He wrote his own life, his own way

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The Independent Online
DENNIS POTTER was England's 20th-century Shakespeare. He had the humanity, the broad appeal to every sort and condition of men, and he was very nearly as prolific. (Potter wrote 33 plays to Shakespeare's 36, but bear in mind that Potter wrote screenplays as well, and stood as a candidate for Parliament, in 1974.)

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of Pennies from Heaven or The Singing Detective, transmitted in 1978 and 1986 respectively. On the evenings when they were broadcast, it seemed as if no one went out. No one went to the cinema, or to dinner, or to visit friends; telephones rang unanswered; England sat at home, glued to the television.

In these two especially, but in all Potter's plays, life in its palpitating immediacy unfolded before our eyes - funny, foolish, tragic, flawed, and above all believable. Potter's characters were eccentric, undignified, self-regarding, misguided; they were more touching than Charlie Chaplin's caricature of the little man and sadder than many a more portentous dramatist's attempts to convey the tragedy of the human condition.

Potter understood that it is not only the great who feel greatly (did Shakespeare?). He knew that the sheet music salesman, the minor official at the ministry of defence, the suburban housewife and - yes - the detective disfisgured with psoriasis, could feel and dream and sin and repent on the grand scale. He made sure we knew it, too. No other writer of our time appealed so universally.

He could command television audiences of up to 12 million. Apart from sport (Cup Finals and Test matches); the news (on the night of a major disaster or royal spectacular) or Morecambe and Wise, almost nothing on the box (I don't count mindless soaps, the wallpaper of the masses) reliably pulled in audiences of such a size. Certainly no other dramatist could do it so consistently.

His death affects me more personally than any other public death I can recall . . . yes, more than that of John Smith, even. I was in France when Potter announced, two months ago, that he was suffering from a galloping cancer, and thus I missed seeing his reputedly magnificent final televised conversation with Melvyn Bragg. No matter. His work, as he would be the first to insist, is what counts, and that will last.

Potter was, if anything, an anti-hero for our times. He was no respecter of persons, neither religious nor worldly, but he was deeply humane. He despised most politicians, he famously loathed newspaper proprietors, and he never had much time for clerics. He described Philip Marlow, the hero of The Singing Detective, widely taken to be the character closest to himself, as a cynic. Potter himself was not. Cynical about the Great Panjandrums, yes - and with good reason; but cynical about ordinary human beings, never. Quite the reverse. His external self might sometimes be gruff and dismissive, but his inner understanding of the vagaries of human behaviour was without parallel . . . wise, tolerant and forgiving.

I met Dennis Potter on a couple of occasions when he was a reluctant presence at the press showing of his latest drama. He would lurk at the back of the viewing theatre, a cigarette clamped in his gnarled, arthritic fist, listening out for the audience's response, caring and yet not caring what they made of his work. Afterwards he would sidle crabwise through the crowd, submitting to the questions or praise that the PR people forced upon him, manifestly longing to get away.

Few people cherished their privacy more. He claimed to have no friends - adding gnomically: 'Well, perhaps one.' Who did he mean? Kenith Trodd, his long-time associate? Margaret, his 'steadfast' (his own word for her) wife? His children, his father, even? He was reluctant to admit he was close to anyone, but even more reluctant to cause pain to those to whom he was close.

I met him one other time, too. About four years ago, I wrote to him and asked if I might be his biographer. I pointed out that he and I had been near-contemporaries at Oxford, and I remembered the impact he made on an Oxford that could be cruelly scornful of grammar school boys with provincial accents. I went on to say that I had also both worked for 17 years in television, so I had some understanding of the technical demands of the medium. I said that, like him, I was a lifelong Labour supporter and added (this, though true, was a cheap bid for sympathy) that I had also suffered from a chronic illness for many years. As I had hoped, my letter snagged at his attention.

He replied, in a crabbed pencilled hand, that he detested the idea of a biography, but was prepared to meet me to discuss it. He came over to my flat one evening a few weeks later, bearing a bottle of good red Burgundy. By chance, I had provided exactly the same wine. We started well.

After an hour and a half we had emptied both bottles and (I thought) were getting on like a house on fire. Had we had dinner, Potter asked. No, we had not. He and I and my partner made our slightly unsteady way to the nearby Earl's Court Road. The first two restaurants were full, so we ended up in some tourist trap, over-priced, with pretty awful food. Potter ordered two bottles of the best wine in the place, and over an indifferent meal we drank those as well. I remember his mordant humour. At the end of the meal, an invalid in a wheelchair was trundled past our table. As all around us simpered insincerely, Potter said: 'They shouldn't let them out.' It was wicked, and wickedly funny, too.

When the exorbitant bill came, he insisted on paying. He was not poor, he said laconically, and anyway, he liked treating people.

A few days later a second letter arrived. It thanked me for the suggestion that I might be his Recording Angel (the phrase was, of course, his and not mine) but reiterated that he valued his privacy too much. In any case, he said, the process of creation and the unconscious sources of his writing remained a mystery to him. He feared that if he revealed his past in factual detail, the wellspring of that inspiration might dry up. I had no choice but to accept his decision, though I was bitterly disappointed. Yet I think now he was right. There is no point in allowing someone to undertake your biography unless you tell them everything. Potter had done that already - in his plays.

His whole life, everything he had observed, and learnt, and thought, and wished to say, was there, generously displayed for us all. Anything more could only stem from prurient curiosity. Well, now he is dead, alas, and whatever he had left to hide will, I hope, stay hidden.

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