Made for TV

Jenny Diski

  • Fight & Kick & Bite: The Life and Work of Dennis Potter by W. Stephen Gilbert
    Hodder, 382 pp, £18.99, November 1995, ISBN 0 340 64047 2
  • Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen by John Cook
    Manchester, 368 pp, £45.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 7190 4601 7

The death of Dennis Potter may have been authored by God, but it was adapted for television by Potter himself. It began after a brief report in the Guardian suggested that Potter’s terminal cancer related to his lifelong addiction to nicotine. By return there was a gleeful letter from Potter revelling in the Potteresque fact that far from his ‘beloved cigarettes’ being the culprits, his forthcoming death from pancreatic cancer was probably iatrogenic: the result of years of lethal medication. The Guardian letter assumed its readers knew that he had suffered all his adult life from psoriatic arthropathy, which, of course, they did. But tellingly, so did the readers of the Sun and the News of the World, who were more familiar with Potter as the‘Dirty Drama King’ and ‘Television’s Mr Filth’. Very few playwrights have had this kind of reach, and none has put it to such dramatic and manipulative use as Dennis Potter in his leavetaking broadcast to the nation. Though Potter was a Methodist, it was a final performance worthy of the archetypal Yiddisher momma having her guilt-laying, emotional-blackmailing finest hour. He may, as a lad, have gone three times every Sunday to a chapel called Salem, but it’s not for nothing that one of his plays was entitled Schmoedipus – as in the old Jewish joke, ‘Oedipus, schmoedipus, what does it matter so long as he loves his mother?’

Nobody was fooled, but everyone loved it and cheered Potter to the end, as he swigged morphine from a hip flask, forced BBC’s Yentob and Channel 4’s Grade into a graveside wedding, introduced his lethal tumour as ‘Rupert’ (after Murdoch), and kept the nation engrossed with a will he/won’t he finish his final play before death overcomes him cliffhanger. It was a tour de force in which he didn’t fail to include a Dostoevskian eulogy to the nowness of now and the blossomest of blossom, and even managed to gain the disapproval of his old primary school teacher who, according to Stephen Gilbert, admired his final interview but was not pleased when ‘he said “God the old bugger” ... I didn’t like that.’ It was such a successful finale that I still expect the credits to roll and Potter to pop up again to instruct us not to assume that what a writer says is simple autobiography.

If you’ve got to have self-referential fiction, you might as well have it in the form of Dennis Potter announcing his death on his chosen medium and going on to describe his imminent posthumous work about the dissemination of a dead writer’s memories via a TV hook-up between pickled brain and screen. It gets the whole recursive tangle – creation, authorship, death and readership – wrapped up in one neat package so intricately knotted that we can pick it up, feel its weight and then chuck it in the back of the drawer where it belongs. We might judge the final episode of Cold Lazarus an appropriate moment to draw a line under self-referential fiction, raise our glasses to Dennis Potter for providing a good deal of entertaining mischief and move on – not, I think, back – to the not, after all, so innocent view of fiction in the days before the intrusion of the authorial voice became a blinding authorial vice.

Potter himself was, in some moments, of this opinion. ‘One of the reasons I chose to write “drama” rather than prose fiction is precisely to avoid the question which has so damaged, or intellectually denuded, the contemporary novel: Who is saying this?’ But being a Godlike Author, and therefore an inconsistent old bugger, he then went on to poke his authorial voice into every crack and cranny of his novels and plays so as to provide them with the intellectual finery he feared was missing from television drama. The me/not me card is a joker in any writer’s pack, fun to play and providing just the right degree of equivocation for someone like Potter who claimed reclusiveness while being the most publicly visible of authors. He played the identity card for considerably more than it is worth. Writers who are not self-obsessed and wriggling through what they hope are their own labyrinthine psyches are very likely not writers at all, and the torpefying quest of the public and critics for simple autobiography deserves the run-around it gets. The trouble is that the side-issue of autobiography can become a dead end for the writer as well as the reader.

The ‘Who authored this?’ question is probably one that should be asked only once in the history of literature, then shelved. Sterne pretty well took care of the issue with Tristram Shandy, since when it has become the clunkiest way of expressing the central doubt of human experience. It begins to look like an insult to the intelligence of an audience, who, having, as Potter scoffed in a New Society article, ‘solved the equations between the writer, the writing and the world ... simply by taking them for granted’ may be waiting for the author to provide something more than a lesson in how to suck eggs. Stephen Gilbert and John Cook (along with just about everyone else) would agree that Potter reached his reflexive nadir with Blackeyes, in which the story of the eponymous model based on the central character, Jessica, is related as a novel authored by Jessica’s uncle, but rewritten by Jessica, both of whom, in the third episode, turn out to have been authored by a journalist called Jeff, who turns out himself, in the final scene, to have been the invented creature of a writer who is none other than ‘Dennis Potter’. Cook makes the interesting point that the audience, who had stayed with quite intricate Potter works such as Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, showed its feelings about the authorial revelations by falling from a record seven million for episode one, to five million for episodes two and three, to 3.8 million for episode four. This means that 3.2 million people never discovered that ‘Dennis Potter’ was the author of it all, but perhaps they are the 3.2 million who felt it was sufficient to know that Dennis Potter without the quotation marks wrote the piece and made a quality decision to do something else with their time. According to Richard Loncraine, who directed Blade on the Feather, Potter ‘got lazy and recycled the same ideas too many times. I think he looked down on his audience, he thought the world was full of arseholes and he patronised them.’

Still, Cook finds Potter’s self-revelation enthralling, using it to trace a unifying theme throughout his work, but he does not do Potter much of a service in failing to perceive the poverty of what became by the end little more than a device. Find-the-Potter is an arid game to play over an entire writing career, and one that may have clouded rather than illuminated the substance of his work. Cook is a media studies lecturer and his study of Potter began life as a doctoral thesis. Potter, with his commitment to television drama, is a gift to media studies, one of television’s very few intellectually respectable gifts. For Cook, the fact that his death was covered by national TV news, obituaries in both broadsheet and tabloid press, and ‘even a tribute from the then Heritage Secretary Peter Brooke MP’ was ‘final proof and vindication that Potter as television writer had been successful in his aim of trying to cut across the lines in British society. Through television, his writing and ideas had reached out to a far greater range of people, communicating with them and touching their lives to a far greater extent than if he had been a figure predominantly of the theatre or of literature.’ With Potter, television comes of age and provides reputable material for academic study. Good heavens, the man even deconstructed his own work.

However, considering the tabloid media’s attitude and, indeed, the response of ‘the people’, it’s doubtful whether the televising of Potter’s work touched the generality of lives he hoped to touch. Gilbert, denied access to the estate by Potter’s children, managed to get an interview with his mother, now in her eighties, and sister June, who still live in the Forest of Dean. ‘The foresters,’ according to June, ‘didn’t like his plays very much. They didn’t understand them. We didn’t either, let’s be honest.’ Potter necessarily left the forest early in his life and he may have forgotten, as people do, how powerful are the constraints of society beyond the boundaries of Oxford and the BBC. Leaving the narrow locale of childhood we’re inclined to think we’ve landed in the big wide world, but usually, we’ve got it the wrong way round.

A local man told Gilbert that ‘he must have had horrible, nasty things in his head.’ They were often and agonisingly all over his body too. His psoriasis was hereditary but its frequency and extent were, he acknowledged, related to stress and anxiety. He shared affliction with Job, but the degree to which it was self-infliction was more Freud than God-given. The physical pain and crippling effects had their psychic shadow in increasingly insistent suggestions of sexual abuse and guilt. A ten-year-old child, sexually interfered with or disturbed in the forest, became a motif, beginning with his description in his 1972 novel Hide and Seek of a man with ‘eyes that later always seemed to be the colour of phlegm’. Potter spoke of this to Cook in an interview: ‘I was ... sexually assaulted when I was ten years of age ... People endure what they endure and they deal with it. It may corrupt them. It may lead them to all sorts of compensatory excesses in order to escape the nightmare, the memory of that.’ If this sounds like a summation of Potter’s themes – abuse, guilt, corruption, excess – he is at pains to obscure any such simplicity. ‘It’s important but it’s not that important’ because still ‘you’re left with your basic human striving and dignity.’ The having it both ways was essential Potter.

In Stand Up Nigel Barton the hero confesses to a public meeting that he has slept with 136 prostitutes; in the novel Hide and Seek the number of these encounters rises to 156. As Gilbert says, ‘Potter sought to create very bad persons – bad men, of course – who yet repent perfectly.’ They have the capacity to repent perfectly because their ‘crimes’ are invariably the outcome of crimes committed on them, they are twisted out of shape by a world beyond their childhood control. The bad men are to be forgiven because of their capacity to suffer for their misdeeds, and because these misdeeds are essentially no fault of theirs. This is a good enough description of the effects of the Biblical Fall to explain Potter’s use of women. His characters’ guilt about their adultery is a consequence of the fact that they choose to use prostitutes – the prostitutes are a given, available either to utilise or turn down. The good man passes by, the bad man employs them and then pays again with a searing of his flesh and conscience. The whore simply is.

Potter’s view of women in his fiction as whores or frustrated and frustrating housewives caused considerable complaint from his feminist critics. His depiction of the depth of his ambivalence (a man’s ambivalence) to women had the virtue of transparency, of showing how each sex, like each individual, must implicate and accuse the other in order to find itself essentially good – though whether that was Potter’s intention is less clear. Potter’s fantasies about women were unoriginal: if they were sexual they were punished, dying nastily at their own or the protagonist’s hand; if they were virtuous they were usually responsible for the murderous rage of their partner.

Potter described in detail the scabs on his skin and in his mind, but he was interested in more than that, and Cook’s vindication of his use of women as whores or angels deserves the contempt even Potter, I think, would have had for it. ‘It is important to note that such a dichotomy is simply a function of the much wider schism between “flesh” and “spirit” which ... runs right through Potter’s work and which “tears” at many of his male protagonists. Moreover ... notions of “whore” versus “angel” are also simply “conventional stereotypes”, embedded deep within our culture. They are, in fact, Western society’s traditional way of looking at women.’ Well, that’s all right then. Though I had thought that art was supposed to do something with stereotypes beyond reproducing them for our further perusal. Cook concurs with Potter’s excuse for what seemed like the irredeemable salaciousness of Blackeyes by telling us he was ‘investigating the nature of patriarchy itself’ and how in ‘Blackeyes, it is the female not the male characters who are emphasised as the “suffering martyrs” of patriarchy.’ If that’s what Potter thought he was up to in the serial, and he did say something very similar, then not only his dramatic skills, but his intellectual honesty were gravely in question. As an example of Potter’s empathy with women, Cook reminds us of the moment when Blackeyes/Jessica ‘cries to heaven: “Jesus, why weren’t you a woman?” ’ I remember it well: it was the moment when I lost all control of my derision centres and fell off the sofa laughing.

Stephen Gilbert’s critical biography is rather more stylish and far less deferential than Cook’s. He acknowledges Potter’s blankness about half the population, and does not pretend that archetypal symbolism can account for it. He quotes Gareth Davies, who directed several early Potter plays: ‘All these women you write,’ Davies said to him, ‘they’re always somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife or somebody’s mistress, that’s all they’re there for, to serve some sort of male.’ ‘That’s right,’ Potter replied. ‘All my own fantasies ... Boring characters ... they don’t work. I find them rather dull.’ It was Nancy Banks-Smith, in a review of Stand Up Nigel Barton, who, according to Gilbert, put her finger on the flaw which ‘would run right through Potter’s work: “The women were weird. The witch, a bitch and a fool. The schoolmistress was a nightmare to frighten little children with. The girlfriend a tart on tranquillisers.” ’

Gilbert traces much the same thematic development in Potter’s work as Cook finds. Potter’s concerns were those of his time and place: the new fluidity of social class in his youth, the desire to bring art to the masses, the foregrounding of sexuality as a key to discontent, the loss of faith and certainty in what seemed like iconoclastic times and an attempt to reclaim a God of some sort as life proceeded. The threads linked and were transformed over time into a personal mythology. Guilt and frustration were the major themes that emerged as he made his way from rural innocence to a self-conscious post-war world. He was well placed to make his subject the Fall.

Potter had a good enough brain to eject him out of his class and society, into Oxford and the BBC, at a time when the effects of separation from one’s background were under scrutiny by the sociologists, and Richard Hoggart was affirming in The Uses of Literacy that a young man like Potter is ‘cut off by his parents as much as by his talent which urges him to break away from his group’. Alienation was all the rage and Potter took on the role of outsider on the inside with relish. At Oxford he was a working-class radical, while at the BBC he made a half-cooked documentary about his estrangement from his family (‘even at home with my own parents I felt a shame-faced irritation with the tempo of a pickle-jar style of living’) which to his astonishment caused considerable resentment among his family and neighbours. His shame at the headline ‘Miner’s Son at Oxford Ashamed of Home. The Boy Who Kept His Father Secret’ made his Oedipal treachery clear to him and fed his drama for decades.

The ideas were large and juicy – God and the Devil, guilt and innocence, betrayal and redemption, the provocative outsider, childhood as a lost landscape – but very often by the end of one of Potter’s plays there was a feeling of disappointment, of the drama not having made the most of the ideas. Potter himself said in later years that Son of Man was evasive. By dramatising Christ as a political hero and excising all reference to the Resurrection and the transcendental intention of the Gospels, he simply sidestepped the area that poses the main obstacle for agnostics. Much of what he wrote took a single, rather abstract notion and developed it thinly to the exclusion of difficulty. Plays that look complex are often too neatly dialectical. It makes it easy for Cook to render them down to their bare bones. To Cook, The Singing Detective marks the apotheosis of Potter’s theme, as Marlow, the embittered sick man (and writer), creates an alter ego to investigate an intolerable moment in his past which split him between spirit and flesh. The re-integration comes when his creature, the detective Marlow, kills off his creator, the defective Marlow. It is, says Cook, a religious play about redemption, which suggests that Potter’s reclaimed religion was little more than the notion of a healed psyche, with a popularised Freud as the Messiah.

The Singing Detective used wit and humanity in its hospital scenes and memories of childhood. The transcendental-dressed-as-pulp-detective sections were the least successful, looking far too much like a nervous search for profundity. The sense of a truthful story burdened with a less than interesting mystery was common with Potter. When he allowed himself to work in a more direct way, trusting his material, the results were much more effective. Blue Remembered Hills was about the line that children walk between play and persecution. The story was uncluttered and chronological. Joe’s Ark followed with close attention the rage and sadness of a man whose young daughter was dying. Where Adam Stood took a chapter from Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son and dramatised the moment when the boy gains the strength to challenge the blindness and bigotry of his father. None of them required complex subplots, actors talking direct to camera, or even miming to evocative old songs.

Which is not to say that Potter shouldn’t have innovated (using adult actors for the children in Blue Remembered Hills worked for the play), but that he became too caught up in the innovation. The evocative old songs certainly did their bit in the early episodes of Pennies from Heaven, but as Gilbert points out, the script is ‘overwritten, overlong, repetitive and undisciplined’, and more and more songs were used, as the narrative drive fell away, until every time the band struck up it came to seem like panic. The device was cunning because the music is so seductive, but sometimes it induced foot-tapping at the expense of the drama. It became a Potter trademark, and writers like Potter shouldn’t need trademarks.

The group of people who produced and wrote The Wednesday Play and Play for Today in the late Sixties and Seventies were men (almost exclusively) with a calling to make television into a catalyst for social debate. They were prelapsarian liberals and socialists from a variety of backgrounds who saw the potential of television as a dynamic tool for widening education and culture, a force for the good, which might use the excitement of art to unify a rigidly stratified nation. The BBC bureaucrats, for their part, looked on the likes of Potter and David Mercer, Peter Nichols and David Rudkin as the means of fulfilling their commitment to public service broadcasting, which, of necessity included ‘the arts’. Somewhere in between, the executive producer Sydney Newman, the playwright Troy Kennedy Martin, the producer Kenith Trodd, the script editor Roger Smith and others, had thoughts about creating a new form of drama, not dependent on theatrical traditions, but written and directed for the strengths of the television studio. While Potter’s early Nigel Barton plays criticised the poverty of political life and Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home created a social services scandal, everyone could feel that television was a power for the general good. The pressure was not, then, to maximise viewers, but to produce enough thought-provoking programmes between Double Your Money and Juke Box Jury to allow Lord Reith to sleep easy in his bed. Reithian sensitivity, however, worked both ways: thought-provoking was one thing, but tasteless, anti-religious, sex-obsessed stuff was quite another. What are fondly remembered as the golden days of TV drama lasted only until it was discovered by Reith’s successors that some things were not for broadcasting to the masses. With Brimstone and Treacle Potter found the edge of television liberalism. Alasdair Milne, Director of Programmes, viewed it at the last minute and pulled it from the schedules. The play centred on the brain-damaged daughter of a family shrouded in guilt who makes a miraculous recovery when raped by a passing devil. It was, Milne wrote to Potter, ‘brilliantly written and made, but nauseating. I believe that it is right in certain instances to outrage the viewers in order to get over a point of serious importance, but I am afraid that I believe in this case real outrage would be widely fell and that no such point would get across.’

Potter threw himself into battle, making his commitment to radical television drama clear, where others made their way into the theatre or films. He made television his cause and was prepared to make a fuss about it, and much credit goes to him for doing that. Staying with it, he wrote what he felt he needed to write and made innovation part of his crusade. But still it was only possible because the ratings war hadn’t hotted up to the point where a small audience for a drama series – even on the BBC – would mean its cancellation and the likely sacking of those who commissioned it. According to Gilbert what the BBC Drama Department under Sydney Newman offered its authors was above all ‘the right to fail’. That right has now been rescinded. But it has to be said that, uniquely, television’s commitment to Potter was at least as strong as Potter’s devotion to it. Potter was allowed to fail frequently and always recommissioned. After Blackeyes died the death, Channel 4 financed Lipstick on Your Collar, and although that was received with less than a tumult, the BBC commissioned Midnight Movie and Karaoke. For all Potter’s complaints, many of his contemporaries who went into the theatre, such as Peter Nichols and Alun Owen, languished, while his work went on and will go on being produced and performed.