effusive obituaries yellowed, along with his corpse, he seemed to be quickly forgotten.

True, there was a small flurry of activity in the year following his death: a repeat of The Singing Detective, and plays by the writer at the RSC and the National Theatre. But then... silence. None of his works except Detective is available on video; nothing on DVD; his novels and scripts have long since fallen out of print. But now, the long-mooted Hollywood movie of The Singing Detective is finally at multiplexes across Britain, and the BBC is remaking his script White Clouds for its little-seen but excellent digital channel, BBC4. Potter himself would have raged at the hypocrisy of the right-wing newspapers that complained at the news that he had been shunted to non-terrestrial TV. When he was alive, those same newspapers delighted in damning him as "a pervert", "a far-left maniac", or - the Murdoch press at its most vile - "Old Flaky".

Even more conspicuous than the absence of his own work, however, has been the absence of a Potter legacy. He was an evangelist for a television that would "challenge its audiences and provoke them to think, think" - a world away from wall-to-wall Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Trinny and Susannah. Potter delighted in startling his audiences by breaking with the tedious naturalism that dominated TV then, and still does now.

Potter did for television what Samuel Beckett did for theatre: he smashed its conventions and reimagined the way the medium worked. He believed that "the way people experience life, inside their own heads, is nothing like naturalism. You are constantly thinking about the past, about songs you have heard or dreams you have dreamed". So, in his work, characters would spontaneously begin to mime to old pop songs; dead characters would talk to the living; characters would realise that they were, in fact, fictional; one actress would play three roles... The experimentation constantly challenged viewers. "By not showing things as they look from the outside, you get to the deeper truths within," he said.

On British television today, however, the dominating aesthetic remains a plodding, hollow naturalism, married to preposterous plots. One of the few recent shows to experiment with form, the brilliant ITV soap Night and Day, belly-flopped in the ratings and was shunted to a midnight slot. The series paid homage to Potter when one episode had a stranger, Gabriel - who seemed to be an angel - appear in town to transform the characters' inner lives. This was a direct nod to the late dramatist, who used this scenario in several of his works. Caleb Ranson, the series' creator, explains, sadly, that "ITV judged Night and Day to have failed, and that means that any kind of experimental drama will be absent from prime-time schedules for a very long time".

Potter's disciples are now found not in Britain but abroad. Al Pacino laboured for years to make The Singing Detective, only to give up at the last hurdle. Potter's work was always received ecstatically in the USA, from the 1980s onward, and leading TV figures such as Steven Bochco (creator of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue) said that they had created whole series inspired by the British writer. Indeed, the only experimental, non-realist drama on our screens now is from across the Atlantic. Six Feet Under uses plainly Potteresque devices - dead characters talking to the living, fantasy sequences and mock adverts - and Ally McBeal's imaginary dancing baby was clearly a great-grandchild of Potter's.

So, why do we in Britain care so little for the genius we spawned? Perhaps a key reason is that, unlike in America, the deeply religious themes that dominate his writing no longer make sense to a post-religion viewing public. Potter grew up in a 1930s Forest of Dean that was dominated by a strange, literalist Christianity. As a child, he believed that "the big ponds near the pit where Dad worked were actually Galilee. The Valley of the Shadow of Death was a lane descending between overhanging hedges". The novelist Julian Barnes believes that Potter's work must be read as that of "a Christian socialist with a running edge of apocalyptic disgust".

It might seem odd to describe as implicitly Christian the work of a man who, in his lifetime, provoked frothing condemnation from Christian groups. His TV play Brimstone and Treacle caused outrage by depicting the Devil raping a horribly disabled girl back into health. The play so disgusted BBC chiefs that it wasn't screened for more than a decade after filming; but it was, like The Exorcist, an explicitly Christian film that took biblical phenomena into the contemporary world.

Potter's work can only be understood as a rage against the faith he loathed but could never escape. "We live among the litter of religion," he said. "It's part of our culture, part of our instincts... In illness I pray, even if I simultaneously disown the prayer. We cannot deny Christian feelings, or, at any rate, feelings inherited from Christianity." Although Christian fundamentalists loathed Potter, they breathed the same air and stood on the same intellectual ground as him.

His plays can be read as a dialogue with the God he needed but loathed: he said in a 1976 radio broadcast: "Although I yearn for 'God' in the speechless ligaments of my being, I find the word 'God' and the words 'Jesus Christ', in my mouth, a genuine embarrassment." When Potter was dying, it was Christian imagery that obsessed him. Cold Lazarus, his unsuccessful final series, written frantically on his deathbed, even has the protagonist apparently ascend to heaven, where he is welcomed by angels. Son of Man, his play about Jesus that was savaged by Mary Whitehouse, was actually a Christian work about the human dilemma of a man with a divine duty. Potter was terrified that atheism led to nihilism. In Blade on the Feather, his 1979 play, one atheist says: "Nothing makes sense, you see. At bottom, human affairs are all compounded of absurdity. Once you acknowledge that, the only real enemy is boredom."

Some of Potter's friends even told his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, that this intense religious faith caused the arthritic psoriasis that jammed up Potter's body. He believed that his sexual feelings were "disgusting", in part because the puritanical Christianity of his childhood made it impossible for him to come to terms with the fact that he was sexually abused by his uncle when he was 10 years old. This disgust, his friends claimed, manifested itself physically, in the bursting, bleeding, ripped skin that disfigured him. In Tender is the Night, a screen adaptation of the F Scott Fitzgerald novel that was never produced, Potter wrote the line: "The poisons in my mind have broken out upon my skin."

He told one interviewer: "I believe that we choose our illnesses - or at least, the form they take." Even as an adult, his hands - his fists permanently locked into a tight ball by arthritis - instinctively moved to protect his genitals when he was in pain. He always understood his illness - as so much else in his life - through the prism of the Bible. He explained the onset of his illness in his early twenties this way: "It [the arthritis] just invaded every joint - bang! My jaws, fingers, knees, hips, ankles, toes... Shortly after that, just as quickly, overnight, my skin went. And suddenly I realised: it was like one of the plagues of Egypt."

It is hard for those of us who live in a culture saturated with porn, a culture in which most of us do not know even the most basic Bible stories, to understand scripts that are about angels, devils, psalms and violent sexual repression. Perhaps the generation that could understand Potter, and the complex, contradictory attitudes towards sex caused by his faith, is passing into history - or being born elsewhere. Is it any wonder that his work is being rediscovered in an America in which Christian evangelism is resurgent, and polls show that a majority believe in angels and demons?