Dennis Potter 1935-1994: 'He treated the world as if it was a blank page': Friends and colleagues remember the brilliant, but prickly writer

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The Independent Online
Kenith Trodd, television producer of Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, was a life-long collaborator and friend. After splitting with Dennis Potter during the production of BBC 2's Blackeyes he was chosen by the dying playwright to produce his two final television works, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus.

Mr Trodd said yesterday: 'He told me he feared that when his time came he would not be able to let go. I puzzled about what he meant. Then I realised that Dennis Potter was his work, he had to write these two serials. He said to me, God, I wish I'd made them in six parts (they are in four parts). Once he had finished them he had nothing to live for.

'His wife Margaret's death last week was a last signal to him, though he tried to rally for his family. He died when he was no longer writing.

'He had few friends, he didn't have a gracious manner. There was his illness: he was always a fish out of water, in his own world in the Forest of Dean, at university at Oxford, though he conquered it.

'He ploughed his own field. He was not that practical, his interventions in the world were as if he treated it as a blank page. He had business escapades though he had great flair.

'I think he was a great artist. When you consider how many people he reached, and how people would say 'he understands my world, he knows me'. People only say that of a writer such as Shakespeare.

'He has written more than anybody else and more of it is good. He stands several pairs of heads and shoulders over other writers.'

'Ken Trodd was very much the go-between because Dennis was a hermit because of his illness. Maybe not a hermit. Maybe the oracle on the mountain. He wrote on the tablets and Ken Trodd brought them down and I was the children of Israel.

'It was very nice then. Ken and Dennis were buddies, though a very odd couple . . . They were old friends from way back. Which was just as well, as Dennis was frequently sharpening his tongue on Ken. The were like an old married couple.

'At the time he wrote Pennies he said he was a kind of Christian. Actually, Pennies was full of religious ideas. Arthur is an incompetent, a liar, an adulterer and a cheat, but he is touched by grace, so it is religious in that sense, nothing to do with conscious doctrine. But he is tranformed by his belief.

'And the brilliant thing about Pennies is that the belief is in 30 or 40 saccharine songs - they are Arthur's vision and that vision is one, essentially, of paradise. Why can't the world be more like in the songs he says. Which is fatuous, but shows great faith. To me that was moving.

'Pennies from Heaven showed great. . . charity. And I think charity weakened in his work, actually. That's even true of The Singing Detective, the other piece which is on Pennies level. But there's still something miraculous about the writing of Pennies. Because it's not so obviously about Dennis, I think. It's a rich slice of life, channelled, compressed, concentrated into a fiction. For me that concentration produces great art . . .

'I hope he won't be remembered as a sex-obsessed middle-aged man. I hope he'll be remembered as someone like Arthur, as someone who was touched by grace.'

'We had instant rapport, which I think was important to him as this was his directing debut.

'On Blackeyes I became a listener. You had to be around Dennis. He was a brilliant, witty, intellectual man. He had ideas. We would sit around and drink it in. He listened too; he was very open. I was 22 at the time . . . but he wasn't ageist, he was interested in what I had to say, which was refreshing.

'There was a family atmosphere on the set . . . He was encouraging: if you were his actress you were the best in the world, if you were his actor, you were the best in the world. I think he was more interested and more comfortable with creative people than technical people.

'It was tough for him to be around people. He had been a recluse, really. he hadn't seen anyone but his family for years. He was quite shy, actually. He tried to hide that with this powerful personality. He could be overwhelming. I've seen him eat journalists alive.

'That was the other side of him. I've been on the receiving end of his temper a couple of times, which can be devastating. I think it was the illness, the pain. Some days it was very bad and he would lash out, other days he was wonderful to be around.'

'Of all the writers of that generation, he is the man who involved himself most passionately with television. Yes, he's done movies, but his involvement with the medium is a love affair . . . Which is partially an accident of history, I suppose. He arrived on the scene at a particular point in British television history. I think that environment would be rather difficult to duplicate these days.

'With the younger generation of writers today, they will say, almost to a man, that their emblem is Dennis. Not necessarily because they like everything that his plays were specifically about, but because of what his spirit represented, a sense of what could be done. That's really why he's so important. He sort of said that TV could be not formulaic but at the same time, all-embracing. I feel that is what his legacy will be.'

Was he a woman-hater?

'No. I think he was honest about how some men feel about women, about that extreme fury and frustration. I think he was angry that physical attraction had been commandered by the advertising business and used to sell things. I think that's what Blackeyes was about. I think Dennis found that very hard to bear - that the media took personal things and used them to sell things to you. Blackeyes, to that extent, is not degrading women but about how women are degraded. It was about how the romantic and poetic and physical - the private - is being colonised by the. . . commodities market.'

(Photographs omitted)

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