The truth about Potter

Dennis Potter cursed the literary biography as `fact' posing as `lies'. So the new biography of the late playwright portrays him as an egotistical monster. Well, what did he expect?
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The Independent Culture
ARE WE about to see the trashing of Dennis Potter? The Sunday Times is currently serialising "exclusive extracts" from a new Faber biography by Humphrey Carpenter (one of its regular book reviewers) - lurid allegations surrounding the late writer's sex life, including obsessions, affairs and tales that he slept with more than 100 prostitutes.

But hang on. Didn't Faber used to be Potter's own publisher? And isn't The Sunday Times from the same Rupert Murdoch-owned stable whose standards Potter used to rail against? Most curiously of all, wasn't Carpenter supposed to be the "official" biographer, commissioned by Potter's own estate? Right on all counts. And there hangs an extraordinary literary tale.

In his final TV drama, 1996's Cold Lazarus, Potter gave his fictional alter ego, Daniel Feeld, a curious death-bed cry. The cancer-stricken writer rendered it with all the force he could muster for his last script:

"More and more discernible and hideously upsetting, a head seems to float in liquid nitrogen... and the mouth is trying to make word-shapes...

DANIEL: (Off, near-scream): No biography !"

Regardless of any truth in Potter's fiction, there are also the writer's own pronouncements. For example, in a lengthy 1990 interview, he told me: "I despise biographies. They're hidden novels... And I do think that biographical criticism is such an easy way of assuming you get ... the key to a body of work. I just know that that is not the case."

So why did his estate ignore his views? According to Carpenter, Potter "was a very manipulative subject" who "accepted" at the end that a biography would be written. As for the death cry in Cold Lazarus, Carpenter shrugs off any connection between the work and the life in this particular case, seeing it as one of the great "literary jokes" from a man who spent his career writing about his life or talking about it to interviewers.

Potter talked so much about himself because he believed people today had "lost sight of what fiction is". He told me he self-consciously manipulated his own autobiography in order to draw audiences in to attend to what he regarded as the "deeper" spiritual themes of his writing. In essence, he was a religious dramatist (albeit a highly unorthodox one) - an explorer of spiritual questions who rejected the naturalistic world of "fact"-finding as "lies", after seeing how an early documentary he made on his beloved Forest of Dean had distorted the "deeper" truth he knew to be there.

Potter's estate, upset that the biography paints such an unpleasant picture, has not co-operated in a documentary made to promote it. It is to be produced by the BBC; the institution to which Potter devoted his life and his passion. His own publisher, his own estate, even his beloved BBC - all working to promote a biography he would never have wanted.

And the reason? Biographies sell. We are now in an age where writers' lives have become far more important than their work. Biographies have become the new tabloids of the chattering classes and all biographers know the rules of the game: if you dig up enough "dirt", the press will serialise your work and you will get rich. The temptations for sensationalism and distortion are enormous. The public craves artistic meaning, but with critical studies hived off to the universities as too "difficult", biography fills the gap and figures like Carpenter thrive. Yet readers often find themselves short-changed as they find an artist's work reduced to a few simple tropes of their sex life. If EM Forster were alive today, Potter argued in his brilliant 1993 Edinburgh MacTaggart lecture, the Murdoch press would brand him "an artsy-fartsy old poofter". Five years later, it's Potter's own turn to receive such treatment.

It seems that at the end he was aware his reputation was at stake. Cold Lazarus is about a media mogul who wants to raid the cryogenic memories of a helpless writer for public titillation and private profit. And it is through the replaying of the "no biography" cry that scientists of the future realise Daniel Feeld is self-aware and does not want to end up diminished and exploited.

As they dig deeper, the scientists also realise Feeld's memories are "no biography", but inherently subjective. There are real bits of his life but a lot of fantasy too. This goes to the very heart of Potter as writer. The truth about the man is not in the "facts" of his life but there in his fictions, if we only care to look. In order for a biography to work, Potter now must be portrayed as simply a "manipulative games- player": one whose anti-biographical pronouncements concealed a secret authorial game of hide and seek which the biographer can then uncover.

Yet when I put precisely that early theory to him, Potter replied: "All right, you're attracted by this game of hide and seek. That's fair enough for a little way... but to love it too much is to obscure and not see what else is there." Potter hinted there was something more. The danger is that it is this which will be dismissed now he is gone. The complex fiction will be read as simple autobiography and people will turn away from the work. The biography will have replaced the drama.

Yet the truth is much more interesting than sensational headlines about his sex life. The prostitute tales, for example, are unreliable, stemming from a period before he wrote any of his plays when, first ill at 26 with a skin disease, it is clear he suffered some kind of breakdown. Meanwhile, what the stories of later sexual obsessions fail to mention was that Potter was often more romantic dreamer than dirty old man, longing to return to a youth before the onset of disease. Sometimes, what seemed to be sexual fixations were actually painful romantic infatuations for a lost past.

Potter's was a life of great physical suffering and trauma which he eventually learned to transcend through his writing. Disease could sometimes make him extremely irritable and he often got up the noses of colleagues. Some of them, one feels, are now getting their revenge. Yet because of illness, Potter didn't have much of a life: in many ways, his work was his life. This is why an "official" biography seems particularly half- baked. Several advance readers have noticed that other than as a collection of facts, the new biography doesn't have much to say about Potter's work. Hence the hyping of the sexual aspects.

While it is important not to romanticise him, Potter does not deserve demonisation. Anyone who saw his final interview will know he stood for something more than sensationalist fodder. It is important that alternative views are put across, for to trash Potter is also, implicitly, to trash his cherished hopes for democratic public broadcasting.

Others, one suspects, know this too. So when you read the sensationalist headlines in the next few weeks, pause for a moment. See the hidden motivations and agendas for what they are. Then make up your own mind about Dennis Potter.

John Cook lectures in Media at De Montfort University, Leicester. The revised second edition of his critical study of Potter's work, `Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen', will be published by Manchester University Press in September. The BBC film `Dennis Potter: Under The Skin' will be broadcast on 9 September.