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Friday Book: The life of Dennis the menaced

FROM COLIN Blakely as a hairy, humanistic Christ striding seditiously across Galilee, through Bob Hoskins dancing cheek to cheek with his bank manager and Michael Gambon having his scaly skin greased by Nurse Joanne Whalley, Dennis Potter created some of the most memorable dramatic images in television history. Yet from much of the advance publicity for Humphrey Carpenter's biography, it would appear that Potter was a dirty old man who somehow managed to pen his award-winning plays in the gaps between visits to prostitutes.

If it is dangerous to judge a book by its cover, it is even more so to judge one by extracts. Carpenter's biography is a 600-page study which examines every aspect of Potter's life and relates it to his work. There are those who have questioned the ethics of such a project, noting that biographical speculation was anathema to Potter - who nevertheless peopled his plays with historical figures from Casanova to Jesus Christ - but Carpenter's approach proves fully justified With the exception of Tennessee Williams, no modem playwright has mined the raw material of his life as relentlessly as Potter. Indeed, his plays are less autobiographical than auto-obsessional, as he returns to childhood trauma and adult guilt.

Potter was born to a mining family in the Forest of Dean, which served as a setting for plays as varied as Blue Remembered Hills and The Singing Detective. His early life was spent in abject poverty. Until he was 14, he not only shared a bedroom with his parents but a bed with his sister. An early beneficiary of the Butler Education Act, he gained a place at New College, Oxford, where he harped on his origins to the annoyance of other working-class students. His performances at the Union, on the stage and in Isis magazine made him a star. A New Statesman article about his life at Oxford led to his first brush with the medium to which he was to devote his life, when the BBC producer (later MP) Jack Ashley asked him to contribute to a series of documentaries, Does Class Matter?

Class remained the young Potter's theme both in the polemical books, The Glittering Coffin and The Changing Forest, and the two Nigel Barton plays. The first, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, was based on his experiences as an unsuccessful Labour candidate in the 1964 election. Its last-minute removal from the schedules, to prevent charges of political bias, was the first taste of the controversy which was to dog his entire career.

Nevertheless, the BBC remained a loyal patron. He wrote 10 scripts for The Wednesday Play and Play For Today between 1964 and 1972. The odd flirtation with fiction and the theatre, and a longer relationship with Hollywood notwithstanding, it was a loyalty he shared. "Television," he said, "is the biggest platform and you should kick and fight and bite your way on to it".

Potter's public image (and statements at the time of the Blackeyes controversy) belied his devotion to his wife Margaret, a factory typist whom he married while still at Oxford. She bore the stresses not only of his illness - the psoriatic anthropathy that crippled him for over 30 years - but also of his romantic obsessions, notably with Caroline Seebohm, the ex-wife of his friend Roger Smith, and the actress Gina Bellman.

How sexually active Potter was, given the impotence-inducing effects of his many drugs, remains a source of contention. The one certainty is that he never recovered from a childhood assault by an uncle. He himself linked his subsequent sense of pollution to the onset of psoriasis, while his associate Rick McCallum saw his crippled hands as cups to protect his genitals. The play Only Make-Believe makes concrete the connection between abuse and visits to prostitutes, to which Potter confessed both to several friends, and through various author-figures in his plays.

Carpenter paints a compelling portrait of a complex man with deep emotional and physical scars, whose religious faith failed to exorcise his inner demons. He shows how Potter's overwhelming sense of guilt at once drove him to write (not for nothing did be repeatedly refuse analysis) and furnished him with his lifelong subject. And yet the question remains whether Potter really is "the greatest dramatist the medium has ever produced" or simply its boldest innovator. There can be no doubt of the abiding.power of works such as The Singing Detective, Follow The Yellow Brick Road and Where Adam Stood, but too many of his plays (perhaps because he was ploughing a narrow furrow) rely overmuch on formal experiment. The dazzling exuberance of the surface distracts from the lack of depth.

Nevertheless,. Pennies From Heaven, with its pot pourri of Potterisms (the non-naturalism, popular song, and blend of high and low culture) forever changed the vocabulary of television drama. The irony is that such drama has all but disappeared. In the formulaic series, classic serials and international co-productions that dominate the schedules, there is no place for the single play and virtually none for singular writing.

So, while debate may rage as to whether Potter or Mercer, John Hopkins or Bleasdale, should be awarded the highest accolade, it is hard to imagine that any future contender will emerge - or that there will ever again be such an exhaustive a study of a television playwright.

Michael Arditti