Obituary: Dennis Potter
Wednesday 08 June 1994
WHEN Dennis Potter was born, in 1935, the profession which he later graced - that of television playwright - did not exist, for basic technological reasons. Unlike a novelist, poet or theatre dramatist, he had the exhilaration of helping to create the trade in which he operated. But, by the time he died, aged only 59, the profession was felt by many to be on the brink of extinction, for rather more complex technological and commercial reasons, against which Potter enthusiastically campaigned in his final years.
Potter himself was well aware of the depressing graph of the art form in which he chose to work. A year before his death, he said: 'I first saw television when I was in the sixth form. So I saw it at the very moment when I was thinking: what am I about? This thing sitting in people's living rooms. I thought: how wonderful this could be. Now you'd have to say: how wonderful it could have been . . .'
But, for all his glumness about the later state of the industry, Potter was responsible for many of the programmes generally accepted as the wonders of the young medium: the single plays Blue Remembered Hills (1979) and Cream In My Coffee (1980); the six-part serials Pennies From Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1987); and, two months before the death he knew to be imminent, an astonishing 90-minute valedictory interview in the Channel 4 series Without Walls.
Potter is one of only four leading playwrights to have given their creative lives almost entirely to television - the others are his British contemporary Jack Rosenthal, Alan Bleasdale, and the American Paddy Chayevksy - and he is the most celebrated. Indeed, Potter is the only writer in the history of British television to achieve the kind of name recognition and publicity usually associated with star actors and eccentric executives. Such was his profile that lesser works would achieve a level of infamy and criticism to match the celebration of the better ones.
Potter grew up in the Forest of Dean, an area of Gloucestershire which was an unusual mixture of rurality and coal-mining, and had its own distinctive dialect ('How bist thou, butty?' was a standard greeting). Its places and sounds recurred in Potter's work. The writer's father and grandfather were both miners, and Dennis grew up in an unusually extended family, with three generations living in the same cottage. Potter remembered his father as a 'lovely, gentle man' - and would weep when speaking of him in later years - but there must have been a less pleasant male presence in the household. At the age of 10, Dennis suffered an experience of what later became known as child abuse. He revealed this in a 1983 preface to a collection of his plays, and discussed it in subsequent interviews.
'It's obviously there in my consciousness,' he said. 'And it's there in my work, if people want to see it. A lot of the characters are the abused, the helpless ones . . .'
After National Service - later drawn on for the 1970 play Lay Down Your Arms - Potter read PPE at Oxford. While still an undergraduate, he was interviewed for a BBC documentary on class and social mobility. His chippy contribution was reported in the Labour newspaper Reynolds News under the headline 'MINER'S SON AT OXFORD ASHAMED OF HOME. THE BOY WHO KEPT HIS FATHER SECRET'. Such coverage does not seem to have worried Potter who, joining the BBC from Oxford as a graduate trainee, immediately made a documentary on the same theme of sons socially outjumping their folks. He also published a polemical book, The Glittering Coffin (1960), a complaint about national stagnation and decay after Suez, an event which frequently featured in Potter's plays.
Rowing with the BBC, over the publication of freelance articles in magazines, Potter left to become a reporter on the Labour-supporting national newspaper the Daily Herald. In 1961, covering a meeting of the Young Conservatives in the Euston Road, he suffered what he described as 'the second foul and terrible ambush of my life' (the first had been the sexual abuse). Potter was suddenly unable to rise from the press table, his knee having become a hot, hard medicine ball. In hospital, the other joints blew up too, and his skin scalded off his body overnight. He was diagnosed as suffering from psoriatic arthropathy. Doctors assess the severity of the condition by calculating the percentage of the body area affected. Potter scored 100 per cent.
A short remission allowed him to run unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate in the 1964 election, but the return of the condition left him, at 29, jobless, crippled, and with a wife - Margaret Morgan, whom he had married in 1959 - and two young children to support, who, because of his illness, he was unable for long periods even to touch. There was a single job in journalism for which it was not necessary to get out of the chair - television critic - and so Potter did that, first for the New Statesman and then for the Sunday Times. Most television critics were jesters but Potter, although capable of jokes, was more of a hellfire preacher. His Sunday Times review of the American mini-series Holocaust, about the Nazi annihilation of the Jews, began with the line: 'Excuse me if I splash you with my vomit . . .'
In the mid-Sixties, Potter had also begun to write television plays, wedging a pen into hands that were now permanently locked into swollen fists, like big red boxing gloves, because of his illness. Four plays were accepted and screened by the BBC during 1965 and 1966, including two - Stand Up Nigel Barton and Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton - about a chippy miner's son who stands for Parliament. These dramas established what would become the trademarks of Potter's work for the next 30 years: perceived autobiography, success (a Bafta award), and controversy, with the BBC postponing the second play until after the 1964 election.
Virtually all of Potter's plays for television were an assault on two boundaries: the limits of popular taste and the technical timidities of the young medium. Niceties, particularly religious and sexual, were challenged by Son of Man (BBC, 1969), a revisionist Passion with an earthy, working-class Christ; Casanova (BBC, 1971), a biopic about the celebrated priapist which got Mary Whitehouse in a froth; Double Dare (BBC, 1976), in which the writer- hero acts out sado-masochistic fantasies; and most famously Brimstone and Treacle, which was banned by the Director General of the BBC, Alasdair Milne, in 1976.
In that play, a mysterious visitor, who seems to be the Devil - he has cloven feet and a whiff of sulphur on him - achieves the recovery of a brain-damaged girl by raping her. The play was subsequently adapted for stage, turned into a movie and screened, 10 years late, by a repentant BBC, but the work remained no easier to understand. Although its opponents regarded the play as atheistic and diabolic, it was a product of Potter's complicated and frail religious sense. He admitted to a belief in the possibility of God, although he would not discuss it, was violently angry when a radio interview he had given the BBC about his writing turned out to be for a series on religious faith and, in a typical phrase, declared that 'religion is the wound, not the bandage'. Brimstone and Treacle seems to have been an attempt to challenge simple concepts of religion by showing a benevolent outcome resulting from an evil act.
Although the work which challenged morality made Potter famous, his critical reputation rested on plays in which he rethought the form of television drama. Much of the drama on television was caged stage plays, works carried by the words. Potter was the first author for the medium to think in small square pictures, employing overlap, fantasy and flashback in
multi-story narratives. He also had the happy knack of the identifying device: a morning-after talking- point for critics and viewers.
For example, in his BBC play Blue Remembered Hills, an evocation of a childhood in the Forest of Dean, the children were played by adult actors, therefore providing visual shock - the sight of the burly middle-aged Colin Welland in short trousers - and a commentary on the psychological continuities from childhood to later life. Pennies From Heaven, a six- part BBC serial which was the television sensation of 1978, had as its central character a song-sheet salesman in the Thirties, his profession providing the cue for the characters to mime to the syrupy ditties of the period in musical interludes. Potter's point was that the bouncy lyrics of the period - 'Zing went the strings of my heart]' and 'Down Sunnyside Lane]' - represented the personal and political lies, the capacity for self-delusion, of the Depression period.
In what would become a familiar pattern, Potter then fell out with the BBC and, in 1980, decamped with his favoured producer, Kenith Trodd, in a big- money transfer to Michael Grade's London Weekend Television. Commissioned to make six plays, Potter and Trodd completed only three before rowing with LWT over budgets and returning to the BBC. Of the three dramas made for Grade, one was classic Potter: Cream In My Coffee, in which an elderly couple suffer premonitions of death and revelations of betrayal in the seaside hotel where they lost their virginities 40 years earlier.
In 1987, his second great six-part BBC serial played similar games with genre and song to those of Pennies From Heaven, and also, this time, with autobiography. Marlow, a hack detective fiction writer hallucinating from 100 per cent psoriasis in a London hospital, is spasmodically transported to the gangsters-and-danceband milieu of his books. In a key sequence - given the shorthand in the television censorship debate of the 'wobbling-bottom scene' - the nine-year-old Marlow watches from a tree in the Forest of Dean as his mother enjoys adulterous intercourse.
The unusual triple success of The Singing Detective - in ratings, with critics, and at award ceremonies - allowed Potter complete artistic freedom. As in many creative lives, this proved nearly disastrous for him. In recent years, the writer had also been permitted, for the first time in his adult life, relative physical freedom. Virtually a recluse at his house at Ross-on-Wye - unable to attend the filming of his plays - Potter was prescribed, in the late Seventies, the supposed wonder drug Razoxin. This allowed him to travel, but also wiped out all his white blood cells and gave him tumours. A recluse again, he was freed for the second time in the Eighties by the drug Methotrexate, a form of chemotherapy which gave him four or five days of comparative normality, in exchange for a weekend of bedridden vomiting.
Although he still needed to wear pyjamas under his suit to reduce the scratching, this treatment allowed Potter out. He used this freedom to take total creative control - writing, producing, directing and narrating - of his next project, a four-part BBC serial called Blackeyes, screened in 1989. This was the story of the sexual exploitation of a model by, in childhood, her uncle, and, in adulthood, the advertising industry. Potter said that the serial was a condemnation of voyeurism and exploitation but, as his camera crept slowly around the passive and semi-clad actress playing the model, many critics felt they could hear authorial lip-smacking. Potter's remarks to the press about the necessity of his falling in love with the central actress encouraged this interpretation. The serial was a critical and ratings failure, and the Sun, pouncing on the coincidence of the writer's first name with that of a popular soap-opera character, dubbed him 'Dirty Den'.
Dismayed, though not dissuaded from repetition of the mistake, Potter next wrote, produced and directed, with the same leading actress as in Blackeyes, a cinema film called Secret Friends. Featuring Alan Bates as a man unable to distinguish between his wife and a prostitute who looked like her, it raised many of the same questions as the television serial, and similar critical black eyes were administered. In 1993, Potter's last six-part television serial, Lipstick On Your Collar, for Channel 4, which Michael Grade persuaded him not to direct, represented something of an artistic recovery, although many felt that its central theme - British disillusionment after Suez - and its organising device - the characters miming to rock songs - had been seen to much better effect in the writer's earlier work.
In truth, after The Singing Detective, Potter's best works were public appearances. In August 1993, he delivered the McTaggart Lecture, the annual keynote address at the Edinburgh Television Festival. Speaking from the altar of a kirk (the churches rent themselves out as venues during the festival), Potter delivered a brimstone sermon. His theme was the commercialisation of British television, through the introduction of external competition from satellite television and internal competition through the cost-cutting and administrative changes introduced by the corporation's management. His personal targets were, once again, Rupert Murdoch, and, for the first time publicly, the Chairman and Director General of the BBC, Marmaduke Hussey and John Birt, whom he characterised as 'croak-voiced Daleks'.
Potter's speech was far more vitriolic protest than coherent alternative plan - and wholly incomprehensible to a BBC management talking about 'shared cost centres' and the 'corporate talent base' - but it was an eloquent expression of the anger Potter felt at what had happened to television. He had seen the medium as a potential national school or national theatre and felt that it had become an international supermarket. There was some of the dismissive, bitter anger of the ageing artist in what he said - in fact, the BBC still supported large numbers of new writers, and some executives still preserved its soul - but it was largely true that, in all except moral climate, Potter had worked in the best times for a television writer.
Potter operated in other media. He published four novels, including early prose versions of Blackeyes and Secret Friends. He also wrote a number of Hollywood screenplays, including a big-screen version of Pennies From Heaven (1981), starring Steve Martin, which flopped, and an adaptation of the thriller novel Gorky Park (1983). He adapted for the BBC books by Angus Wilson, Thomas Hardy and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a stage play - Sufficient Carbohydrate - had a respectable run in the West End in 1984. But it is as a writer of original plays and serials for television that Potter would wish to be remembered, and will be.
Though he was often depicted in profiles as dour and gloomy, Potter in fact was generally improbably optimistic. He was angry that viewers and critics identified him with Marlow, the hero of The Singing Detective, because, as he told me on the last occasion we met: 'It had to be an invention for me to write about someone who believed in nothing. I never felt that despair, for whatever reason: my system of belief, my faith, or whatever you call it . . .'
This resilience survived a final two years of his life which, even by the Job-like standards earlier established, were cruel. He stopped taking Methotrexate in order to help nurse his wife, Margaret - whom he described as 'my tender and steadfast wife . . . she's the one that's borne the brunt of everything' - who was suffering from cancer and who predeceased him by nine days.
Last Valentine's Day, Potter, who had been experiencing more than his usual daily pain, was told that he was suffering from incurable cancer of the pancreas and liver. With the help of his local doctor, he achieved a system of pain management which allowed him enough lucidity to write 10 pages a day of two final, linked, plays: Karaoke, for the BBC, and Cold Lazarus for Channel 4. This desperate deal between medicine and art surprised many people when it was reported. They did not perhaps realise that, for the 33 years after his psoriatic arthropathy was diagnosed, nearly every word Potter had written was the result of similar pharmacological calculation. He succeeded in completing both Karaoke and Cold Lazarus before his death, and it is likely that - in line with the writer's final wish - this series will become the first in television history to be screened by both the BBC and Channel 4. Potter then unexpectedly wrote, commissioned by the Daily Telegraph, a short story about a dying writer obsessed with rewriting a work called Black Pearls: a title which was inevitably taken as a reference to Potter's own difficulties with Blackeyes. This was published three days before his death.
In April this year, Potter gave a final television interview, to his old friend Melvyn Bragg, for Channel 4, the station run by the television executive he had always most respected, Michael Grade. It is often said of the terminally ill that they bore their fate bravely, but Potter was the first to do so in front of a nationwide television audience.
Swigging white wine and liquid morphine, Potter talked about the Forest of Dean, television and the beauty of the last blossom he would see outside the window of his study. He also revealed that he had named his pancreatic tumour 'Rupert' - after the mogul Murdoch - and that, if he had the strength, he would shoot Mr Murdoch before he died, for his lowering of the standards of British journalism and television. About the prospect of his own death, he spoke with an equanimity and candour which astonished all who saw it. And, for all the terrible sadness of his condition, Potter had been responsible for another remarkable television programme.
When Potter first wrote television plays, the science of recording was infantile, and there was no hope of immortality for authors in this form. Now, however, the best works are preserved and it is some comfort for the loss of this original, witty, astringent, bloody-minded, honest, tortured and in every sense courageous writer that future viewers will be able to see again, or for the first time, Blue Remembered Hills, Cream In My Coffee, Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective and the final Without Walls interview. In more than one way, Dennis Potter was someone who made television.
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