Dennis Potter (1935-1994) was a British essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and novelist best known as a prize-winning writer of television drama.
In the world of British popular culture, Dennis Potter was an important figure. He came to the attention of American audiences when Pennies From Heaven, a mini-series, was broadcast on public television stations in the late 1970s, then adapted for a Hollywood film in 1981. Though the series gathered many viewers the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, he first became widely known in the United States seven years later when New York's television station WNET aired his autobiographical drama The Singing Detective.
Potter was born May 17, 1935, in Berry Hill, Gloucestershire, the Forest of Dean, and often is the sights and sounds of this coal mining region to which he returns in his work. In The Singing Detective, for instance, the middle-aged protagonist must relive scenes of his childhood in the Forest of Dean in order to sort out the conflicts of his life. Potter went to Bell's Grammar School in Coleford after attending Christchurch Village School. Potter was said to be a shy child, somewhat of an introverted loner. He lived with his mother, Margeret, and siblings in the home of his paternal grandparents, but because of limited space, his mother was forced to take the children to live with her family in Hammersmith. When Potter was 14, the family moved to London, where he attended St. Clement Danes Grammar School on a scholarship.
In 1953, Potter joined the National Service at the Intelligence Corps. And remained there for two years. Later, he was sent from Sussex to Bodmin in Cornwall. He then joined the Russian Course leading to duty as a Russian Language clerk at the war office in Whitehall. When his national service ended, he won a scholarship to New College in Oxford to study Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. There, he was involved in the fortnightly Oxford Union debates, and onstage productions (Marlowe's Dr. Faustus) including others. He also submitted his work to the Isis literary magazine and later became the editor. He resigned from the editor's seat after a misunderstanding with the owners of the magazine. Around the same time, Potter began writing for New Statesman.
After graduating from New College in Oxford in 1959, Potter wrote pieces for the BBC as a trainee, the London Daily Herald (he became its TV critic), and the London Sun. In 1960, the BBC produced a documentary, Between Two Rivers, which he wrote and narrated about the village where he was born. It was not until 1964, when he was defeated as the Labour candidate for a seat in the House of Commons, that he began to look upon writing as his vocation. By then, he was married to Margaret Morgan and had three children to support. He was also motivated by the onset of psoriatic arthropathy, a disease which causes both pain and weakness to the joints and severe scaling of the skin. About twice a year attacks were disabling enough to require hospitalizations; the rest of the time they were controlled by medication. His illness, Potter said, made him introspective, reclusive. "For me, writing is partly a cry of the soul. But at the same time, I'm bringing back the results of a journey that many people don't get a chance to make. … ."
Potter tried his hand at movies. In 1988 he wrote the screenplay for a Nicolas Roeg film, Track 29. In addition to Pennies From Heaven, he adapted Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park for the screen. His favorite medium, however, remained television. After Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965), a political satire, he produced over 30 original plays and several adaptations for British television. He also served as director when the BBC wanted to film his novel Blackeyes (1988). Because television uses pictures rather than words it satisfied his dream of "a common culture." "The thought of all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds in all sorts of circumstances seeing the same thing at the same time I find thrilling."
Potter wrote about politics, religion, popular culture, and intimate relationships, and he focused on disillusionment, infidelity, and betrayal. Some critics consider the sex scenes and language too explicit, the themes offensive and blasphemous. Brimstone and Treacle, his story of a brain-damaged girl raped by the devil, could not be shown by the BBC until 1987, 11 years after it was made. Son of Man (1969), which depicted Jesus as a common workingman, brought him four hundred pieces of hate mail a week. In addition, Potter distorted time and space, reality and fantasy, in ways no other television writer has tried. In Pennies From Heaven and again in The Singing Detective characters suddenly sing popular songs of the 1930s and 1940s which represent their fantasies or comment on the action. In The Singing Detective, scenes from the real world of the protagonist, hospitalized with psoriatic arthropathy, mesh with scenes from a detective novel he is writing, personal recollections, and hallucinations. The first broadcast was in 1986. After that, Potter began directing with a drama based on his novel Blackeyes and then a feature film Secret Friends, both of which were complete failures. He went back to what he knew best, the musical comedy serial Lipstick on Your Collar.
Potter can be looked upon as both realistic and optimistic. He liked nonnaturalistic narrative because it accurately reflects the way in which people see the world, the interpenetration of what is "out there" with their moods and memories, hopes and regrets. And he believed that as his characters came to terms with the facts of their lives through trauma and crisis, they became "sovereign human beings"; they know who they are. Despite his affinity for controversy, Potter came to be admired as an exciting and complex writer. In 1988 the New York Times critic Vincent Canby said of him, "He's made writing for television respectable and, possibly, an art."
February 1994, Potter was afflicted with cancer of the pancreas and liver and was given only a few months to live. Because of this, he put his energy into completing his serial Karaoke (1993) and the sequel Cold Lazarus. Both were broadcasted in 1996. In March 1994, Potter taped his last interview which aired in April. Interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, Potter talked about his life, work, ideals, and his futile future. On May 29, 1994, Potter faced the death of his wife and just a week later, his own on June 7, 1994.
Among the Dennis Potter works or adaptations on videotape are Pennies From Heaven (the 1981 film with Steve Martin), Brimstone and Treacle (1982), Gorky Park (1983), The Singing Detective (1986), Track 29 (1988), and Christabel, his 1989 adaptation of Christabel Bielenberg's The Past Is Myself. These and a number of other screenplays, as well as miscellaneous nonfiction and fiction, are also available in print. Updated biographical sites can be found in the Dennis Potter Homepage online. A complete account of Potter's life and work exists in Fight & Kick & Bite written by W. Stephen Gilbert (1996).
The best source of biographical and critical material is periodicals, including book reviews. A summary of his life and a partial list of his works can be found in Volume 107 of Contemporary Authors and in Contemporary Dramatists, 3rd edition (1982). Two useful articles are: Alex Ward, "TV's Tormented Master" in the New York Times Magazine (November 14, 1988) and Graham Fuller, "Dennis Potter" in American Film (March 1989). □