The Great Television Writers: Part 6 – Dennis Potter

By Martin Keady · December 30, 2018

Perhaps it was because the British film industry was in the doldrums for much of the late 20th century that so many British screenwriting talents – including Alan Bleasdale, Peter Flannery and Carla Lane, to name but three – went into television instead. Whatever the reason, it was cinema’s loss and television’s gain as such writers produced some of the most ground-breaking television ever made anywhere in the world. Arguably the finest of them all was Dennis Potter, a chain-smoker afflicted by a debilitating skin condition, who used television not only to escape the confines of his body but seemingly every other confine (political, ideological or artistic) that anyone wanted to impose on him. 

Dennis Potter was born in the Forest of Dean, in the south-west of England, in 1935 and he would later return to the actual forest he grew up in to make it the setting for one of his most successful and fantastical dramas, Blue Remembered Hills (1979). He often mused on the fact that for a storyteller a forest was the perfect place to play in as a child, as it was so redolent of stories, myths and in particular fairy-tales, many of which were set in woods or forests. However, the inherent wonder of such a natural setting was counter-balanced by the harsh reality of life for his staunchly working-class family, particularly his father, Walter, who was a coal-miner. Potter grew up climbing trees (and sitting in them to dream), but he also knew that his father went down a deep, dark hole to get money. 

Potter was an extremely intelligent, even precocious child.

So at the end of World War Two, he won a place at the local grammar school, where all the wealthy children from the area and a few of the gifted poor children went. The school undoubtedly fostered and encouraged his early fascination with reading and literature. However, there was also a coal-black cloud that hung over Potter from an early age, which would continue to affect him for the rest of his life. He would freely admit later (even referring to it in public lectures) that he had been abused as a child by his uncle. Remarkably, the abuse seems to have happened, as Potter put it, “between V.E. Day and V.J. Day” (the two days commemorating the end of the war in Europe and Japan, respectively), meaning that the young Dennis Potter was one of the few Britons who did not celebrate the end of the war as freely as he should. 

Potter was not alone in suffering so cruelly at the hands of a family member. Among the other post-war luminaries of British art and music who suffered similar fates were Bruce Robinson, the writer and director of Withnail and I, and Pete Townshend, guitarist andsongwriterr of The Who. It is certainly chastening to consider that even as Britain was in the throes of national celebration a (celebration that was entirely justified after such a long and horrific war), so many young children were having their innocence stolen from them. To be sexually assaulted at a party (not just any party, but a national party) must have been indescribably awful, and unsurprisingly it had an enormous impact on both Potter’s life and work. 

Potter’s academic excellence won him a place at Oxford University.

There he studied PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) rather than English literature. However, that political, philosophical and economic education served him well when he became a writer, as it gave him a hard bed-rock of knowledge on which to base his extraordinary flights of fancy.

His long-standing interest in politics helped Potter to gain employment with the BBC on a graduate trainee scheme. Like all the best writers, he was acutely aware of what was happening around him and as Britain finally began to emerge from its post-war torpor (food rationing in Britain continued well into the 1950s) he became one of the “bright young things” who may have come from relatively humble backgrounds but who were none the less desperate to climb the artistic ladder. 

Potter worked on a documentary about his fellow social climbers.

But even more importantly in 1960, he published a non-fiction book entitled The Glittering Coffin. The title was so memorable that it has almost become a by-word for post-imperial Britain, which had lost its empire and with that empire its seemingly secure place in the world. Of course, as Britain limped towards becoming Brexitland, Potter’s great theme of national decay and the attempts to arrest it, which he discussed at length in the book, seems ever more relevant. 

However, Potter’s writing career was almost killed off instantly.

As he soon suffered the second most devastating incident in his life (after the sexual abuse he had experienced as a child). While working as a newspaper reporter, he was suddenly struck down by what was eventually diagnosed as psoriatic arthropathy, a devastating skin condition that literally made him feel as if his whole body was on fire. Although he would recover sufficiently to resume his writing career, the sheer agony of his psoriasis continued for the rest of his life, only ameliorated (or so Potter claimed) by the distraction of continual smoking. 

The Glittering Coffin had made Potter semi-famous, but he still struggled to make a living as a writer and so dabbled with other careers. Most surprisingly, given what would later become an almost total antipathy for politicians of all kinds, he stood in an election to become a Labour Member of Parliament at the historic 1964 general election (the starting point for Peter Flannery’s epic TV series Our Friends In The North), but unlike so many other Labour candidates he was not elected. Consequently, he returned to television and the BBC, but this time he was determined not to be a documentarian but a dramatist.

Potter’s first television play was The Confidence Course (1965), which exposed the idiocy of so many “self-help courses”. However, it was two works written around the same time that really announced him as a potential giant of the small screen. Stand Up, Nigel Barton! and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (both 1965) drew on his own experiences, first as a working-class boy at Oxford, and then as a would-be MP. Far more importantly, however, they continued Potter’s fascination with conducting a forensic examination of the British establishment and the British body politic. 

On the back of his Barton screenplays, Potter became one of Britain’s most successful television dramatists.

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, he wrote a succession of series and one-off plays that regularly courted controversy, especially as they were almost all broadcast on the BBC, the national broadcaster and supposedly the embodiment of both political neutrality and good taste. Probably the two most famous (and controversial) of his many television scripts in this period were Son of Man (1969), starring the great Northern Irish actor Colin Blakely as a very alternative Christ who faces his impending execution with all-too-human fear, and Brimstone and Treacle (1976), in which a severely disabled girl is sexually assaulted by a man who is at least a Satanist and perhaps Satan himself. In fact, the latter was deemed to be so controversial that it was not actually broadcast by the BBC for more than a decade. 

It was then, at the end of the 1970s, that Potter entered what can only be described as his imperial phase, in which he wrote his greatest work and successfully brought together all his life-long themes and ideas of abuse, power (both personal and political) and, perhaps above all, imagination. The first of these great works was the series Pennies From Heaven (1978), in which Bob Hoskins played Arthur, a travelling sheet music salesman during the great depression of the 1930s, the era in which Potter himself had grown up. A landmark of television musical drama – indeed, it virtually invented that sub-genre – the characters would often burst into song to articulate their deepest and darkest desires. The storyline was also inspired by Potter’s love of noir, particularly the great film noirs of the 1940 and 1950s, as Arthur finds himself accused of committing murder and faces going to the scaffold. 

Pennies From Heaven made both Hoskins and Potter stars.

It was so successful that it was eventually remade in 1981 as a (vastly inferior) Hollywood movie. The combination of so many apparently disparate elements – gritty realism, fantastical imagination, film noir and music – was undeniably unique and that they were all brought together so seamlessly and successfully established Potter’s USP as a television writer. He truly was unique. 

Despite the box-office and artistic failure of the film version of Pennies In Heaven, the success of the TV series was such that Potter found work as a film and television writer in both Britain and America. Probably his finest work in this period was his superb adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Tender Is The Night, a thinly disguised account of Scott and Zelda’s adventures (and eventual parting) in the south of France. Starring Mary Steenburgen and Peter Strauss, Potter’s Tender was genuinely tender and sensitively attuned to the demands of such a difficult novel. However, in the great age of what was originally called “the mini-series” and would now probably be called “the box-set”, Tender struggled to compete with The Thorn Birds et al, and so Potter soon found himself working back in British television again. 

It was then that he wrote his most famous and successful work, The Singing Detective (1986).

The title alone is a marvellous distillation of the two main themes of the series: music and film noir. Michael Gambon, in what remains one of his career highs, played a crime writer whose pseudonym is “Philip E. Marlow”, in homage to Raymond Chandler’s fictional detective (relocating the “e” to the middle of the name rather than the end). Unlike the original “Marlowe”, however, Potter’s Marlow is not roaming the streets of 1930s Los Angeles but stuck in a sick-bed in a British hospital, suffering from the same kind of horrific skin disease that Potter himself had. He can only escape said sick-bed by making imaginative leaps, in which he is miraculously cured of his skin condition but encounters other difficulties, notably former Nazis who are seemingly determined to kill him. 

The Singing Detective is one of those rare stories, films or TV series that is almost impossible to summarise succinctly, as there is simply so much going on (and most of it fascinating). In effect, it was as if Potter had opened up his unconscious to the world and allowed it to peer inside, finding within a world of thirties night-clubs, childhood memories and hospital porters who warned their patients of the dangers of tomatoes. It established Potter as probably the most famous television writer in Britain, especially when Brimstone and Treacle, having been kept off the air for more than a decade, was finally broadcast, too. 

However, Potter’s physical suffering continued and undoubtedly had an increasingly more deleterious effect as time wore on. Although he continued to write, it was not with the same energy and conviction as before, and worse still he seemed to be imitating himself. For example, Lipstick On Your Collar (1993) was something of a retread of the themes and ideas he had explored more successfully in Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective.

Then came the extraordinary final act with which Potter closed his career.

Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer (he would always joke, “Haven’t I suffered enough already with the bloody psoriasis?”), he wrote furiously to produce not one but two late screenplays. The first was Karaoke (1996), in which a middle-aged writer finds that his words are literally coming to life, and the second was Cold Lazarus (also 1996), in which said writer’s head is cryogenically frozen and then raided in the future for inspiration. Although neither were quite in the class of Pennies or Detective, they were fascinating ruminations on death and the nature of creativity by a man who was always fascinated with the medium of television but determined to do so much more than make the mundane soaps and silly dramas that appeared to be its main output. 

Dennis Potter died in 1994, before the broadcast of his last two related works. Before he died, however, in three decades he wrote a succession of scripts that went from the kitchen-sink realism of the Barton plays to the magical realism of Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective. And in the process, he had proved beyond doubt that he was not only one of Britain’s finest television writers but one of the world’s finest television writers, who did an enormous amount to open up and explore the possibilities offered by the supposedly “small screen”.  

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

Photo credit: Dennis Potter, 1978 (Photo: Getty)

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