Dennis Potter and Me

Sunday marks 80 years since the birth of Dennis Potter. He remains one of the most influential figures in the history of British television, both as the writer of the seminal dramas Son of Man, Pennies from Heaven, Blue Remembered Hills and The Singing Detective and as a ferocious TV critic and essayist. One of Potter’s most devoted disciples is Peter Bowker, creator of the acclaimed BBC serials Blackpool and Occupation, whose BBC2 biopic Marvellous won the BAFTA for Best Single Drama last night (10 May 2015).  

In his foreword to The Art of Invective Peter Bowker reflects on Potter’s ‘cruel and witheringly precise humour’ and what this new collection reveals about a spikey and uncompromising character.

Like many a 1970s hysteric, I can lay claim to having been titillated by the work of Dennis Potter long before I had actually seen any of it. Our family didn’t get BBC2 till the mid-Seventies so, for some time, my only acquaintance with his work was the BBC1 announcer intoning, ‘And now over on BBC2, Casanova’ for six weeks. In fairness, that was probably all the TV filth a 13-year-old in 1970s Stockport could handle without imploding.

But the real beginning – the real meeting with his work – was the moment in Pennies from Heaven when Bob Hoskins’ Arthur first turned to camera and opened his mouth and Elsie Carlisle’s voice came out. I can remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Are they allowed to do that?’ It was so audacious but yet it made perfect sense. It was experimental but it was impossible to imagine the story being told in a better way. And like all great ideas, you were left wondering why nobody had thought to do it before.

1970 'Angels Are So Few' promo shot

1970 ‘Angels Are So Few’ promo shot

As the years went by and I took in Blue Remembered Hills, The Singing Detective and Cream in My Coffee, I used to fantasize that me and Dennis Potter could be mates. Reading this collection does make me think that he would have been a tough mate to have.

The cruel and witheringly precise humour that we see Philip Marlow exercise in The Singing Detective is very much present in both his views on television and his views on himself. Reading this collection it is clear that critically, he didn’t appear to have a safety catch. He seemed not to recognize that simultaneously being a practising dramatist and a drama critic was problematic in any way, or, being Potter, relished the fact.

Just as his best drama simultaneously provided a critical and often musical analysis of the drama as it unfolded, so his non-fiction often reads as a dramatic monologue disguised as analysis. The musical rhythm of his dialogue and the savage put downs are all present and correct in his prose style.

Here he is reviewing a 1972 adaptation of War and Peace and taking on his familiar anti-realist position. Noting how much the director lingers on the soup plates, he goes on, ‘Naturalism might well demand that life be turned into one damned dish after another, but the insights of a great novelist are rather more interesting than the eye-line of the head waiter.’

9781783192038And here again, in a review of Till Death Us Do Part in which he worries that the character Alf Garnett has become a hero to the very racists he was invented to parody. He opens with an anecdote about a recent stay in hospital in which he found himself sharing a ward with:

assembled Alfs addressing themselves to the unpalatable fact subdued Pakistanis had somehow managed to infiltrate into the ward under the pretence of chronic sickness. We all knew as a matter of course that these cunning brown bastards were only there to draw social security payments, an argument which temporarily wavered when one of them so miscalculated his ruse that he actually went so far as to die. “There’s yer bleed’n curry for you,” observed my nearest Alf, not entirely without compassion.

As a piece of satire, I can’t think of a finer or wittier skewering of the myth of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefits cheats’ in the space of one paragraph.

As a piece of prose it has elegance and playfulness, that final ‘not entirely without compassion’ reading almost like a stage direction and, like a perfectly weighted pass, allowing the reader to take it in their stride.

Most rewarding of all for the Potter geek, it is recognisably the blueprint for a moment in The Singing Detective where Ali – the Pakistani in the next bed to Philip Marlow – turns the expectation of racist abuse into a moment of shared hilarity between Marlow and himself at the expense of a liberal young houseman.

With his eye for absurdity and precision of language, how I would have loved to have read Dennis Potter on the likes of Iain Duncan Smith or Nigel Farage. Indeed, Farage, with his strained combination of fake bonhomie and victimized suburban bluster, could almost be a character invented by Potter – and played by Denholm Elliott. Cameron, you suspect, would be too easy a target, although I would like to see what he would have made of Nick Clegg’s avowed love of Samuel Beckett.

Dennis Potter

Dennis Potter circa 1987

There’s a tone in Potter’s prose and in his voice in interviews that reflects the masochism at the heart of his greatest work. He endlessly tortures himself with the notion that TV isn’t worthy of the same intellectual interrogation as literature or art but then makes it clear that he intends to ignore his misgivings and give the same forensic attention to an episode of Steptoe and Son or Coronation Street as he would, indeed does to War and Peace.

Naturalism, as Dennis was keen to remind us throughout his career, was just one way (and a flawed way at that) of writing television drama, but it had, partly through soaps and long running series like Z Cars, become the most familiar and dominant form by the time Pennies from Heaven burst on to our screen. Watching it now it reads as a largely naturalistic drama with music. The only time it really steps out of its realist framework is during the song sequences and during the encounters with the mystical Accordion Man. The Singing Detective then used the Pennies from Heaven template as its starting point to gloriously and triumphantly deconstruct the whole way in which we tell stories.

The towering achievement of The Singing Detective was to be simultaneously formally adventurous (A man in bed with a skin disease is writing or rewriting a detective novel, reminiscing about a traumatic childhood, peopling the film adaptation of his detective novel with characters that may or may not be characters from that troubled childhood. He is simultaneously being ripped off by his agent or wife or both for the film rights to the story he is writing. He is being psychoanalyzed. These multiple worlds bleed into each other from the beginning, and the musical sequences emphasize and restage his fears of illness, of betrayal, of loss of mind, of loss of conscience) and yet still to create a character who we cared about, who we believed and with whom we emotionally engaged. When Philip Marlow raises his still misshapen hands in triumph as he leaves the ward for the last time, I cry every time. He has won. He has beaten his sickness. He has taken up his bed and walked. He has become the triumphant hero of his own story – his own stories even.

You can catch the rhythm and technique of Potter’s drama in nearly every review, essay and interview in this collection. Potter’s sense of humour too, his relentless search for the right phrase, his restless pursuit of the metaphor – rewriting as a habit of mind. Hard to resist those sickness metaphors but his self-consciousness infects his prose style every bit as much as it does his drama. As with The Singing Detective, so he is often writing a review of himself reviewing in more critical terms than the work he is criticising.

After he delivered the “Realism and Non-naturalism” lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in 1977, Potter wrote an article that November that started with a reference to him having delivered that very lecture and being harangued in the pub afterwards by an aggressive David Hare. This in itself develops into a list of writers who were rumoured to wish him physical harm…and this anecdotage is, in his words, a ‘nervous and self-conscious preamble’ to a review of Abigail’s Party which he then proceeds to savage as a play that ‘sank under its own immense condescension.’

As he says of the non-naturalist scriptwriter, who may or may not be called Dennis Potter: ‘He wants to look at our way of looking even as he is looking.’

His public self-examination and exposure of form is an expression of the same creative instinct which has him publicly expose and examine those areas where shame resides, and fear, and lack of control. He is a writer who writes about the open wound – physical and metaphorical. Whether it be Marlow’s fear of an unwanted ejaculation when he is at his most vulnerable in The Singing Detective or whether it be Arthur Parker’s unrequited lust in Pennies From Heaven.

The glorious failure of language in Arthur symbolizes his greater tragedy – his inability to communicate ultimately leads him to the scaffold. His cry of ‘Blimey Joan, love a duck!’ when his young wife has rouged her nipples in a desperate bid to keep him from leaving her is both hilarious and tragically inadequate and foreshadows his final words before he is hanged. ‘Hang on a bit – I got an itchy conk! I said, hang on will you? Or scratch me nose for me bloody hell.’

A man can’t reach his nose for a final scratch because he is hooded up, handcuffed, being led to the scaffold. Impotence again. Bondage. Lack of relief. Even Arthur’s tragic dying words are a sexual metaphor, although Arthur himself doesn’t know it.

Potter is a writer who, like most working-class writers, has a morbid fear of being seen to ‘show off’ while simultaneously finding  it impossible to resist displaying his scholarship. His contradictions are what makes him great. A snob and a democrat, a Labour supporter with no truck with populism, a writer of immense generosity who could be enthusiastically mean in print. A humane misanthrope. All of these contradictions are on display in this collection – and they remain exhilarating.

He writes television criticism because he knows at its best television can be art and at its worst a piece of talking furniture in the corner of the room. And it was this very challenge which I feel drove him to make television that could not be ignored, that demanded your attention.

Potter was and remains a great influence on my own writing. Blackpool is the most obvious descendant of Potter, not just the lip-synched songs, but Ripley Holden as a latter day Arthur Parker, frustrated by the smallness of his life, the fact that Blackpool is not Vegas, and also the evangelical David Bradley as a distant relative of the Accordion Man.

But I would argue that the inspiration I continue to draw from Potter runs deeper than the stylistic trappings and would hope his lasting influence on me and my generation of television writers was in terms of ambition – ambition of form, of structure, of characterisation and of language. No writer appreciated more that the gap between what a character needs to express and is capable of expressing is where the drama lies. No writer conveyed the complexity and shifting nature of character with greater panache than Dennis Potter. No writer looked as forensically at the pain in our hearts and the darkness in our souls until he found some light in there.

Best of all, as this collection testifies, Dennis Potter is a writer who likes to start an argument. And it is a tribute to his qualities as a screenwriter and critic that we continue to argue with him still…

This article was written by Peter Bowker and is taken from the introduction to The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-1994 by Dennis Potter, Edited by Ian Greaves, David Rolinson and John Williams.

For more info on the upcoming Dennis Potter season at the BFI, visit their website or you can buy tickets to see Wessex Tales or Insights Into Potter: The Southbank Show.

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