The real Dennis Potter

The playwright died 10 years ago. To some, he was Dirty Den, purveyor of post-watershed filth; to others, the most innovative dramatist ever to write for the small screen. To Nigel Williams, he was, well, what exactly? He only began to find out as he made a film portrait among the tall trees and deep mines of Potter's beloved Forest of Dean. And then he met the family...

'It's beautiful!" I said. It's the kind of thing documentary film makers are always saying to potential contributors. You admire people's houses, coo over their children and crunch their home-made biscuits with the enthusiasm of someone appearing in a commercial. Anything - the cynical might say - to gain your victim's confidence.

But on this occasion I actually meant what I said.

I was standing in Salem Free Chapel in Berry Hill in the Forest of Dean on a chilly spring morning earlier this year. A man in middle age, dressed with careful anonymity, was showing me round the place.

There were beautifully polished wooden pews, an antique harmonium, a wooden pulpit and, above it, on the wall, a banner of the kind you used to see on Trades Union marches. It was not a big building and there was no stained glass - but the high windows were alive with the light of the day outside. The place was, although a place of worship, and obviously frank about its spiritual purpose, almost defiantly part of the world outside its modest walls. On the far-left wall was a small memorial to those from the congregation who had given their lives in the First War. Whoever had engraved it seemed to think that the conflict ended in 1915.

The only image in the place was a faded black-and-white photograph of what looked like a group of working men from the turn of the century. The chapel was not much bigger than the average scout hut, but the loving and careful way it had been decorated - the wooden panelling was the work of a master carpenter - was as arresting as the first sight of any religious work of art. I am still not sure why it impressed me so strongly. It was partly that there was a seriousness about my guide that let me know he was not going to let the cameras in until he was absolutely sure he trusted me. It was partly the unchanged simplicity of the decor - as if I had just walked into a working man's front parlour in the early years of the century. But, most of all, it was a mood, a feeling in the air, a haunting blend of honest toil and simple prayers.

"Dennis Potter," said my guide (the minister? the lay preacher? the convenor perhaps?), "came from one of the 10 families that built this chapel. This is where he would have worshipped as a child. Two or three times on a Sunday probably. It was built by miners who broke away from the other chapel in the village because they wanted to talk to God in their own way."

Dennis Potter, for those who do not already know, was the best loved, best hated, most prolific and almost certainly the most talented television playwright of his day. He is one of the only writers for the small screen whose work made the transition from British television to the Hollywood cinema, while the seriousness with which he approached his craft and his refusal to accept the naturalistic conventions of the medium have changed the face of television drama for ever.

He was also a controversial national figure. His very first play, Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton - based on his own experiences of standing as a Labour Party candidate in the 1964 election - was withdrawn until he had agreed to make changes forced on him by the BBC Drama department, with the intent of toning down the political content of the piece. One of his finest plays, Brimstone and Treacle, about a disabled girl who is raped by the Devil, was banned in 1976 by BBC Television's then director of programmes, Alasdair Milne, and was only finally transmitted in the decade after it had been written and filmed. His classic series like Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective were the high points of an age in which serious television drama was something watched by millions and experienced with a thrill of immediacy that the video and multi-channel age has almost completely destroyed.

As well as all that he was a superb journalist and polemicist (his favourite writer was William Hazlitt) and he left us two extraordinary confessional pieces: an address to the Edinburgh Television Festival and a final interview with novelist and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, given when Potter had been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas and knew he had only months to live. They are among the most powerful and frank pieces of self-expression to grace the medium this extraordinary writer made so uniquely his own.

I was in Salem Chapel because the BBC's Arena programme had commissioned me to write and direct a 90-minute film about Potter, and, after an initial meeting with Jane, his eldest daughter, it had seemed possible that his children might appear in the film. They had not yet appeared in any documentary about their father. They were, like the man from Salem Chapel, not altogether sure whether to trust people from the media. A casual glance at the news cuttings will tell you why.

Largely as the result of Blackeyes, a late and not always successful series of his, Potter was portrayed by the tabloid press as "Dirty Den", a sex-obsessed pervert, and, though this campaign of vilification came at the end and not the beginning of a distinguished career, it has somehow stuck, as filth will. Even the authorised biography, written by a professed admirer of his work, hunted down the possible sexual indiscretions of its subject with the keenness of a recently converted train spotter - on the cover of the paperback the playwright is seen flanked by glamorous actresses, wearing the kind of smile that suggests he is a man who wants to party.

Although I could not connect this image of the man with the person I had known slightly and admired greatly, it had somehow distorted him in my eyes. All through the slightly edgy initial exchanges with his eldest daughter (the other two children, I had been told, did not wish to appear) I had - even if not wholly consciously - been looking for traces of corruption. But standing in Salem Chapel, I had the first important insight into the nature of my subject. Dennis Potter was a writer steeped in the Puritan Protestant tradition. Public confession and the public examination of one's own shortcomings were all part of his upbringing - but his openness, his relaxed, almost playful attitude to the question of original sin had its beginnings in this building. If I had a sneaking suspicion that he was in some way sinful, that was probably because that was exactly what he wanted me to think.

"I would very much like," I said, " to film a service here."

My guide gave me a level look.

"I will put your proposal to the congregation," he said, "and let you know what they decide."

"I need to roll up another cigarette," said Jane Potter, "before I talk about this."

The sun was pouring in through her windows. It was almost midsummer and we had been shooting the film for nearly two months. We had been down the only coal mine still open in the Forest of Dean to try and give an idea of the medieval conditions in which Potter's miner father worked. We had filmed a service in Salem Free Chapel, in which local people read the Bible unfettered by clerical assistance, and we had followed Potter's career path, from childhood in the Forest of Dean to adolescence in London, a spectacular career at Oxford and a failed attempt to be a Labour MP.

But we had not yet got anywhere near to the roots of his inspiration, to understand what it was that made him the writer he was. And although we had recorded a long and compelling interview with his sister June, who still lives in the Forest village where they were both brought up, we had not yet started to film his children.

Potter married his wife Margaret, while he was still at Oxford. He had met her at a dance in Lydney in the Forest of Dean and, though they spent a few years in their early twenties up in London, most of the 35 years of their married life was spent in Ross on Wye, at the edge of the Forest. The gossip and innuendo about his life that surfaced in his biography - none of it amounting to much more than unsubstantiated rumours, mainly from the mouths of disgruntled ex-colleagues - was accompanied by a curious lack of interest in his real private life.

Margaret died in the same year as her husband of breast cancer. She was not a person who sought the limelight, but even those who seemed to want to take the Naughty Vicar view of the playwright had been obliged to admit that their marriage was particularly strong one.

More and more, as we filmed our contributors, I came to the conclusion that the real Dennis Potter was a reclusive, devoted family man whose main interest in life was his wife, children and writing, more or less in that order. This was not, clearly, the kind of thing that would get news space for our programme. "DIRTY DEN TURNS OUT TO BE QUIET FAMILY MAN" was not a headline I could see tempting the Murdoch press (Potter was a strong critic of this particular grouping, even to the extent of calling his cancer "Rupert.")

What I had grasped, however, was that his offspring - Jane, Sarah and Robert - were as devoted to him as any children I had ever seen, personally or professionally. And so, in this bright summer day, in Jane Potter's big airy house, only a few minutes walk from where she and her siblings grew up, I felt considerably nervous, as Martin (doubling as producer and photographer) got the camera up to speed. I knew, for example, that Dennis's death was still so painful and vivid for her that she had not been able, yet, to go to the grave - and her father died 10 years ago this year. Yet I was going to have to start by talking about that final interview with Melvyn Bragg. Anyone who has seen it will find it hard to forget the sight of Dennis sipping a mixture of morphine and champagne and managing, not only to talk eloquently about his approaching death but even to make jokes about it. "It's just analgesic care from now on," he told Bragg, "and after that it's 'Goodnight Vienna' as they say in football nowadays."

The camera was running Here we go, I thought.

"Jane," I said, "that last interview..."

I was prepared for anything. There are not many people who have had to watch their dying parent talk frankly about the approach of their own death from cancer on national television, let alone discuss their feelings about it with a comparative stranger. Would she cry? Would she shout at me and tell me it was none of my business?

Nothing of the kind. Her eyes were bright with a passion you do not often see, on or off the screen. She was burning with a desire to communicate exactly how it felt.

"Oh," she said. "I had such comfort from that. Partly that it was that we would always have it, to see. And partly that he had the chance to say exactly who and what he was without all the inaccuracies and distortions that had so often surrounded him."

This was, I thought, a pretty good answer. But the way she delivered it was even better. Her eyes alight and her gestures trowelling out the air around her, she reminded me so strongly of her father that instead of moving on to the next question like good interviewers are supposed to do I found myself goggling like a goldfish. This interview was the very stuff Dennis turned out for all those years - living-room drama.

I had got another important clue as to the nature of my subject.

What makes Dennis Potter's plays still so fresh and vivid is their extraordinary theatricality. He often uses devices more common in Brecht and Shakespeare than in the naturalistic sewage that makes up so much soap opera - direct address to the audience, a deliberate invoking of the awareness in the audience that they are involved in the business of being spectators, intellectual speculation in the mouths of characters as well as the depressing ping-pong exchanges of fact and feeling that pass so often for dialogue in the mass media.

A theatrical Puritan, I thought, as I groped for my next question, a man who, as his other daughter Sarah later said to me, was not afraid of displaying his wounds in public. That explained the prurient nature of the press and the authorised biography's interest in him and it also explained the confusion in his public's mind between the autobiographical and the fictional in his work. As he says in our film, the central character in The Singing Detective may have a horrific skin disease, as Potter did, but he has absolutely nothing in common with his creator. And yet it was in Potter's nature to tease his viewers with the thought that what they were watching was not the product of his imagination but... him.

"Are you listening, Nigel?" said Jane. "Or are you thinking how you can cut this up and make me look stupid?"

"We've got this tracking shot of the Forest," said Jeff glumly. "It looks nice."

He said this in distinctly suspicious tones. It did indeed look good. You saw the shadow spaces in between those great, green trees that stretch up from the banks of the Wye and welcome in the traveller like the cool of a cathedral on a hot afternoon.

Outside the cutting room it was autumn. The trees on Bedford Square were yellow and gold. But inside it was summer. Jeff Shaw, the editor, and I were four weeks into the schedule and trying to match Dennis's voice to the material we had shot in the Forest of Dean in June and July. The stuff we had of the Forest looked good all right. But was it what we needed to see at this point of the film? We had what we thought was a strong beginning and a middle section that was almost OK, but the end was proving difficult.

"It's a question," I said, "of trying to get to the heart of the man. Who was he? Really?"

Jeff looked at me wearily. He is used to me saying things like this. What he wants to know is which shot I think ought to come after the shot we have just put in to the movie. Instead, I ask boringly existential questions and, when I can't answer them, try and persuade him to come out for a kebab.

It had not always been this slow. One of the really interesting things we had found out in the cutting room (the place where you really make a documentary) was the origin of all that sexual unease in Potter's work. I had always known that he was the victim of sexual abuse - even before the biography appeared - although I could never quite place where I had heard it. As Jeff and I had trawled through the existing interview material of Potter (the film seemed to work much better when his voice was telling you things) we found a reference to his being assaulted at the age of 10, by his uncle. This comment was buried in the Potter MacTaggart Lecture given at the Edinburgh Festival the year before he died.

It was curious. Ten years ago I had been sitting in the Scottish church, surrounded by the crowd of the Edinburgh International Festival, listening to Dennis speak. I could recall, clearly, the white gloves he had worn to protect his poor disabled hands, and the way he had suddenly broken into song at the end of the piece, favouring us with that wry smile of his and whispering, as if to apologise for his so obvious passion: "Jesus, you're not supposed to talk like this in our country." All I had carried away from it at the time was his vicious (and extremely welcome) attack on John Birt, sitting in the audience in front of him. He had described him, rather charitably I thought, as "a croak-voiced Dalek". I had no memory of his talking about being abused at all. Why? Well, when we came to go through the material, I found that, although the confession was there all right, it was given in coded form. I had not remembered it because, like so many people who had suffered sexual abuse, Potter had somehow wound up with the idea that it was his fault, and in presenting his agony publicly he also felt the need to muffle it, to disguise it. But when we looked back through the transcripts of the MacTaggart lecture, there it was, as clear as day - "If anyone really cares to look at my work they will soon find that most of it is about the victim, the one who cannot answer back or, in many cases, the one who cannot talk at all."

That had neatly tied up all that gossip. Potter was a victim, not a perpetrator, of sexual oddity. And, when we looked back through the interviews we found his oldest and almost certainly his best friend was of the opinion that the abuse was the most significant factor in shaping Potter's life and his attitude towards it.

But the heart of him?

He was not, at bottom, a tormented man, except in so far as he suffered from a cruel and incurable skin disease. Even that he turned to his own advantage, describing it as his "shadowy ally" and using the enforced seclusion it forced on him to work harder, write more and take the kind of risks that other writers were afraid to take. Although he was a theatrical character he was not a figure permanently on display like, say, Noel Coward. His secure and loving family seemed to operate as a kind of wall between him and the numerous enemies of promise that wait for a talented author.

"What you're saying," said Jeff, "is that the heart of him was in the Forest of bloody Dean."

"I think I am," I said. "You see, other working-class writers of his time - such as David Mercer - were genuinely displaced from the communities from which they came. The unique thing about Potter is that, although he was an Oxford-trained intellectual whose work is literary in its ambitions (unlike, say, Jim Allen's) he never stopped being part of the community in which he was raised. The Forest of Dean's uniquely preserved identity, its almost medieval obsession with family and community, enabled him to give his television work a genuinely universal, almost Shakespearean, spirit. That is why we are doing this film. That is why it is still worth celebrating him."

"What you are saying," said Jeff, "is that we use this tracking shot. Right?"

"Right," I said. " Can I have a kebab now?"

'Arena: Painting the Clouds' will be shown on Christmas Day at 9.40pm, BBC2. A season of documentaries and Potter's dramas continues on BBC2 and BBC4 until 8 February