THE GUILLOTINE: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 10: DENNIS POTTER

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The Independent Culture
There are many reasons (even when one discounts the obvious one that their work just doesn't have what it takes to endure) why artists fail posterity's test - why they fail to survive their own deaths, so to speak. Dennis Potter, however, is a unique case. An artist of undeniable stature and originality, a writer who slowly and laboriously (there were several failures en route) mined his way to the discovery of new dramatic forms and structures, a playwright whose finest efforts - Blue Remembered Hills, the two serials Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective - certainly deserve to survive, he is, nevertheless, fated to be forgotten.

Why? Simply because the medium to which he devoted his creative energies, television, is chronically amnesiac. It has no posterity - no posterity, at least, in the sense of a rich and various legacy of durable achievement whose interest for later generations will be more than merely nostalgic or sociological. We turn our old TV sets in as regularly as our fridges and washing machines, and we tend to turn the programmes in, too, for more technologically sophisticated models. Watching some so-called "classic" of the medium's past - whether it be an episode of Hancock's Half-Hour or a Face to Face interview with John Freeman - we may be amused, diverted, even fascinated. Yet our abiding impression, irrespective of the programme's quality, is one of incredulity that audiences (who may well have been our own younger selves) once accepted something so creakily amateurish, so hopelessly unstreamlined, as state-of-the-art television. In the same way, most of us would vigorously decline to board an aeroplane that, in the 1950s, gave no traveller pause for uneasy thought.

A further paradox is that, when television does deign to recall its history, it is, above all, the trash that it recycles. Such is the voracious appetite of the satellite channels, there's scarcely a moment in the afternoon when one cannot watch an old Eric Sykes show or an episode of The Saint. Yet it's now become impossible, for example, to catch up with one of the prestigious Armchair Theatre dramas of the early 1960s.

The best-known dramatists of that series, Ted Willis and the two Owens, Alun and Clive, were as admired in their day as Dennis Potter is in ours. Who, though, remembers them now? And who, likewise, will remember Potter in 50 years?

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