Not to put too fine a point on it Dennis Potter is quite simply the most important television dramatist that Britain has ever produced, his work over 30 years defining the very essence of the television play in the 60’s and early 70’s and the drama serial in the late 1970’s and 80’s. Potter made his name with the Wednesday Play Stand Up Nigel Barton and reached his zenith with his controversial but massively successful 1980’s serial The Singing Detective.
You can tell a Dennis Potter production right from the get go, recurring themes in his work include his childhood in the forest of Dean, his debilitating skin condition which laid him low for so many years and which was used to great effect in TSD, religion, sex, the artists relationship with his work and of course the music of the 1930’s and 40’s. In this article we put forward the case for some of his most essential works.
STAND UP NIGEL BARTON and VOTE VOTE VOTE FOR NIGEL BARTON (both 1965) were the two productions that put Potter solidly on the map, starring Keith Barron and very much based on Potter himself, Barton, in the first, escapes from his working class roots by getting a place at Oxford; This was the first Potter piece that saw adults playing at children – something he would return to with devastating accuracy in the late 1970’s. VOTE broadcast a week later picks up the story of Barton, now a journalist and attempting to win a seat in parliament (something Potter himself attempted to do).
CASANOVA, a 6 part serial broadcast in 1971, stirred up a huge amount of controversy thanks to its frank portrayal of sex, but can seen as something of a continuation of the controversy that had been dogging Potter for some time, especially the previous years Son of Man which showed Jesus as a solid, ordinary, working man and Angels Are So Few which featured more sexual imagery. In Casanova Frank Finlay is the ageing lotario looking back on his life whilst languishing in a prison cell. This was Potter’s first extended work and the serial format really allows him to stretch out and start to develop his style.
BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE made in 1976 but unbroadcast until 1987 is definitely Potters most controversial production, the brilliant Michael Kitchen plays a young man who inveigles his way into the household of Tom and Amy Bates (Denholm Elliott and Patricia Lawrence) and begins to take over the looking after of their brain damaged daughter (Michelle Newell). This is a highly disturbing play that lives long in the memory. Michael Kitchen is superb as the possibly possessed young man, is he the Devil or something else entirely. Of course Potter never paints in shades of black and white. One can easily see why managing director of the BBC at the time, Alasdair Milne, vetoed the play but by the same token its an important drama that we should be allowed to make up our own minds about.
Potter next turned his attention to an adaptation of one of Thomas Hardy’s most celebrated novels The Mayor of Castorbridge, perfectly suited to the Potter style this 7 part serial told the dour tale of a man who gives up his wife and daughter at an auction at a country fair. Years later his wife tracks him down to find him now prosperous and well to do, his efforts to make amends only succeed in making matters worse. A brilliant cast which includes the likes of the masterful Alan Bates and Anne Stallybrass as well as Potter’s surprisingly concise work on the script make this a real joy from start to finish.
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is quite rightly regarded as one of Potter’s true masterpieces, a staggeringly moving and profound piece on the nature of our place in the world. The 6 extended episodes, set in the 1930’s, follow Bob Hoskins in a major breakthrough role as Arthur Parker, a sheet music salesman who is stifled by his homelife and frigid wife, he yearns to break free of the constraints of his life – an affair acts as the catalyst not only for change but also for murder and finally re-demption and rebirth. Potter’s use of the characters breaking into songs of the day is superb (he had done it before and would do it again but here it worked to absolute perfection). Parker continually tells himself that everything will be alright but as the story continues he finds himself further and further down. Overall the tone is actually quite depressing but the music leaves you uplifted and by stories end incredibly moved.
Clearly on something of a career high point Potter followed up PFH with the equally astounding BLUE REMEMBERED HILLS, this single drama took the Nigel Barton route of using adult actors to play children and the cast includes Helen Mirren, Colin Welland, Michael Elphick, Robin Ellis and Colin Jeavons. Set in 1943 we follow a group of 7 year olds at play one afternoon in rural England. The use of adults is incredible, throwing up a whole new way of actually being young, that “land of lost content” as Potter had it. Truly unforgettable, this is one of the single best pieces of TV ever, full stop.
Finally we have The Singing Detective, another 6 parter and arguably Potter’s most well known production, it generated a huge amount of press in England on its broadcast in 1986 thanks to people like The Mary Whitehouse Brigade (campaigners for decency on TV screens and long time haters of Potters work) and red top tabloids like The Sun who were busy putting Potter forth as the dirty old man of television.
Detective is like a summation of Potter’s own life and career at that point, opening with pulp detective fiction writer Philip Marlow in hospital suffering from the skin disease psoriatic arthropathy (which similarly affected Potter) and drifting in and out of reality that sees him remember his childhood in the Forest of Dean and also apparently taking part in one of his own trash novels. Despite being all over the place in terms of narrative TSD is a staggering work, hugely popular with both critics and audiences alike it also featured a high profile cast in the shape of Michael Gambon, Patrick Malahide, Alison Steadman, Janet Suzman and in one very memorable role Joanne Whalley as the nurse who has to try and ease Marlow’s condition through the copious application of vaseline. Often viewed as something of a Potter greatest hits The Singing Detective includes the characters singing period songs like Pennies, focuses heavily on the Forest of Dean like much of his early work and is at times pre-occupied with sex like much of his seventies output. It’s an unforgettable slice of television though and not to be missed.
All of the above have been released on DVD over the years and really are must have for any student and fan of television and for anyone who sees television as something more than just the pantomime of a reality show or as something that can truly enrich our lives.
Potter died in 1994 but his amazing body of work will be around for a very long time.