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Dennis Potter (1935-1994)


British dramatist, novelist, television and screenwriter, and non-fiction writer, whose fusion of fantasy and reality broke the rules and the limits of television dramas. Potter's plays showed an original and inventive use of the medium, and he gained cult status in his native Britain and the world. Among his best-known works are Pennies from Heaven (1978), about a sheet-music salesman, and The Singing Detective (1986), in which Philip Marlow, a bedridden, suffering writer of detective stories, is losing his mind when his real-life memories mix with pop culture fantasies.

"The stories we read in childhood have a potency that cannot be destroyed, not even by the nostalgia which is normally the most powerful disinfectant known to man." (Potter in New Statesman, 10 November 1972)

Dennis Potter was born in the village of Joyford Hill, in the Forest of Dean, Gloucesterhire, a locale which recurs in his work. In The Glitterin Coffin (1960) Potter said: "The people of this district are conscious of the unique identity of their birthplace, and speak a dialect so forceful and individual that, at times, it might almost be another language." Three of Potter's four great-grandfathers were Forest miners. His father Walter Edward Potter continued the family tradition, though he made attempts to give up coal-mining. Potter's mother, Margaret Constance (née Wale), had been born and raised in London, but her mother was a Forester.

Most of the Foresters were non-conformist Christian fundamentalists. As a child, Potter attended the local Salem Free Church twice on Sundays. After abandoning repressive Puritanism, Potter verged close to atheism in his early poems and then gradually rebuilt his faith without attaching himself to any particular system of philosophical doctrine. "The sort of "religious drama" that I want to write," he said in his 1978 introduction to Brimstone and Treacle (1975), "will not necessary mention the word 'God' at all. Perhaps too, it will be based on the feeling that religion is not the bandage, but the wound."

Potter was educated at Bell's Grammar School. He had a very high IQ which he considered a curse rather than a blessing "no working class schoolboy wants to be different." After a language course during his national service, Potter became a Russian-language clerk in the War Office. In 1959 he received his B.A. from New College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. On the same year he married Margaret Morgan, a journalist; they had two daughters and a son. In Oxford Potter became involved in left-wing politics, and subsequently worked as journalist and critic. The Glittering Coffin, his first book, was an analysis of the Labour Party and the political climate of the time.

In his mid-twenties Potter developed psoriatic skin irritation. He suffered the attacks of psoriatic arthropathy which left him drug-dependent for much of the rest of his life. Potter used later his hospital experiences in The Singing Detective, a highly successful six part television drama with the unforgettable "Bone Song,"

After joining the BBC as a graduate trainee, Potter made a documentary about his home region, Between Two Rivers. Potter's patronizing voice-over comments aroused hostility in the village. "Christ, I thought they were going to lynch me," he once said in an interview. In 1961 he began to work for the London Daily Herald as a feature and television critic. For the late-night BBC satire show That Was the Week That Was (1962-1963) and its successor, Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (1964-1965) he wrote sketches. Potter was an editorial writer for the London Sun, but he resigned to become a free-lance writer. Beside writing original TV plays, Potter also adapted novels for television, among them Angus Wilson's Late Call (1975) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night (shown in 1985).

Potter's television dramas stirred in the 1960s and 1970s much controversy, usually about the depiction of sexual scenes. His work was also praised and during his career he received several awards. Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton (1965), which was produced for the stage, drew from Potter's experiences as a unsuccessful Labour candidate from East Hertfordshire in the 1964 General Election. Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965) dealt with the career of an aspiring working-class, Oxford-educated politician. The Confidence Course (1965) brought threats of lawsuits.

From the beginning, spiritual isssues and questions of religion, guilt, sin, and redeption repeatedly surfaced in Potter's work. Son of Man (1969) portrayed Christ as an earthy hippie and was accused of blasphemy, and Only Make Believe (1973) was considered indecent. Brimstone and Treacle, one of Potter's best-known titles, was banned by the BBC for eleven years. Originally it was "pulled" from the schedules by the director of TV programmes with the Corporation, who told Potter in a letter that "I found the play 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 in this case real outrage would be widely felt and that no such point would get across." In the story a brain-damaged girl is raped by a devil-like creature. The point was that her recovery starts after this violent act.

"He had once seen an old lady in a greetings-card shop moving her lips as she read the verse in one birthday card after another, and he had realized for the first time that neither the ability not the motives of those who had written the banal little rhymes were at issue: the old woman was seeking the most appropriate clutch of words to express the truth of her feelings for whoever she wanted to send the card to. She was the one who brought the truth, and the dignity, to what had been written without either." (from Blackeyes, 1987)

Blackeyes was Potter's last novel. It was later made into a four-part television series. In the story Maurice James Kingsley, a half-forgotten writer, has not produced a novel for twenty years, but when he finally does it, he gains huge success. "Talent, the old coinage. And if the talent fell short, then everything else about the calling, the commitment, was nothing but an empty and posturing impertinence." However, there is a sinister twist in the plot, a story inside a story about a writer, writing a story about a writer... In Maurice's book, the young model known as Blackeyes, dies with her lungs full of water. Blackeyes is a caricature of Jessica Kingsley, the writer's niece, and is based on Maurice's correspondence with her. Jessica wants revenge, but the story ends enigmatically: "As her lungs filled, she had the satisfaction of knowing that Blackeyes was free. Well, sort of free, anyway, for it is me that is waiting outside her door, ready to claim her."

Among Potter's widely acclaimed dramas is Pennies From Heaven, which was inspired by classic Hollywood musicals. Set during the Depression, the story told about a sheet-music salesman, Arthur Parker, whose unhappy life and the harsh reality of the period are contrasted with cheery and romantic songs of the day and 1930s-style RKO and M-G-M musical numbers. Bob Hoskins played the central role in the BBC-TV series, Steve Martin in the screen version. Potter's script received an Academy Award nomination. The film included re-creations of paintings by Edward Hopper and other painters and photographers of the period.

In The Singing Detective a writer, named Marlow, lies in a hospital paralyzed with psoriasis. He retreats to fantasy and goes through events of his own life. The scene in which the boy Marlow, a coal miner's son, sees his mother's adultery in the Forest Dean was condemned by moralizers. In Keith Gordon's movie adaptation from 2003, produced by Mel Gibson, Robert Downey Jr. played the bedridden main character, named Dan Dark.

In 1994 Potter was diagnosed as suffering inoperable cancer. After given three months to live, he started work on two linked TV serials, Karaoke (1994) and Cold Lazarus (1994), for networks, BBC and the commercial Channel Four. Every morning at five o'clock, he sat at his desk to produce a certain amount of pages each day. The central character of Karaoke was a writer, Daniel Feeld, who begins to believe that in real life he is fed back bits of the dialogue he has recently written. At one point Potter had to deal with the temptation of adding to Cold Lazarus a scene in which Daniel is writing it at his own desk. Potter died on June 7, 1994  his wife Margaret had died of cancer only nine days before. Potter managed to complete his television plays, which were first broacast in April 1996. In a television interview of 1994 he had said: "My only regret is if I die four pages too soon."

For further reading: 'The Making of Artistic Reputation: Dennis Potter, Television Dramatist' by Y. Zarhy-Levo, in Theatre research international,Vol. 34; Numb. 1 (2009); 'Point of View in Drama: A Socio-Pragmatic Analysis of Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle' by D. McIntyre, in Language and Literature: Journal of the Poetics and Linguistics Association, Vol. 13; Part 2 (2004); "Terrified consciousness": Ausdrucksweisen postkolonialen und postmodernen Bewusstseins bei VS Naipaul, W. Soyinka, W. Harris und D. Potter by Andreas Rosie (2002); 'Yesterday Once More': An Investigation of the Relationship between Popular Music, Audience, and Authorial Intention in Dennis Potter's 'Pennies from Heaven', 'The Singing Detective', and 'Lipstick on Your Collar' by Stephen Michael Brie (2001); Dennis Potter: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter (1999); Dennis Potter by Glen Creeber (1999); The Passion of Dennis Potter: International Collected Essays, ed. by Vernon W. Gras, John R. Cook (1999); The Life and Work of Dennis Potter by W. Stephen Gilbert (1998); Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen by John R. Cook, et al. (1995); Dennis Potter by Peter Sted (1994); Potter on Potter by Dennis Potter (1994) - See also: Lewis Carroll

Selected works:

  • The Glittering Coffin, 1960 (non-fiction)
  • The Changing Forest: Life in the Forest of Dean Today, 1962 (non-fiction)
  • Conficence Course, 1965 (Potter's first TV play)
  • Alice, 1965 (TV play)
  • Emergency Ward 9, 1966 (TV play, episode in Thirty-Minute Theatre)
  • Almost Cinderella, 1966 (refused production by the BBC)
  • Where the Buffalo Roam, 1966 (TV play, in The Wednesday Play)
  • Message for Posteriety, 1967 (TV play, in The Wednesday Play)
  • A Beast with Two Backs, 1968 (TV play, in The Wednesday Play)
  • Shaggy Dog, 1968 (teleplay, in The Company Five)
  • Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, 1968 (TV play, in The Wednesday Play; produced for the stage by the Old Vic Company, Theater Royal, Bristol)
  • The Bonegrinder, 1969 (TV play, in ITV Playhouse)
  • Son of Man, 1969 (teleplay in The Wednesday Play)
  • Moonlight on the Highway, 1969 (TV play, in ITV Saturday Night Theatre)
  • Angels Are So Few, 1970 (teleplay)
  • Lay Down Your Arms, 1970 (TV play, in ITV Saturday Night Theatre)
  • Casanova, 1971 (TV play; mini-series starring Frank Finlay, Norman Rossington and Christine Noonan)
  • Paper Roses, 1971 (TV play, in ITV Saturday Night Theatre)
  • Traitor, 1971 (teleplay)
  • Follow the Yellow Brick Road, 1972 (TV play; in Screen Two, 1988)
  • Hide and Seek, 1973 (novel)
  • Only Make Believe, 1973 (TV play)
  • A Tragedy of Two Ambitions, 1973 (TV play, in Wessex Tales; from T. Hardy's story)
  • Schmoedipus, 1974 (TV play,  in Play for Today)
  • Joe's Ark, 1974 (TV play, in Play for Today)
  • Late Call, 1975 (TV play; mini-series starring Dandy Nichols, Leslie Dwyer and Michael Bryant, adapted from a novel by Angus Wilson)
  • Double Dare, 1976 (TV play, in Play for Today)
  • Where Adam Stood, 1976 (TV play, dir. Brian Gibson, starring Alan Badel, Max Harris and Ronald Hines, from E. Gosse's novel)
  • Brimstone and Treacle, 1978 (TV play, in Play for Today, 1987)
  • Pennies from Heaven, 1978 (TV play; film 1981, dir. by Herbert Ross, starring Steve Martin, Jessica Harper, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Walken, cinematography by Gordon Willis)
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1978 (TV play; mini-series starring Alan Bates, Janet Maw and Jack Galloway, based on Thomas Hardy's novel)
  • Blue Remembered Hills, 1979 (TV play, in Play for Today)
  • Cream in My Coffee, 1980 (TV play, dir. Gavin Millar, starring Lionel Jeffries, Peggy Ashcroft and Martin Shaw)
  • Blade on the Feather, 1980 (TV play, dir. Richard Loncraine, starring Donald Pleasence, Tom Conti and Denholm Elliott)
  • Rain on the Roof, 1980 (TV play, dir. Alan Bridgews, starring Cheryl Campbell, Malcolm Stoddard and Ewan Stewart)
  • Pennies from Heaven, 1981 (fiction)
  • Brimstone & Treacle, 1982 (screenplay, dir. Richard Loncraine, starring Sting, Denholm Elliott and Joan Plowright)
  • Sufficient Carbohydrate, 1983 (stage play; under the name Visitors, in Screen Two, 1987)
  • Pennies from Heaven, 1983 (novel)
  • Gorky's Park, 1983 (screenplay, from Martin Cruz Smith's novel, dir. by Michael Apted, starring Lee Marvin, William Hurt, Drian Dehenny, Joanna Pacula. The film was shoot in Helsinki in Finland, which looked like Moskow at that time.)
  • Waiting for the Boat: On Television, 1984
  • Dreamchild, 1985 (screenplay, dir. Gavin Millar, starring Coral Browne, Ian Holm and Peter Gallagher)
  • Tender Is the Night, 1985 (screenplay; TV mini-series starring Peter Strauss, Mary Steenburgen and John Heard, based on F.Scott Fitzgerald's novel)
  • Ticket to Ride, 1986 (fiction)
  • The Singing Detective, 1986 (TV play; film 2003, dir. by Keith Gordon, starring Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson )
    - Laulava salapoliisi (suom. Mika Tiirinen, 1989)
    Blackeyes, 1987 (novel)
    - Blackeyes (suomentanut Arvi Tamminen, 1991)
  • Christabel, 1988 (TV film, screenplay from C. Bielenberg's The Past Is Myself)
  • Track 29, 1988 (screenplay; based on Schmoedipus)
  • Blackeyes, 1989 (TV play; mini-series starring, Michael Gough, Carol Royle and Nigel Planer )
  • Secret Friends, 1991 (TV play, from the novel Ticket to Ride)
  • Secret Friends, 1992 (screenplay)
  • Midnight Movie, 1993 (TV movie, dir. Renny Rye)
  • Potter on Potter, 1993 (edited by G. Fuller)
  • Lipstick on Your Collar, 1993 (TV play; mini-series starring Giles Thomas, Ewan McGregor and Louise Germaine)
  • Karaoke, 1994 (TV play; mini-series starring Albert Finney, Roy Hudd and Richard E. Grant)
  • Mesmer, 1994 (screenplay, dir. Roger Spottiswoode)
  • Cold Lazarus, 1994 (TV play; mini-series starring Albert Finney, Ciarán Hinds, Frances de la Tour)
  • Seeing the Blossom, 1994
  • Message for Posterity, 1994 (TV play; episode in Performance, starring Eric Porter, John Neville and Sophie Thompson)
  • Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, 1996 (with an Introduction by the author)

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