Dennis May Potter Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).