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

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk