‘The quality of the writing was clear as a bell’: the astonishing talent of Dennis Potter

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On nan greeting of 15 March 1994, nan 58-year-old TV dramatist Dennis Potter arrived astatine South Bank Studios successful London, to springiness his bonzer last nationalist question and reply to Melvyn Bragg. A period before, Potter – a tv auteur and nan creator of The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven among dozens of different tv plays, bid and characteristic films – had been diagnosed pinch terminal crab of nan pancreas and liver.

No 1 knew really agelong nan question and reply would last. In nan almost hour-long package, broadcast a fewer days later connected Channel 4, Potter looked perilously bladed and exhausted, his assemblage swamped by a baggy beige suit. The array betwixt him and Bragg was covered pinch a fewer basal objects: ashtray, java cup, champagne glass, arsenic good arsenic a beaker of liquid morphine. Despite nan grim prognosis – he had been fixed conscionable a fewer months to unrecorded – Potter was penning his latest, and last, scripts, nan interconnected bid Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, unique successful later being co-produced by Channel 4 and nan BBC. “It keeps maine going,” he explained to Bragg. “There would beryllium nary constituent successful remaining if I didn’t [write].”

Potter died connected 7 June astatine his location successful Ross-on-Wye, nan marketplace municipality connected nan bluish fringes of his beloved Forest of Dean. Obituary writers scrambled for nan correct superlatives and their apparently obligatory qualifiers. The New York Times acknowledged Potter’s capacity for general innovation, arsenic good arsenic his “caustic and controversial” streak.

The Potter devotee Mark Lawson penned a scrupulously even-handed portion for nan Independent. Few, Lawson wrote, had done much to elevate tv into a respectable creation form. If, during his early days penning for nan medium, “the subject of signaling was infantile, and location was nary dream of immortality for authors successful this shape … it is immoderate comfortableness for nan nonaccomplishment of this original, witty, astringent, bloody-minded, honest, tortured and successful each consciousness courageous writer that early viewers will beryllium capable to spot [his work] again, aliases for nan first time”.

Extras return a break from filming Cold Lazarus
Last hurrah … extras return a break from filming Cold Lazarus, Potter’s last series. Photograph: Jeff Morgan 14/Alamy

Born successful 1935, Potter grew up successful nan Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, successful a multigenerational family home. His begetter – a “lovely, gentle man” – and grandfather were miners; nan region’s sites, sounds and different dialect recurred many times successful his later writing. Potter was sexually abused by his uncle astatine 10, an acquisition he besides returned to many times successful his work.

After attending Oxford university, he joined nan BBC arsenic a postgraduate trainee, making a documentary connected nan Forest of Dean and penning The Glittering Coffin, an excoriation of British diminution post-Suez. In 1961, he was diagnosed pinch acute psoriatic arthropathy, a information that often near him hospitalised and successful excruciating pain. After a impermanent remission from unwellness successful nan early 60s, 29-year-old Potter unsuccessfully ran arsenic a Labour campaigner successful nan 1964 wide election.

His psoriasis soon returned pinch a vengeance. Writing – arsenic nan TV professional for nan New Statesman and nan Sunday Times, arsenic good arsenic via his first forays into screenwriting – became 1 of nan only feasible ways of making a living. “He wrote erstwhile he should person been sleeping,” says Kenith Trodd, his longtime collaborator and producer. “He wrote compulsively. You couldn’t clasp him down.”

The consequent imaginative flowering has fewer equals successful nan history of British TV. First came nan governmental plays, Stand Up, Nigel Barton and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton successful 1965, followed by a tally of extraordinarily bold and often profoundly arguable plays, which provoked nan ire of nan campaigner Mary Whitehouse, among others. Brimstone and Treacle was banned successful 1976 by nan past BBC head general, Alasdair Milne. (The play depicts a diabolical visitant descending into a family home; he yet rapes their brain-damaged daughter.)

Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell successful Pennies from Heaven
Breakthrough … Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell successful Pennies from Heaven. Photograph: BBC

But it was Pennies from Heaven (1978), a surrealist philharmonic imagination serial starring Bob Hoskins, that transformed his profession and led to a Hollywood adjustment successful 1981 starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. But The Singing Detective (1986) represents possibly his crowning success: a cleanable six-part distillation of Potter’s rejection of “dreary naturalism”. Michael Gambon plays Philip Marlow, nan psoriasis-wracked writer of detective potboilers, arsenic he drifts successful and retired of hallucinations of his past and characters from his ain novels.

It utilized euphony hallway numbers, flashbacks and extended imagination sequences; it’s easy to spot why David Lynch was specified a patient admirer (it was rumoured that nan 2 came adjacent to collaborating). Janet Suzman, who played Nicola, Marlow’s ex-wife, says: “We knew it would beryllium special. The value of nan penning was clear arsenic a bell, truthful caller and inventive. I wasn’t successful nan slightest amazed by its success. He could make tv theatrical.”

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The bid elevated Potter’s profession to caller heights, hoovering up acclaim, respective Baftas and a delighted, dedicated wide audience. He began to demand, and receive, unprecedented imaginative licence from broadcasters. This was not ever to nan work’s benefit. Blackeyes (1989) – an adjustment of his caller astir a female exemplary was written, produced, narrated and directed by Potter – and proved a captious and reputational disaster. “If nan producers deliberation nan book is simply a benignant of neat, useful accessory for nan head to crap upon … I will person to commencement directing them myself,” he said. Telling nan communicative of a young model’s continued intersexual exploitation by her family and a rapacious advertizing industry, it was derided connected merchandise arsenic a creepy authorial wish-fulfilment fantasy, contempt Potter’s protestations.

It has proved intolerable for immoderate critics to look past nan unsparing, often cruel, elements of Potter’s work. Certainly, fewer considered him a peculiarly cuddly figure; location is simply a bully logic why nan 2015 version of Potter’s collected nonfiction penning is titled The Art of Invective.

Prof John Cook is 1 of nan starring experts connected Potter and his oeuvre. “There is an optimism successful nan work, but it’s a hard-won optimism,” he says. The image of an avant garde misanthrope often fails to guidelines up to scrutiny. In 1 essay, Potter wrote: “The astir beautiful portion of being live is our capacity to style our lives by language, by stories, because nan world is afloat of nan murmur of quality beings trying to reshape reality.”

Filming Michael Gambon successful The Singing Detective.
Crowning occurrence … filming Michael Gambon successful The Singing Detective. Photograph: None

The clarity and poignancy of Potter’s last question and reply has shaded his bequest ever since. It would beryllium difficult not to beryllium moved, arsenic nan professional Brian Dillon noted successful an admiring 2019 effort for Frieze, by what amounts to “Potter’s past awesome work”. Subjects covered successful nan speech ran from his puerility to a ringing broadside against nan dependable uptick successful governmental cynicism, rampant commercialisation and a dependable taste diminution astatine slightest partially brought astir by “the contamination of what was already a beautiful polluted” British press.

Immensely quotable, nan reside ranges from witty stoicism to fury and down into nan seeds of a cautiously tempered optimism. He descrobed penning from location successful Ross, nan early outpouring blossom now “the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that location ever could beryllium … nan nowness of everything is perfectly wondrous”. As for his pancreatic cancer, it had a name: Rupert. “The man Murdoch is nan 1 who, if I had nan clip – successful truth I’ve sewage excessively overmuch penning to do and I haven’t sewage nan power – but I would sprout nan bugger if I could”.

The thought for a televised last testament had travel from Michael Grade, past nan main executive of Channel 4. Grade and Potter’s narration went backmost years, to nan days erstwhile Grade was head of programmes for London Weekend Television, wherever he poached Potter and Trodd from nan BBC successful a lucrative, if short-lived, multiprogramme contract.

The narration wasresumed erstwhile Grade became controller of BBC One successful nan mid-80s, from wherever he later commissioned The Singing Detective. “Dennis had sent a statement via his supplier saying he was very sick and wanted to meet,” says Grade. “He insisted connected coming into nan Channel 4 agency and I made judge we had reddish vino and ash trays. We had a agelong talk. After he left, I thought: ‘This would beryllium worthy recording.’”

After assuring Potter that location was thing “ambulance chasing” astir nan enterprise, nan day was set, pinch Bragg arsenic interlocutor. “The 2 of them went disconnected and recorded nan conversation,” says Grade. “It was extraordinary. The guidance was for illustration thing else. There were hundreds of letters, nan switchboards were jammed. People were moved by it.”

Grade has small clip for kneejerk categorisation of Potter arsenic a uniquely “difficult artist”. “We had rows, but we besides told each different nan truth. He knew really overmuch I loved his work.” Certainly, it didn’t return overmuch for Grade to greenlight The Singing Detective. “I was having a pee successful nan gents’ loos connected nan sixth level of nan BBC. Jonathan Powell [then nan BBC’s caput of drama] came in. He said he’d conscionable seen Dennis and explained nan outline of nan programme. I said I’d return it correct away.”

It is tempting to wonderment really Potter would person sewage connected pinch nan streamer-dominated world of tv coming – a world moreover much fragmented and oligarchical than nan 1 he railed against successful nan mid-90s. For Cook, it’s easy to ideate Potter adapting to caller realities. His talent would ever find a measurement to asseverate itself. “Towards nan extremity of his career, he ever wanted to person 1 ft successful Hollywood and 1 successful nationalist work broadcasting, which he really believed in. If he was successful his 50s today, you could spot him moving pinch Netflix aliases Amazon Prime successful co-production pinch nan BBC.”

Source theguardian