Regarding English television playwright Dennis Potter as James Joyce’s peer might seem outlandishly generous, but, if anything, the comparison underestimates Potter’s achievements. Both exploded the formal and thematic conventions of their respective mediums in order to translate their idiosyncratic obsessions into trailblazing works of art. All Joyce required to express his vision was paper and a writing implement, but Potter had to marshal the financial, artistic, and technical resources of a philistine, crassly mercantile industry to realize his works. In the course of doing so, he took enormous risks, battled physical and psychological demons, and created a number of public scandals before being hailed, upon his death in 1994, as a national treasure.
Humphrey Carpenter’s exhaustive (and, at times, exhausting) Dennis Potter: A Biography follows on the heels of last year’s The Life and Work of Dennis Potter by W. Stephen Gilbert. Both books pose problems for American readers. Only a handful of Potter’s teleplays have been aired in this country, where his reputation largely rests on his miniseries masterpieces, Pennies From Heaven (1977) and The Singing Detective (1986). Starting in 1965, British television networks broadcast more than two dozen of Potter’s plays, including some of his most challenging pieces, before PBS’s Masterpiece Theater imported the first of his works to be seen in the U.S., an atypically impersonal seven-part adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Apart from two posthumously produced miniseries, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, presented here on the Bravo cable channel in priggishly bowdlerized versions, I know of only two additional original Potter plays (Blade on the Feather, Cream in My Coffee) and two adaptations of literary works (Tender Is the Night, Christabel) that have been exposed to American television viewers.
Without access to the bulk of Potter’s output, especially his controversial Brimstone and Treacle and Blackeyes, reading these accounts of his career can be frustrating. Gilbert’s book is further hampered by the Potter estate’s refusal to allow him to quote more than 800 words from any of the writer’s works, or to speak to many of Potter’s colleagues and friends. As a result, his intelligent study makes for exceedingly dry reading, understandably providing little insight into its subject’s life, and focusing instead on critical assessments of plays known only by British readers. Carpenter’s book—his previous efforts include biographies of Tolkien, Auden, and Pound—was authorized by Potter’s heirs, who allowed him unrestricted access to his scripts, papers, and acquaintances. The result is a fascinating account of a life as rich, complex, and harrowing as any of its subject’s creations.
Potter was born in May 1935 at Berry Hill in the Forest of Dean, a Gloucestershire enclave bordering Wales. Isolated from the modern world, the inhabitants of this impoverished mining community still communicated in archaic language, addressing one another as “thee” and “thou.” As a child, Potter was shuttled between the Forest, where his parents were raised, and Hammersmith, London, where he lived with his mother’s relatives. At age 10, he was sexually abused by his uncle—a trauma that affected the course of his life and writing.
A shy, bookish child eager to escape the constricting cultural confines of his birthplace, Potter impressed his teachers, who helped him obtain a scholarship to Oxford. Initially self-conscious about his working-class origins, he soon came to flaunt them as a badge of honor in his new, privileged environment and gained a reputation as a hell-raising spokesman for socialist causes. In 1959, he married Margaret Morgan, whom he had met two years earlier at a Forest of Dean dance.
Potter glimpsed a vision of his future in his late teens when he watched his first television program: “It made my heart pound. Here was a medium of great power, of potentially wondrous delights, that could slice through all the tedious hierarchies of the printed word and help to emancipate us from many of the stifling tyrannies of class and status and gutter-press ignorance.” Upon completing his studies, he accepted a BBC internship, working with a documentary unit, and dramatizing excerpts of novels for Bookstand, a literary program. He also contributed sketches to the satirical comedy series, That Was the Week That Was. One of his favorite targets was the advertising industry’s manipulative conception of human beings as a monolithic mob of consumers. He displayed his contempt for “Admass” in a venomous Mother’s Day sketch:
A Mum, in short, is a snob who buys plastic flowers and floor polish containing real lavender. She solves emotional problems with Horlicks, and on Mother’s Day this idle, ignorant, tasteless and irresponsible lump of girdle-encased margarine fat has the cheek to turn round and expect us to buy her a bleeding present!
Subsequently, he tried his hand at journalism, writing a television review column, and was in the early stages of a 1962 campaign to run for Parliament as a Labor Party candidate when he was diagnosed with psociatric arthropathy, a rare, excruciatingly painful ailment linking psoriasis and arthritis, afflicting both the body’s surface and the joints. Despite intermittent relief from experimental drugs, this condition plagued him the rest of his life. He withdrew from the Parliament race but later used his experiences as the basis for an early television play, Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, which mercilessly skewered both Tory and Labor parties. In the first of many battles with the BBC and later ITV, Potter was told that the program would not be aired unless he wrote revisions and a companion piece to soften his criticism of the political system. Similarly, in 1976, the BBC banned transmission of Brimstone and Treacle, his unsettling allegory of good and evil in which a demonic young man rapes a comatose girl—a violation that perversely triggers her recovery. The play did not air until 1987, as part of a Potter retrospective.
Despite periods of intense conflict with his superiors, Potter never lost faith in the egalitarian and aesthetic potential of television: “The one institution of power and influence in this country which attempts to make points of contact, albeit from a stuffy and remote area of ‘superior’ culture, is the BBC.” But he rejected the prevailing tenets of naturalism, then the basis of English teledrama, as embodied by director Ken Loach’s socially conscious, neodocumentary productions (Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home) and embraced by American television’s “Golden Age,” sub-Arthur Miller playwrights, Paddy Chayefsky (Marty), Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men), and Rod Serling (Requiem for a Heavyweight). “So-called naturalism,” Potter believed,
is far and away the dominant mode, and easily the most characteristic syntax of television grammar. But one of the troubles of supposedly showing-things-as-they-really-are…is how difficult it then becomes…not to make people feel deep in their souls that this is also more or less the way things have to be.
In his groundbreaking scripts, filled with anti-illusionist devices, Potter explored issues that preoccupied him until his death: class, sexual anguish, popular culture, the conflicting impulses of faith and despair, the double vision of women as irreproachable ideals and whores. All of these themes came together in his brilliant, taboo-shattering breakthrough miniseries, Pennies From Heaven. Set at the height of the Depression, the play chronicles the downward spiral of Arthur Parker, a bankrupt record shop owner burdened with a frigid, condescending wife, and Eileen Everson, a male-oppressed rural grammar school teacher. Escaping their respective prisons, the pair take flight, a doomed attempt at liberation that leads to prostitution and murder. Throughout this moral descent, Arthur continues to believe in the inanely optimistic lyrics of the vintage popular recordings that the characters intermittently lip-sync. Potter reused this device, which became his trademark, in subsequent scripts to underscore the absurdity of hope in the face of a cruelly indifferent universe:
Those songs stood together as a package in that they seemed to represent the same kinds of things that the psalms and fairy-tales represented: that is, the most generalized human dreams, that the world should be perfect, beautiful and loving and all of those things. A lot of the music is drivel, in that it’s commercial and never too difficult, but it does possess an almost religious image of the world as a perfect place.
The unexpected international success of Pennies From Heaven opened doors for Potter. Several of his teleplays were given theatrical productions, and Hollywood moguls paid him lavish sums to write scripts, most of which were never produced. (In 1981, director Herbert Ross remade Pennies From Heaven as an extravagant but eviscerated MGM musical with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. The result, a box-office fiasco, has much to recommend it, but lacks the disturbingly subversive power of the small-screen original.) While deeply devoted to his wife and three children, Potter, wracked with illness and swollen with newfound power, became abusive to his longtime collaborators and entered into a series of apparently unconsummated infatuations with young women. One of these, Caroline Seebohm, observed: “He seemed angry with himself, both at his success at making money, and that he still couldn’t be a Forest of Dean person. He was in man in conflict about himself.”
Following a decade of further television projects (three aired on successive weeks in 1980) and disappointing theatrical screenplays (Gorky Park, an adaptation of Brimstone and Treacle starring Sting), Potter returned to form with The Singing Detective, an extraordinarily intricate, multileveled drama with deeply autobiographical resonances. Throughout the six episodes, the protagonist, pulp fiction writer Philip Marlow, totally immobilized with psoriatic arthropathy, is confined to a hospital ward, where he remembers his mother’s infidelity (in the Forest of Dean), mentally revises the plot of a detective novel, and vindictively ponders his ex-wife Nicola’s bitterness. Writing in Newsday, Martin Kitman called it “the most fantastic program I’ve seen in my eighteen years as a TV critic…the kind of program that once in a generation comes along and permanently changes the parameters of what TV drama can do and reclaims TV as a creative medium.”
Following this triumph, Potter elected to begin directing his own material—a decision he came to regret. In 1989, besotted with 22-year-old actress Gena Bellman, he shot a four-part adaptation of his novel Blackeyes. His theme was the sexual exploitation of women, but reviewers condemned the series, which was never shown in the U.S., as an example of what it proposed to indict. (Reportedly, throughout the piece, Bellman is oglingly photographed, scantily dressed and often nude, to the accompaniment of the director’s voyeuristic soundtrack ruminations. When the series aired, British tabloids dubbed him “Dirty Den.”) From this point, most of Potter’s projects as writer-director failed, including Secret Friends, a theatrical feature also starring Bellman, and Mesmer, a 1994 movie that has yet to be released.
Carpenter’s biography painstakingly catalogues every event of consequence in Potter’s life, often recounting incidents from the perspectives of all surviving participants. Some of these repetitions could have been excised without weakening the doorstop volume, which, at 672 fine-print pages, makes for physically cumbersome reading. His detailed analyses of the productions, plots, and themes of Potter’s television, theater, and film pieces become hard to differentiate for readers who haven’t had a chance to witness them.
But Carpenter rises to heartbreaking eloquence in his account of the writer’s heroic final months. In February 1994, Potter learned that he had inoperable pancreatic cancer and could expect to live three more months. At the same time, Margaret, the stabilizing force in his life, suffered a return of cancer that, following breast surgery, had been in remission. Sustained by morphine and later heroin, Potter decided to create his last artistic testament—two interrelated four-part miniseries. Writing 10 hours a day, he completed the autobiographical Karaoke, about a playwright dying of cancer, and Cold Lazarus, a futuristic fantasy in which entertainment conglomerates battle for control of the playwright’s cryogenically preserved consciousness. Separated from Margaret in his final weeks—her pain was so extreme that she required hospice care—Potter summoned up the strength to sit for a television interview. On April 4, 1994, fortified by champagne, cigarettes, and a flask of liquid morphine, he taped a poignant, painfully candid valedictory. Margaret died on May 27, followed by her husband on June 7. His dedication to the published transcription of his farewell interview reads, “To my dear Margaret…Still the steadfast one.”
In retrospect, Bellman, whom Potter passionately pursued then turned against when she refused to submit to his control, characterizes him as “a pioneer and a shit and a genius and a sex-obsessed flirt and a great husband and father—all of these things—and every time he was one of them, he believed in it absolutely.” Carpenter ultimately fails to integrate all the paradoxical components of his subject’s psyche; genius inevitably eludes the biographer’s net. Still, it’s safe to say that we’re unlikely to see a more penetrating or comprehensive life of Potter. CP