Dennis Potter Essay - Critical Essays

Potter, Dennis


Dennis Potter 1935–1994

(Full name Dennis Christopher George Potter) English playwright, novelist, essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Potter's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 58 and 86.

Dennis Potter's main contribution as a writer is to television drama and film. He began his career, however, with non-fiction commentary on post-war English society, notably the politics of class and the personal costs for those crossing traditional class demarcations. Potter's sensitivity to English class tensions expressed itself in early work such as his prose piece The Glittering Coffin (1960), in which he explores the issue of upward mobility, drawing on autobiographical details, and in The Nigel Barton Plays (1965) which Potter adapted from television to the stage and whose multi-layered scenes and interlocking flashbacks foreshadow the techniques of his later work. In his early years he was also a journalist, most notably a television critic. After some time spent writing for the theater he developed a long-standing relationship with the BBC and produced works of exceptional quality for television, among them Pennies from Heaven (1978), Blue Remembered Hills (1979), and The Singing Detective (1986). His thematic concerns, whether in his non-fiction, his novels (most of them adapted for television) or his plays, include betrayal in love and of family (by sexual infidelity and by passing class lines), the persistence of the past in one's present, the blending of reality and imagination, and sexuality. In terms of style and subject matter, Potter brought the television drama to new heights, exploring a personal vision while exploiting the medium's features like no one before him.

Biographical Information

Potter was born in the Forest of Dean, an English mining district by the Welsh border in Gloucestershire in 1935. Although his father was a miner, after a grammar school education in the area Potter went to Oxford on a scholarship where he obtained a B.A. in 1959 with Honors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Oxford proved to be a turning point, as it gave him the opportunity to move beyond his class. However, it was also a source of guilt because Potter felt he had somehow betrayed his roots. Several of his works reflect the tensions between Potter's background and education; among them are: The Changing Forest (1962), The Glittering Coffin, a denouncement of class snobbery and critique of post-war socialism and the Labour Party, and Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965), his first play. Potter's sense of guilt about betraying his working-class past was to become a running theme in his work and led to his involvement in politics (he was a Labour candidate for parliament, East Herefordshire, in 1964), and has been seen as a factor in his being drawn to the popular medium of television, to which he was to devote most of his creative energy. In television he found a way to enter homes of all types and to work out his ideas about class, his ambivalence about popular culture and his own personal ghosts. At the age of 25 he became afflicted with psoriatic arthropy, a severely disabling hereditary disease that enforced his resolve to be a writer; it also served as a convenient metaphor for an internal, psychological affliction that pervades his work. He worked at BBC television and as a feature writer, television critic, and book reviewer at several English newspapers during the 1960s and 1970s. In this period he developed his notions about television and the cultural and political issues of his time. Potter is the recipient of numerous prizes and high critical acclaim, but controversy surrounds many of his works, which have been accused of being provocatively pugnacious (The Glittering Coffin), smutty (Brimstone and Treacle, 1978) or blasphemous (The Son of Man, 1969, in which Christ is depicted as a hippie). Potter died in 1994 of pancreatic cancer.

Major Works

Potter's masterpiece is The Singing Detective. Broadcast as a television mini-series in 1986, it is the story of a pulp mystery writer named Marlow who is hospitalized for a severe skin and arthritic condition similar to Potter's own. While at hospital he mentally works through the plot details of his fiction, the central character of which is Marlow the private detective, a figure borrowed from Raymond Chandler. At the same time, someone in another bed is reading one of the protagonist's novels. The divisions between fiction, imagination, memory and the "reality" of the play are blurred, as scenes from the author Marlow's imagination are represented alongside scenes in the hospital, and alongside scenes from Marlow's childhood. Potter used this multilayered, self-referential quality in his later work, notably in the posthumous Cold Lazarus (1995) about a writer named Feeld whose head is frozen in cryogenic suspension until revived 400 years in the future by Professor Emma Porlock, a scientist who insists that he revisit his childhood traumas for scientific investigation. In Potter's earlier posthumous play Karaoke (19 ) the frozen writer, Feeld, was writing a play about cryogenic suspension called Cold Lazarus. Blackeyes (1989), which appeared as a novel, a television serial and a film, uses similar devices. It is a story about a retired fashion model who appears as a vapid sexual object in a pulp novel written by her uncle. She attempts to change her fictional identity, but runs into the problem of mixed real and fictional lives. Clearly, Potter favored non-naturalistic devices, which he used in almost all his work, except for Christabel (1989), a drama set in Third Reich Germany which Potter wrote, in his words, to satisfy a need "to do a piece of naturalistic, chronological narrative as an act of writerly hygiene, just as you might wash your brain under the tap." Songs, which Potter called "chariots of ideas" pervade much of his work, notably The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven. The latter is a story involving a '40s-era sheet music salesman who ends up on death row for a murder he didn't commit and is saved by a non-naturalistic trick of the writer's pen which transports him beside his loved one on Hammersmith Bridge in the closing scene. (Potter later reworked the script for a film version by MGM with actor Steve Martin, set in Chicago.) As one critic noted, the "overall proposition is that, however false, rose-hued and saccharine the songs may be, the dreams they peddle are necessary to human survival as the premise of religion used to be." Other works of note are Brimstone and Treacle, which was banned by the BBC on the premise that its objectionable features (the play involves the rehabilitation of a crippled, vegetative young woman by having her raped by a demonic young man) were not redeemed by its artistic merit, and Blue Remembered Hills, a play that explores memory and the loss of childhood innocence. In the first, the psychological themes of moral ambiguity and cathartic violence are explored, as are the ideas of intrusion and privacy. The second has the unusual feature of adult actors playing children.

Critical Reception

Potter's work has consistently met with controversy. Much of the controversy surrounds his anger and irritation at the liberal left in the political climate of his youth, notably his disenchantment with and chastisement of the Labour party in The Glittering Coffin, which reviewers responded to with an appreciation of his intelligent critical spirit, but with some irritation at his iconoclastic scattershooting. His subsequent work has delighted most critics for its daring with dramatic conventions and dramatic innovations, especially of the popular television drama which critics believe Potter has brought to an unprecedented level of achievement. His choice of themes, particularly his depiction of repressed sexuality; Oedipal guilt; the latent misogyny of his male characters; the occasional voyeuristic features; and his depiction of woman as adulteress, earned him at one time the tabloid label of "Dirty Drama King" and "Television's Mr. Filth." Other critics have detected a fear of strong women, since the male characters can only be aroused by the stereotypical mindless siren, or the good, nurturing woman. But some reviewers maintain Potter is depicting a prevalent attitude, especially among members of his own generation. His self-referential, multi-layered style has had many championing critics, notably Rosalind Coward, who sees in his work, particularly The Singing Detective, a shining example of cutting edge notions of textual creation and exploration of the authorial presence in fiction. Some commentators have complained that after The Singing Detective Potter resorted to recycling his ideas and looking down at his audience, and that his work became marked by mannerism. Potter has been compared to stage writers such as Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, and many acknowledge that he has had a profound influence on television writing. Several critics assert that he has been responsible for the awakening of a realization of the possibilities of the television medium. As critic Jenny Diski pointed out, Potter is "one of television's very few intellectually respectable gifts."

Principal Works

The Glittering Coffin (non-fiction) 1960
The Nigel Barton Plays (drama) 1965
The Son of Man (drama) 1969
Brimstone and Treacle (drama) 1978
Pennies from Heaven (drama) 1978
Blue Remembered Hills (drama) 1979
The Singing Detective (drama) 1986
Blackeyes (novel and drama) 1987, 1989
Christabel (drama) 1989
Cold Lazarus (drama) 1995


Anthony Crosland (review date 12 February 1960)

SOURCE: "Smashing Things," in The Spectator, February 12, 1960, p. 223.

[In the following review of The Glittering Coffin, Crosland examines Potter's critique of the Labour Party and the politics of social class in 1950s England.]

Mr. Potter is a twenty-three-year-old exchairman of the Oxford University Labour Club, who was also a prominent figure in the old Universities and Left Review. His book [The Glittering Coffin] is part autobiography, part polemic—against present-day British society, and against the Labour Party for allegedly not wishing to change it. It is disarmingly candid, and indeed courageous, since he wishes to go into Labour...

(The entire section is 1602 words.)

Richard Wollheim (review date 1960)

SOURCE: "How it Strikes a Compatriot," in Partisan Review, Vol. 27, 1960, pp. 353-62.

[In the following review, Wollheim discusses the ideas on politics and class in The Glittering Coffin, providing a brief historical backdrop and examining the personal and social issues implied in the English class structure.]

In The Glittering Coffin Mr. Dennis Potter, a young working-class undergraduate just down from Oxford, raises a voice of genuine social protest. Unfortunately he accompanies it with so much rant and rhetoric that he virtually drowns his own words. It seems to me dubious whether the few scraps of coherent sense that are likely to drift across to the...

(The entire section is 3050 words.)

Benedict Nightingale (review date 6 December 1968)

SOURCE: "Backwoodsman," in New Statesman, Vol. 76, No. 1969, December 6, 1968, pp. 812-13.

[In the following brief review of Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, Nightingale points out Potter's lack of "critical astringency" while appreciating his daring.]

Dennis Potter has adapted his Barton plays from television to the stage under the title of the second and better of them, Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton—or, rather, he has shuffled them together like two decks of cards. There are scenes within scenes, flashbacks from flashbacks from flashbacks, and great must be the bustle among the shifters and carriers in the wings of the Theatre Royal, Bristol,...

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Paul Allen (Review date December 1977)

SOURCE: "Stirrings in Sheffield," in Plays and Players, Vol. 25, No. 3, Issue # 290, December, 1977, pp. 36-7.

[In the follwoing excerpt, Allen reviews a stage production of Brimstone and Treacle, examining the play's premise, its characters and the production itself.]

Brimstone and treacle is apparently what the Victorians, stern administrators of all kinds of purgative, dosed themselves with in cases of constipation: the brimstone to do the job, the treacle to make the medicine go down. What if, so far as the swallower is concerned, they become as one? The medicine in Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle (much publicised on account of its having been...

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Philip Purser (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Dennis Potter," in British Television Drama, ed. George W. Brandt, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 168-93.

[In the essay below, Purser examines Potter's work in chronological order, exploring connections to biography, Potter's developing aesthetic and thematic interests and ideas about the medium of television.]

Dennis Potter's titles are meticulously chosen even when they're filched from popular songs, but none gives such a clue to the ruling passion of his work as the one he picked for a now forgotten—indeed, lost—little play of 1966, Emergency Ward 9. It was, obviously, set in hospital, which was a recent experience of Potter's, and one...

(The entire section is 9151 words.)

Rosalind Coward (essay date Winter 1987)

SOURCE: "Dennis Potter and the Question of the Television Author," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 79-87.

[In the following essay, Coward uses Potter's The Singing Detective to consider the role of the author in the medium of television and as a case study in recent theories of meaning and authorship in a text.]

The question of the author poses particularly difficult problems for any attempt to understand the mass media by reference to critical models drawn from literary studies. While 'authorship' may not be the only or indeed the most crucial factor in the academic study of literature, it would be hard to deny its significance as a way...

(The entire section is 4421 words.)

Therese Lichtenstein (essay date May 1990)

SOURCE: "Syncopated Thriller," in Artforum, Vol. XXVIII, No. 9, May, 1990, p. 168, 170-172.

[In the following essay, Lichtenstein studies the complexities of The Singing Detective's plot and its devices of merging and superimposing different levels of fiction.]

Oedipalized scenarios, traumatic psycho-sexual dynamics, and violence are the stuff that Dennis Potter's television plays and films are made of, moving across the taboo terrain of sexuality within the seemingly orderly nuclear family. The vehicle for these "perverse" scenarios is a dazzling montage of familiar dramatic genres, including the detective story, the musical, the psychological autobiography,...

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Mary Gordon (essay date Fall/Winter 1990/91)

SOURCE: "Who's not Singing in The Singing Detective," in "Some Things I Saw," in Salmagundi, No. 88/89, Fall/Winter, 1990/91, pp. 118-122.

[In the following excerpt, Gordon opposes the "pervasive and seductive elements of adolescent male fantasy" that she suggests permeate the hard-boiled detective fiction that The Singing Detective is modeled after.]

The dreaming boy alone in the lush tree. The crooner by himself before the microphone. The walking detective (hard boiled dick), solitary, gun in hand, his heels clicking along the rainy pavement. Is he by himself because he wants to be? Is the role of the isolate, in proximate relation to things longer than...

(The entire section is 2058 words.)

Richard Alleva (review date 27 March 1992)

SOURCE: "Silly Secrets," in Commonweal, Vol. CXIX, No. 6, March 27, 1992, pp. 24-25.

[In the following review, Alleva comments on Potter's directorial debut with his film Secret Friends.]

Dennis Potter's Secret Friends is a jigsaw puzzle that doesn't give you much to look at once you've assembled it. Of course, the fun of jigsaw puzzles is in the assembly, not the final result. But Secret Friends fails as mind teaser, too, because too many of its narrative twists can be easily anticipated. This movie testifies more strongly to Potter's work ethic than to his art. For his first directorial effort, he's written a script that's very busy yet quite cold,...

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Mick Imlah (review date 26 March 1993)

SOURCE: "Surreptitious Overturnings," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4695, March 26, 1993, p. 17.

[In this short review of Potter on Potter and Lipstick on Your Collar, Imlah briefly examines the elements of Potter's dramatic devices.]

Dennis Potter is exceptional: a television dramatist worth the weight of a whole book of interviews. What justifies Potter on Potter, though, is less the special quality of the work it analyses—some of which was screened once and can never be seen again—than the hard intelligence with which Potter surveys the personal history that informs his plays to such an unusual extent: the working-class upbringing in the...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Martin Wiggins (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "'Disgusted, Shepherd's Bush': Brimstone and Treacle at the BBC," in Essays and Studies, 1993: Literature and Censorship, Vol. 46, 1993, pp. 131-43.

[In the following essay, Wiggins discusses Brimstone and Treacle and the issue of censorship in relation to the themes and dramatic features of Potter's teleplay.]

Any discussion of censorship at the BBC will necessarily contain an element of speculation. All successful censorship makes its object invisible, but at the BBC the censorship itself is also invisible. The decision not to broadcast an item is entirely an internal matter, closed to public scrutiny and accountable to no outside body: there is...

(The entire section is 4907 words.)

Robert H. Bell (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Implication Without Choice: The Double Vision of The Singing Detective," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1993, pp. 200-08.

[In the following essay, Bell elaborates a reading of The Singing Detective as the story of "a sick man's soul," "a pilgrim's progress from despair to redemption," and looks at the significance of Potter's contribution to the television mini-series.]

The Singing Detective, the six-episode film broadcast on BBC in 1986 and on PBS in 1988, is an extraordinary achievement for which its author, Dennis Potter, has been justly celebrated. Vincent Canby hails Potter for setting "a new standard for all films. He...

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Joost Hunningher (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Singing Detective (Dennis Potter): Who Done It," in British Television Drama in the 1980s, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 234-55.

[In the following essay, Hunninger, Principal Lecturer in Film and Television Production at the University of Westminster, examines every aspect of the production of The Singing Detective to determine how it is able to represent "objective and subjective realities" in the extraordinary manner that he suggests it does.]

Dennis Potter dislikes academic critics. In the preface to Waiting for the Boat: On Television, he wrote: 'It is no news that there is a contemptuous, hard-eyed hatred of humanistic...

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Boyd Tonkin (review date 17 June 1994)

SOURCE: "The Last Blast," in New Statesman and Society, June 17, 1994, p. 40.

[In the following brief obituary Tonkin comments on Potter's life and influence.]

The green remembered glades from Dennis Potter's Forest of Dean childhood nestle on the edge of the Cotswold Euro-constituency, which Labour came within 4,000 votes of capturing this week. Among his many roles, the late playwright gave new voice to the survival of a historic rural radicalism. He helped explode the lie that only the metropolitan "chattering classes" really bother about social change. Potter was many things; but he was never trendy.

In spite of these roots, though, his journey up...

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Christopher Hitchens (essay date August 1994)

SOURCE: "Potter's Field," in Vanity Fair, Vol. 57, No. 8, August 1994, pp. 36, 38, 40.

[In the following essay Hitchens assesses Potter's life work, his achievements as a writer and his contributions to television and to English society in general.]

You might care to picture this. A man—you may tell by the deference paid him that he is a celebrity of some sort—is being escorted into a television studio. The technical staff is tense and expectant, and the interviewer is grinning with nerves. All this the audience sees, because in a concession to vérité the preliminaries are being broadcast. A certain latitude is permitted to the interview subject, as is...

(The entire section is 2665 words.)

Richard Eyre (essay date 3 May, 1996)

SOURCE: "The Man in Short Trousers," in New Statesman and Society, May 3, 1996, pp. 18-19.

[In the following essay, Eyre offers personal impressions of Potter, places him in television history, considers his work among his contemporaries writing for the stage, and discusses the aptness of Potter's work for the medium of television.]

I first met Dennis in 1978, just before I joined the BBC as producer of Play for Today. We were in Edinburgh for the annual television conference and somebody introduced us. I remember advancing my hand and Dennis glaring at me. "I don't shake hands." No explanation, no "sorry", just this childlike, abrasive, bullying quality that's...

(The entire section is 1919 words.)

Fay Weldon (review date 3 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Sex-lies on Videotape," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 9, No. 401, May 3, 1996, p. 20.

[In the following review, Weldon looks at the gender issues raised in Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, and evaluates the merit of these plays.]

I watched four Potter Karaokes and Cold Lazaruses, at one sitting, and was, let me declare myself at once, absorbed, moved and exhilarated by the experience. Glued, as they say (or used to say when such things were more common), to the set. Writers' television once again.

What a relief. The technology serving the words on the page; actors obedient and trusting; producer and director as the...

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John J. O'Connor (review date 20 June 1996)

SOURCE: "A Posthumous Send-Off for a British Original," in New York Times, June 20, 1996, p. 133.

[In the following review, O'Connor comments on Karaoke and Cold Lazarus in which the author recognizes Potter's distinctive devices and themes.]

Dennis Potter, the most important voice in television drama (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective), died of pancreatic cancer two years ago this month. Appropriately, the notoriously cantankerous British writer has been given an extraordinary send-off.

While he was dying, and sipping morphine to ease the pain, he told Melvyn Bragg in a Channel Four interview that since he had spent his...

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Further Reading


Diski, Jenny. "Made for TV." London Review of Books 17, No. 24 (14 December 1995): 16-17.

A review of two books on Potter that presents its own evaluation of the development of the themes and devices of Potter's work.

Fuller, Graham. "Dennis Potter." American Film XIV, No. 5 (March 1989): 31-3, 54-5.

An essay presenting an overview of Potter's work in relation to his life which provides an analysis of the development of his thematic concerns and style.

Stead, Peter. Dennis Potter. Bridgend: Seren Books 1993, 147 pages....

(The entire section is 146 words.)