Dennis Potter Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."