Dennis Potter  

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"More and more discernible, and hideously upsetting, a head seems to float in liquid nitrogen, all wired up with antennae, neurotransmitters and hair-thin coils of tubes. But the eyes are open, full of terror, and the mouth seems to be trying to make word-shapes, and the flesh is a ghastly, slightly flourescent, silver grey." (Potter, 1996: 245)

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Dennis Christopher George Potter (17 May 19357 June 1994) was a controversial English dramatist, best known for The Singing Detective. His widely acclaimed television dramas mixed fantasy and reality, the personal and the social. He was particularly fond of using themes and images from popular culture.

Potter was born in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. His father was a coal miner in this rural mining area between Gloucester and Wales. At the age of 10, Potter was sexually abused by his Uncle Ernie. The incident occurred at some point between VE Day and VJ Day, whilst he was staying with his mother's parents in London.

In 1946, Potter passed the eleven-plus and attended Bell's Grammar School at Coleford. Between 1953 and 1955, he did his National Service and learnt Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists. After this, he went to New College, Oxford to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He graduated in 1958, after obtaining a second-class degree.

Potter worked for the BBC, writing sketches for That Was The Week That Was. He was also a journalist and considered becoming a Labour MP. Potter unsuccessfully stood for Hertfordshire East in the 1964 general election. By the end of the campaign, he claimed that he was so disillusioned with party politics he did not even vote for himself. Potter then embarked on his career as a television playwright.


Television plays

Potter's career as a television playwright began conventionally enough with works like "Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton" (The Wednesday Play, 1965), a BBC play about a parliamentary candidate, based on Potter's own experiences as such. He took a major step into controversy with "Son of Man" (The Wednesday Play, 1969), starring Irish actor Colin Blakely, an alternative view of the last days of Jesus, which led to him being accused of blasphemy.

His 1971 serial Casanova was criticized for its sexual content. Another play, Brimstone and Treacle (Play for Today, 1976), was withheld by the BBC for many years due to concerns over the depiction of the rape of a disabled woman. It was eventually broadcast on BBC2 in 1987, although a 1982 film version had been made, with Sting in the leading role.

Potter's groundbreaking Blue Remembered Hills was first shown on the BBC on 30 January, 1979. There may have been a second showing soon afterwards, but it finally returned to the British small screen at Christmas 2004, and again in the summer of 2005, showcased as part of the winning decade (1970s) having been voted by BBC4 viewers as the golden era of British television. The BBC video has long been unavailable, but it finally received a DVD release in September 2005. The adult actors playing the roles of children were Helen Mirren, Janine Duvitski, Michael Elphick, Colin Jeavons, Colin Welland, John Bird, and Robin Ellis. It was directed by the late Brian Gibson. The moralistic theme was the child is father of the man.

Potter had used the dramatic device of adult actors playing children before. However, the powerful imagery of "Blue Remembered Hills" lives on with the generation that first saw it, not least because of its uneasy, claustrophobic feeling provoking elements of xenophobia and a consideration of fearing the outsider, such was the prevalence of the post-war mood within British society.

Potter continued to make news as well as winning critical acclaim for drama serials such as Pennies From Heaven (1978) – which brought Bob Hoskins into the limelight – and The Singing Detective (1986), which did the same for Michael Gambon. Both series were adapted as feature films with Potter receiving an Oscar nomination for Pennies from Heaven.

Potter's screenplay for Gorky Park (1983) earned him an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. He wrote the script for the widely praised but seldom seen 1985 miniseries of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night with Mary Steenburgen as Nicole Diver. He also wrote the screenplay for Dreamchild (1985). In her last film role, Coral Browne portrayed the elderly Alice Hargreaves who recalls in flashbacks her childhood when she was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Potter's TV miniseries, Blackeyes (1989), also a novel), a drama about a fashion model was reviewed as self-indulgent by some critics. In 1992 he directed a film, Secret Friends (from his novel, Ticket to Ride), starring Alan Bates. The executive producers were Robert Michael Geisler and John Roberdeau, who later produced Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Secret Friends premiered in New York at the Museum of Modern Art as the gala closing of the Museum of Television & Radio’s week-long Potter retrospective. Potter proposed to write an "intermedia" stage play for Geisler-Roberdeau based on William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris, or The New Pygmalion, but he died before it could be commenced. Potter's romantic comedy Lipstick on Your Collar (1993) was a return to more conventional themes.

Although Potter won few awards, he is held in high regard by many within the television and film industry, and he was an obvious influence on such creators as Steven Bochco, Alan Ball, Margaret Edson and Alain Resnais. His work has been the subject of many critical essays, books, websites and documentaries.

In 1990 Mary Whitehouse, a long time critic of Potter, claimed on BBC Radio that Potter had been influenced by witnessing his mother engaged in adulterous sex. Potter's mother won substantial damages from the BBC and The Listener, who were reportedly unimpressed by Whitehouse's claim to have had a blackout on air and subsequently to have had no recollection of her words.


During the early 1960s, Potter began to suffer from an acute form of psoriasis known as psoriatic arthropathy, a rare hereditary condition that affected his skin and caused arthritis in his joints. There is some indication that this disease is the one the Bible refers to as "leprosy" (which is not Hansen's disease). For the rest of his life, Potter was frequently in hospitals, sometimes completely unable to move and in great pain. The disease eventually ruined his hands, reducing them to what he called "clubs". He had to learn to write by strapping a pen to his hand.

On Valentine's Day 1994, Potter learned that he had terminal cancer of the pancreas and liver. It was thought that this was a side effect of the medication he was taking to control his psoriasis, also considerably aggravated by his chain-smoking habit. With typical sardonic humour, he named his cancer Rupert, after Rupert Murdoch, who represented so much of what he hated about British society.

He continued to care for his wife, Margaret Morgan Potter, who was suffering from the breast cancer that claimed her life on 29 May 1994. He died a week later at age 59.

Last interview

Not long before his death, on 15 March 1994 Potter gave a strikingly memorable interview to Channel 4 (he had broken most of his ties with the BBC as a result of his disenchantment with Directors-General Michael Checkland and especially John Birt, whom he had famously referred to as a "croak-voiced Dalek" ), in which he described his work and his determination to continue writing until the end. As he sipped on a morphine cocktail, he told a visibly moved Melvyn Bragg that he had two works he intended to finish (Cold Lazarus and Karaoke) before his impending death: "My only regret is if I die four pages too soon". The interview was shown on 5 April 1994.

Final works

His final two serials were Karaoke and Cold Lazarus (two related stories, both starring Albert Finney as the same principal character, one set in the present and the other in the far future). They were aired posthumously in the United Kingdom as part of a rare collaboration between the BBC and rival Channel 4 in accordance with Potter's wishes.

Unfortunately, a side effect of his last wishes for the BBC and Channel 4 to collaborate on these works has been that the copyright and further usage rights to the works has remained unclear. For this reason neither Karaoke nor Cold Lazarus is available on DVD.


Potter was sometimes attacked by other television writers, most notably Alan Bennett and Matthew Graham, for a perceived lack of humility and self-criticism; Graham described him as having "come undone" after The Singing Detective and beginning to believe "every line that dripped from his pen was a work of genius".Template:Fact Bennett referred in his 1998 diaries to a television program "that took Potter at his own self-evaluation (always high), when there was a good deal of indifferent stuff which was skated over". Private Eye once lampooned him as Dennis Plodder, due to the slow pace of some of his work, also attacking him as "the whinging playwright".

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Dennis Potter" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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