Friday Book: The life of Dennis the menaced

DENNIS POTTER: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY BY HUMPHREY CARPENTER, FABER & FABER, pounds 20

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

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam