Dennis May Potter Essay - Critical Essays

Potter, Dennis May


Dennis Potter May 17, 1935–June 7, 1994

(Born Dennis Christopher George Potter) English playwright, screenwriter, novelist, nonfiction writer, and director.

For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 58.

Widely acclaimed for his television plays Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986), Potter is regarded as one of the best writers in England and as a great innovator in the medium of television. Black humor and a devout belief in the redemptive power of the imagination are prominent characteristics of Potter's writing, which he once described as "non-naturalism," or a blend of fantasy and realism that allowed him to explore characters' inner worlds and varying psychological states. Potter was born and raised in the Forest of Dean in western England, a coal mining community where many of his works are set and about which he wrote in The Changing Forest (1962). As a student at Oxford, he developed his interest in politics, and in his senior year wrote his first book, The Glittering Coffin (1960), a stinging indictment of Oxford, the class system, and English social institutions. His political ideals led him to an unsuccessful run for public office in 1964. Around this time he suffered the onset of a debilitating form of arthritis known as psoriatic arthropathy, an extremely painful disease that causes the skin to blister and the joints to swell. Disillusioned and depressed, Potter turned to writing plays. His early works, Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (1965) and Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965), deal with his political experiences and established his reputation for highly creative, yet highly controversial work; the BBC deemed Vote, Vote, Vote offensive to England's Labour Party and changed the ending. Potter's subsequent works continued to challenge the public's sensibilities and, in Vincent Canby's words, make "writing for television respectable." In 1978 the BBC aired Potter's six-part miniseries Pennies from Heaven. Extremely popular with British television viewers, this work tells the story of a libidinous 1930s sheet music salesman whose quest for a life as happy as those described in the popular songs he sells leads him eventually to hang for a murder he did not commit. Pennies from Heaven inaugurated a favorite technique of Potter's in which characters lip-synch the words to songs on the soundtrack. This was used to great sentimental and ironic effect in The Singing Detective, considered by many critics to be Potter's greatest work. Here, a writer of detective fiction named Philip Marlow, suffering from psoriatic arthropathy and hospital-bound, retreats into dreams and reveries—in which he becomes the hero of his own fiction—in order to overcome his pain. In February of 1994 Potter was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He worked aggressively in his remaining months—aided by the controlled use of morphine—to finish two more television plays, Cold Lazarus (1994) and Karaoke (1994).

Principal Works

The Glittering Coffin (nonfiction) 1960
The Changing Forest: Life in the Forest of Dean Today (nonfiction) 1962
The Confidence Course (television play) 1965
Stand Up, Nigel Barton (television play) 1965
Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (television play) 1965
Almost Cinderella (television play) 1966
Son of Man (television play) 1969
Lay Down Your Arms (television play) 1970
Traitor (television play) 1971
Follow the Yellow Brick Road (television play) 1972
Hide and Seek (novel) 1973
Only Make Believe (television play) 1973
Joe's Ark (television play) 1974
Schmoedipus [adaptor; from a novel by Angus Wilson] (television play) 1974
Brimstone and Treacle (drama) 1976
Double Dare (television play) 1976
Where Adam Stood [adaptor; from the autobiography of Edmund Gosse] (television play) 1976
Pennies from Heaven (television play) 1978
Blue Remembered Hills (television play) 1979
Blade on a Feather (television play) 1980
Cream in My Coffee (television play) 1980
Rain on the Roof (television play) 1980
Gorky Park [adaptor; from the novel by Martin Cruz Smith] (screenplay) 1983
Dreamchild (screenplay) 1985
The Singing Detective (television play) 1986
Ticket to Ride (novel) 1986
§Blackeyes (novel) 1987
Christabel [adaptor; from a memoir by Christable Bielenberg] (television play) 1988
Track 29 (screenplay) 1988
Secret Friends (film) 1992
Lipstick on Your Collar (television play) 1993
Cold Lazarus (television play) 1994
Karaoke (television play) 1994

∗Potter based his screenplay for Nicolas Roeg's 1988 film Track 29 on this work.

†Potter also wrote the screenplay for the 1982 film version of this work directed by Richard Loncraine.

‡Potter also wrote the screenplay for the 1981 film version of this work directed by Herbert Ross. He also expanded the television play into novel form in 1982.

§Potter adapted this work for television in 1989.


Dennis Potter with Melvyn Bragg (interview date March 1994)

SOURCE: An interview in The New York Times, June 12, 1994, p. H30.

[Bragg is an English writer and TV personality. In the following excerpt from an interview first broadcast in England in early 1994, Potter discusses how the knowledge of his imminent death and its attendant physical pain have affected his outlook and his work.]

Given his commitment not to novels or to plays but to what he considered the inherently democratic and implicitly subversive medium of television, it made perfect sense for [Dennis Potter] to make his farewell in a televised interview.

In March, Melvyn Bragg, an English author and television personality, and Michael Grade, the chief executive officer of Channel 4, invited Potter for a televised conversation with Mr. Bragg. The tape was edited by Mr. Bragg and broadcast in Britain on April 5, after which Potter withdrew from public life to concentrate on his last two plays.

The telecast attracted enormous attention in Britain, partly for its almost gruesome intimacy, with Potter twisting nervously in his seat as he let loose with a stream of political polemics, personal justifications and near-religious epiphanies. Particularly discomforting were his occasional swigs of liquid morphine to dull his pain. Potter explored the eerie and insidious effects of morphine in his final work, a short story written last month for The Daily Telegraph of London.

The following is an edited transcript of the Potter-Bragg conversation, which has not been shown in the United States. A footnote: A few days ago, acceding to Potter's plea, Channel 4 and the BBC announced plans to cooperate in the joint presentation, tentatively set for next year, of his final two, now lamentably posthumous, plays, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus.


[Bragg]: How long have you been working on this new thing?

[Potter]: Since I knew what was happening. I hope I've got enough days to finish it. I'm keeping to a very hard schedule, I'm driving myself. Even when I walk up and down—with the pain you sometimes have to keep moving—I still have the pen in my hand to make sure I can put a sentence down when it eases.

It's like that. It keeps me going. There'd be no point in remaining if I didn't, because there's no treatment possible; it's just blanking out pain with morphine. So it's finding a balance—if you blank it out totally, you can't work. It's one of those ratios that you have to work out daily.

How and when did you find out that you'd got this cancer?

Well I knew for sure on St. Valentine's Day—like a little gift, a little kiss from somebody.

I've been working since then flat out at strange hours, because I'm done in the evenings, mostly because of the morphine. Also the pain is very energy-sapping. But I do find that I can be at my desk at 5 in the morning, and I'm keeping to a schedule of pages, and I will and do meet that schedule every day.

Obviously, I had to attend to my affairs as well. I remember reading that phrase when I was a kid: "He had time to tend to his affairs."

But what it's given me also…. As a child, I know for a fact that I was a coward, a physical coward. And I'm really a cripplingly shy person. I hate new situations, new people, with almost a dread.

Now those two consequences in your adult life can really create seriously wrong impressions of yourself, to yourself and to other people, because you try and compensate. That can lead to aggression and the reverse of shy—arrogance, if you like—because you wear it like a cloak. But to let that drop and find out that in fact, at the last, thank God, you're not actually a coward—I haven't shed a tear since I knew. I grieve for my family, and friends who know me closest, obviously, and they're going through it in a sense more than I am.

I've discovered also what you always know to be true, but you never know it till you know it, if you follow. I remember Martin Amis saying something about how when you reach your 40's, middle age, nobody has ever told you what it's like.

Well, it's the same with knowing about death. We're the one animal that knows that we're going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there's eternity in a sense, and we tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense.

It is, and it is now only. As much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed ache to sometimes, we can't. It's in us, but it's not there in front of us. And however predictable tomorrow is, no matter how predictable it is, there's the element on the unpredictable.


That nowness becomes so vivid to me now, that in a perverse sort of way, I'm almost serene, I can celebrate life. Below...

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Obituaries And Tributes

William Grimes (obituary date 8 June 1994)

SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, June 8, 1994, p. 11.

[In the following obituary, Grimes recounts the highlights of Potter's life and career.]

Dennis Potter, the caustic and controversial writer of the innovative British television dramas The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven, died yesterday at his home near Ross-on-Wye, England, about 100 miles west of London. He was 59.

The cause was cancer. In an interview earlier this year, for a segment of the British television program Without Walls that was broadcast on April 5, Mr. Potter revealed that on...

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Reviews Of Potter's Recent Works

Paul Delany (review date Winter 1988–89)

SOURCE: "Potterland," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 68, No. 4, Winter, 1988–89, pp. 511-21.

[In the following essay, Delany reviews several of Potter's works, including Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective, Christabel, and the two novels Ticket to Ride and Blackeyes.]

I was born into a coalminer's cottage in a stony village in what was then a relatively isolated Forest of Dean that heaves up in half-hidden layers of grey and green between two rivers on the assertively English side of the border with Wales. Brass bands, rugby football, nonconformist chapels with...

(The entire section is 5197 words.)