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.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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