I have always been a big fan of the work of Dennis Potter, which is probably the most radical body of television drama produced by a single writer. Indeed, in the days before video recorders were common, I once wrecked a friendship by insisting on watching an episode of The Singing Detective, his masterpiece, in the middle of a dinner party. (I had warned the host beforehand that if I came I would do this: but I don’t think she believed me).
So I gravitated towards a recent article by Michael Newton that marked the current BFI retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Potter’s death. Newton captures one of the core themes in Potter’s work:
When a child wakes at night and cries out, and its mother comes and comforts him, saying, “There’s no need to be afraid … it’s all right … everything is all right,” is she telling lies? That question haunted Dennis Potter. In interviews, he shared [Paul] Berger’s answer, that, in ways mysterious to us, the mother tells the truth, everything really is all right.
Yet in play after play, Potter appears to offer the contrary thought. … Potter’s gift was his refusal to hold either of these beliefs alone, and instead to forge his plays in the tension between.
There’s a second tension in Potter’s plays, Newton suggests, between “place” of his upbringing and childhood, which he described as “a sort of mythic Forest of Dean,” and “no place” (my word, not his) of popular culture and popular song. And maybe a third as well, of the “other place”, the not-Forest of Dean of Hammersmith, where he moved in his teens, or of Oxford, where he went to university. It’s not coincidence that the last scene in Pennies From Heaven, if I remember it correctly, plays itself out on Hammersmith Bridge.
Of course, Potter’s view of the world is so distinctive that there is no school of “Potterian” writers: he hasn’t had the influence on television drama that, say, Steve Bochco had with his formal and stylistic innovation in Hill Street Blues. But that’s partly because there is a deep political streak running through his work: notions of class, identity and power are never far below the surface, sometimes breaking through.
And in turn, I think, that’s because he was a product of that so far unrepeated moment in post-war Britain when the social system, unfrozen by the war and a progressive education system, allowed a generation the chance of significant social mobility. It meant that identity and opportunity constantly rubbed up against each other, throwing off questions as sparks.
Potter’s father was a miner, and Potter’s skill was to use these sparks to turn this modest – even ordinary – social background into extraordinary television drama. Autobiography shines through his work, which is deeply rooted, without it ever being explicitly “autobiographical.”
He also knew that the world took sides and that you needed to know which side you were on. It’s not in Newton’s article, but as he was dying of cancer, desperately writing his final plays, and at a time when Britain’s politicans spent their time fawning on Murdoch and his newspapers, he called his cancer “Rupert”. The passage where he explained this to Melvyn Bragg, in his memorable final television interview, is worth quoting in full:
I call my cancer, the main one, the pancreas one, I call it Rupert, so I can get close to it, because the man Murdoch is the one who, if I had the time – in fact I’ve got too much writing to do and I haven’t got the energy – but I would shoot the bugger if I could. There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press, and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life.
The BFI’s Dennis Potter Season runs until the end of July.