Dennis Potter was Britain's greatest TV drama writer - so why do broadcasters neglect him?

Potter's career is currently being celebrated with a season at BFI Southbank

It is both Dennis Potter's glory and his misfortune that he did his greatest work for television. Potter, whose career is currently being celebrated with a season at BFI Southbank, is acknowledged as one of the major British writers of the post-war era.

His small-screen dramas, notably Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986), were shown in prime time and watched by huge audiences. It was a sign of his cultural significance that he was often profiled on TV arts programmes and that his pronouncements about everything from Rupert Murdoch ("I would shoot the bugger if I could") to the then BBC bosses John Birt and Marmaduke Hussey ("croak-voiced Daleks") were taken so seriously.

Mary Whitehouse, founder of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, complained frequently and vociferously about him while the British tabloids nicknamed him "dirty Den" because of the sexual themes in his work – further proof of his place at the heart of British popular culture.

Potter was a paradox: a man who, as his friend and producer Kenith Trodd puts it, came from "a background of extraordinary repression, illness and terrible problems with women". After he began to suffer from severe psoriasis in the early 1960s, some colleagues speculate that he would have preferred never to have had to "leave his bedroom" and yet he was also a polemicist and showman who thrived in the public eye.

Twenty years after his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994, British television doesn't seem to have much time for Potter. The BFI season is showcasing the "entire surviving canon" of his work but you will struggle to find that work on television.

Trodd recently approached a senior BBC1 executive to ask if the Beeb might consider commissioning a remake of The Confidence Course (1965), Potter's first broadcast piece of television drama (which subsequently went missing.)

"She (the BBC Exec) kind of blinked and said: 'Dennis Potter? That's nostalgia. We would never do that or repeat it on BBC1.'"

It is all very different from the 1970s and 1980s, when producers used to joke that the British film industry was "alive and well" but living in television. With British cinema in the doldrums, the best, most urgent filmed drama then was being done for the small screen – and much of it was being written by Potter.

Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell in ‘Pennies from Heaven’ (1978) Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell in ‘Pennies from Heaven’ (1978) (BBC)
Roger Smith, story editor on The Wednesday Play, gave Potter his first TV-drama commission with The Confidence Course (1965), which Potter had originally begun as a novel. "To begin with, he was very resistant, very reluctant. I said you're crazy, here's a chance – you'll get mentioned, you'll get money, all those things."

Smith points out that the intention at BBC Drama was to encourage writers "to write what they really wanted to write, not what they thought they had to". It helped that their work, however raw or experimental, would reach audiences of millions.

As playwright (and Potter admirer) Mark Ravenhill notes, the days when writers like Potter could hone their craft working on The Wednesday Play or First Night or Play for Today are long since gone.

"For a lot of that generation of TV writers, they still had their real passion that television was going to break free of class barriers… you could reach people like your mum and dad with the television in a way you could never get them to theatre," Ravenhill reflects. "It does feel a very different time. Now, when people want to write for television, the normal advice is to write episodes of other people's programmes and learn how to do it. You might start by doing some Holby and you might do some Spooks. Once you've proven your track record, you can come up with your own original idea."

As his small-screen career took off, Potter's relationship with cinema remained ambivalent. His TV dramas were filled with filmic references. His affection for Raymond Chandler-style film noir is evident in The Singing Detective and no one who didn't love musicals could have written Pennies from Heaven. There was, though, one very obvious reason why he preferred working in television drama to cinema. In British TV under producers and script editors like James MacTaggart and Roger Smith, writers were treated with respect and even veneration. In cinema, they were hired hands.

Potter wrote several screenplays that weren't filmed (among them one for D M Thomas's The White Hotel) and a few that were (Nic Roeg's Track 29, thriller Gorky Park, Mesmer and Dreamchild.) There were also film versions of his plays Brimstone and Treacle, Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. Producer Rick McCallum, later to work on Star Wars, was involved in several of Potter's film ventures. None was especially successful.

"Many, many of his other things were optioned. Money was poured into them. There was enormous belief in this talent as something which could help Hollywood," Trodd recalls. He describes the frequent, abortive meetings he and Potter had with Hollywood execs. "Dennis would go into heavy irony," the producer recalls. "When he practised that kind of irony on solid Americans, they didn't get it. They enjoyed the lunch but we never heard from them again."

"It was a different kind of nightmare," Trodd says of the battles to make some of the big-screen versions of Potter's work.

Michael Gambon as Philip E Marlow in ‘The Singing Detective’ (1986) Michael Gambon as Philip E Marlow in ‘The Singing Detective’ (1986) (BBC)
In 1976, the BBC, under Director-General Alasdair Milne, refused to broadcast the TV version of Brimstone and Treacle. The play was about a suburban couple and their severely disabled daughter. The daughter's ex-boyfriend, who is actually the devil, rapes her, thereby helping cure her condition. Milne found the play "brilliantly written and made but nauseating". It was indicative of the BBC's mixed-up attitude toward its provocative star writer that having banned one of his plays, the organisation promptly asked him to write something else (this eventually became Pennies from Heaven.)

When a big-screen version of Brimstone and Treacle was made six years later with pop star Sting in the leading role, censorship was no longer the issue. Nor was Mary Whitehouse breathing down Potter's neck, accusing him of blasphemy. The problems were more mundane and were all to do with money and marketing. Trodd recalls the fuss Virgin's lawyers kicked up when the film-makers used Sting's song "I Burn for You" on the soundtrack. There were also misgivings about the very British nature of the original play. The girl's father was originally written as being a member of the National Front. That didn't have any resonance for American audiences so had to be changed.

The Dennis Potter archive, which includes unpublished works and initial drafts, is kept as part of the Dean Heritage Centre in the Forest of Dean (near where Potter grew up.) It is a sign of Potter's diminishing influence that he is not even the star attraction at the centre. Britain's most celebrated television playwright is fighting for attention with the centre's woodland trails inspired by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's children's books, The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom.

Another continuing problem Potter faces is that his drama was written for TV and therefore doesn't have a natural afterlife. As Ravenhill puts it: "We've got this figure who has created this major body of work. It is as substantial a body of work as (that of ) any post-war British novelist or playwright or composer. He is up there with Martin Amis or with Alan Bennett or Harrison Birtwistle and yet because of this medium of television, you can't revive it or give it new productions in the way you could with a play. It is not on syllabuses in the way a novel would be."

Potter's status as a key British writer isn't in doubt. Twenty years on from his death, the question is just how audiences will revisit or discover his work when the broadcasters who first commissioned him seem so reluctant to show it again.

'Messages for Posterity: the Complete Dennis Potter', BFI Southbank (whatson.bfi.org.uk; 020 7928 3232) June to July and June to July 2015 at BFI Southbank

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