Dennis Potter, aristocrat of the passionate soul

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The Independent Online
Dennis Potter died yesterday of cancer, aged 59 - the exact contemporary of so many of those television dramatists who served a joyous apprenticeship in the Sixties and Seventies. He was, by common consent, the leader of the pack.

At a time when the tides in the affairs of television are flooding in the direction of a Drama of Reassurance - 'Write whatever you like, providing it's about an investigator,' comes the cry from the front office - he stood, firm and steadfast, for the human imagination. It's a quality that, long ago, Tennessee Williams called 'the aristocracy of the passionate soul'.

He honed his skills during the 1960s, when original television plays were in demand. We were given a studio and told: fill that empty space with your imagination. Potter flooded the place and along the way celebrated the golden rule of drama: if you are doing your job properly, you will always be in trouble.

He wrote with a religious fervour, edged with scepticism and a wonderful, often overlooked, comic flair. As he said, his six-part serial The Singing Detective (1987) is a story about a man who takes up his bed and walks; but he walks into dark areas of the forest where television drama had rarely, if ever, strayed, singing songs along the way.

The work and the man were indivisible. He once appeared on BBC's Question Time, listened to a bland ministerial answer on some impenetrable aspect of Whitehall manipulation, then confessed his total boredom with the chap and announced his primary concern as getting to the end of the programme so he could have a cigarette. It was, as far as I recall, Potter's only appearance on Question Time.

His death, like his writing, has a huge metaphorical sub-text. His way of writing is under threat. The keen-eyed executives who rule the industry invariably refer to the Golden Age of the Sixties and Seventies with the prefix 'so-called'. They should do their homework. There was nothing 'so-called' about it. It gave us Jack Rosenthal, Alan Bleasdale, Alan Bennett, Leon Griffiths, Elaine Morgan, Troy Kennedy Martin, John Hopkins and a hundred more. For a decade and a half we enjoyed the finest national theatre of our time, richly diverse, uniquely democratic. Perhaps it was too good, or too dangerous, to last.

My most recent memories of Potter are linked with the literary festival at Hay-onWye, not far from his beloved Forest of Dean.

He spoke at the 1993 festiva1 and I discovered that he had requested, firmly but politely, that an ashtray be provided on stage in the marquee, in defiance of all known fire regulations. I spoke in the same tent a couple of days later and also asked for an ashtray, quoting Potter as legal precedent.

'He's been doing this for 25 years,' I said. 'Creating a right of way for the rest of us.'

At this year's festival I ran a workshop for seven young, eager and highly talented writers. We talked of drama and dramatists, studied scripts, traded anecdotes and watched videos - including Potter's final astonishing interview in April with Melvyn Bragg for Without Walls on Channel 4.

'Mark this well,' I said. 'It'll be good for you.'

Afterwards two of the group revealed they had written to him following the interview. One of them had sent him a poem. They were, in the proper sense, love letters.

These outbursts of affection and admiration are not without irony, considering the spiky and controversial nature of much of Potter's work; but what we revered, and should fight the good fight to preserve, was the integrity of the personal vision.

We are left with a question. What happens if any of the highly talented young writers from the Hay workshop - or anywhere else across the land - turns out to be the next Dennis Potter? Will the industry find time, space and resources to liberate the individual vision? Or will the broadcasters commission a couple of episodes of The Bill or EastEnders? These are awkward questions; but the proper way to remember Dennis Potter is to carry on asking awkward questions, and greet the answers with compassionate scorn.

Last words, page 4

Obituary, page 14

Angela Lambert, page 16

Alan Plater is President of the Writers' Guild. His television work includes A Very British Coup, Barchester Chronicles, The Beiderbecke Trilogy, and most recently Selected Exits.

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