The Sunday Times Profile of Dennis Potter

Singing for your fiction takes the sting out of life / The Sunday Times Profile of Dennis Potter

23 November 1986

The Sunday Times

LAST Monday morning, as the critical plaudits for his television play, The Singing Detective, were falling on doormats all over Britain, Dennis Potter was to be heard on Radio 4's Start The Week. It was a startling performance.

Disregarding the customary politeness which prevails on such occasions, Potter irascibly bore down on his fellow guests, Ian Hislop and Frederic Raphael, in a way which embarrassed not only them, but many who heard it. All over Britain, an opinion was being formed. Dennis Potter is a prickly, misanthropic man with a grudge against the world.

What was not generally known is that Potter is currently in the midst of one of his periodic attacks of psoriatic arthropathy - a rare hereditary disease which causes the joints to swell up, the skin to crack, blister and bleed, and which in its most advanced state can reduce the sufferer to anguished immobility.

Potter, in acute discomfort, had spent a sleepless night steeling himself for the radio ordeal. Later, when he should have been receiving bouquets, he was beating a retreat to his home in Rosson-Wye, to contemplate painfully the ravages of his illness. There is a multiplicity of ironies here.

The central character in Potter's play, the Singing Detective of the title, also suffers from psoriatic arthropathy. Marooned in a hospital bed, skin blistered and festering, he contemplates his condition and the world with undiluted disgust, retreating into flights of vivid fantasy. Watching it, one has been uncomfortably aware of Dennis Potter, baring his wounds.

Psoriatic arthropathy has become Potter's cross, an affliction almost biblical in its qualities of judgment and punishment. It is quite something, this illness. For one thing, it has given journalists a useful introductory device for the Potter profile. The delicate decorum of whether or not to shake Potter's afflicted hand, and his reassurances that a proferred cup of coffee will not be contaminated by falling skin, have become a familiar subtext of the Potter story. More importantly, it has dictated the course of his life to a profound degree.

It has been measured out in bouts of crippled inactivity and depression, respites of frenzied activity before the next onslaught, juggling medications which enable him to work, but carry the omnipresent threat of deleterious side-effects.

'This strange, shadowy ally', as he describes the illness, has also conditioned his writing, dictating not only the limits of his capabilities but also the manner of his obsessions.

Potter was 26 and working as a journalist on the old Daily Herald when, in 1961, the first symptoms of the illness appeared. It seemed to presage the destruction of a brilliant career.

The son of a coalminer from the Forest of Dean, he had progressed to Oxford, where he was editor of Isis and chairman of the Labour Club; he graduated in politics, philosophy and economics. Journalism, even the prospect of a political career, beckoned. But by the time he stood, unsuccessfully, as Labour candidate for East Hertfordshire in the 1964 general election, he was already a prisoner of his illness.

'My illness made me work for my pay cheque in the only way I could, by writing,' he has said. 'That is why I say my illness chose me. '

One may safely speculate that Potter's work is largely the fruit of his physical suffering; its spirit fermented by bouts of solitary agony and long periods languishing in hospital beds - an environment, as he says, where people may discover 'their spiritual, heroic side', but also where the imagination has free rein.

Few playwrights have explored the inner workings of the mind as vividly as Potter, dissolving the boundaries between the real and the imagined world; none has quite so resoundingly demolished the conventions of television drama, and recreated the form afresh.

'All my plays are about the same thing,' he says. 'They are about what goes on inside people's heads. ' More specifically, they are about what goes on inside Dennis Potter's head, which can be a puzzling and disturbing thing.

Over the years, most notably through works such as Pennies From Heaven, Blue Remembered Hills and now The Singing Detective, Potter's obsessions have been rigorously sifted and examined: the legacy of a working-class chapel upbringing; the unholy trinity of horror, pain and sin; the sudden and transforming power of nostalgia; above all, the terrible power of the imagination as a window to a higher, better world, tempered by the knowledge that it is always unobtainable.

Potter, as the critic, Julian Barnes, has noted, is 'a Christian socialist with a running edge of apocalyptic disgust'. It is this edge which makes his work uncomfortable, even while it is compulsive, and which alienates many people.

'Dennis believes in evil, and he does not flinch from showing it,' says Jon Amiel, director of The Singing Detective. 'But he also has a strong belief in the ability of human beings ultimately to triumph, be loving and conquer the evil in themselves. But that cannot be done without the pain of self-examination. '

'Dennis is a very, very moralistic man, in the Jonathan Swift sort of sense,' says Piers Haggard, director of Pennies From Heaven and a forthcoming Potter work, Visitors. 'There is no liberal excusing of little faults. There is always a sense of moral judgment. He is definitely not a child of the 1960s. '

It is would easy to interpret the strong vein of disgust in Potter's work as a more general misanthropy. He has a reputation for being a difficult man. 'There is a side to Dennis which can be very acid, but it is usually in terms of having fun', says Kenith Trodd, producer of The Singing Detective, and a colleague and friend for 20 years.

'He is not a gregarious person. He doesn't know, doesn't want to know and never will know, many people. He does not require society in that general way people do,' says Trodd.

For Potter, the pull of his childhood, and perhaps the moral certainties which enshroud it, remains strong. While he keeps a flat in London, his home in Ross-on-Wye is only a few miles from where he grew up. His wife, Margaret, comes from the same background.

Friends have detected an air of what one calls 'crabby provincialism' in Potter; a suspicion of the cosmopolitan life, and an almost xenophobic distrust of 'abroad'. For years he took a perverse pride in never having been out of England. He did not have a passport until 1978, when he was 43 and persuaded to Hollywood to write a film treatment of Pennies From Heaven.

It was to prove another watershed in Potter's career. The film puzzled critics and failed to win audiences. But it did give Potter a platform for almost five years as a scriptwriter, producing Gorky Park, and a raft of unmade scripts. It was a lucrative period for Potter, if not for Hollywood ('I built up record-making losses for MGM,' he notes drily).

But it also demonstrated his basic unsuitability to be, in Raymond Chandler's memorable words, 'a shmuck with a Remington' - or, in Potter's case, a schmuck with a felt-tip pen, clenched in a painful fist.

Hollywood, says Kenith Trodd, was 'a sad experience' for Potter. 'But it taught him his worth, and not to go into that again. '

He returned to Britain in 1984 determined to consolidate control over his own work. He was active, for example, in raising the money for the feature film Dreamchild - in which he re-examined the relationship between Lewis Caroll and 'Alice' - deploying what Trodd describes as 'that heady combination of knowing what money means and how to get people to do what he wants'.

For Potter, the idealised future clearly embraces more film projects in which, like Dreamchild, he can retain total control of his work. But a desertion from television would be unthinkable. For television, as Potter acknowledges, presents not only the largest potential audience for a dramatist, but also the greatest challenge: to produce a work that will hold the attention in spite of all the domestic challenges with which it must contend.

That millions will willingly, forego their fireside snacks over the next five Sundays to bear witness to the agonies of the spirit and the putrefaction of the flesh is but one testament to Potter's genius.

last updated october 2014