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Watch Dennis Potter

Thirty years after his death, the work of television dramatist and working-class innovator Dennis Potter is remnant of an era when complex and politically daring art was broadcast to a mass audience.

Watching Dennis Potter isn’t always easy. In 2024, the work of a writer once considered the single most influential writer in Britain’s most popular medium is as obscure and difficult to watch as though we were living again in the pre-digital era. With the exception of Potter’s 1986 masterpiece The Singing Detective — which is now generally available on BBC iPlayer — the writer’s output is scattered to the winds of out-of-print and costly DVD editions or lo-fi stints on YouTube.

Dennis Potter was born in 1935 in the Forest of Dean mining village of Berry Hill. A fiercely intelligent child in a family with high levels of illiteracy, the infant Dennis was a just-in-time beneficiary of the post-war settlement. After attending Oxford University, he fought — and lost — the safe Conservative seat of Hertfordshire East in the 1964 General Election for Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. If Potter is to be believed, such was his disillusion that by polling day, even Dennis Potter did not vote for Dennis Potter. By the end of that campaign, the limits of Potter’s public ambition were made clear by a diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis — which would affect Potter for the entirety of his life. In bad periods, the skin condition hospitalised him for months on end. In good periods, it merely caused daily chronic pain, buckled his hands into closed fists, and necessitated wearing pyjamas underneath his clothing to capture and hold the falling skin.

Potter’s class journey became a tortured experience that he would pour into his two breakout Nigel Barton plays in 1965, having been brought into the BBC by radical Wednesday Play producer James MacTaggart. Though a contemporary of agitprop directors like Ken Loach, Potter’s project was something entirely different: non-naturalism.

In a 1964 edition of theatre magazine Encore, screenwriter (and future Edge of Darkness writer) Troy Kennedy Martin pioneered the term ‘non-naturalism’ in his Nat’s Go Home manifesto. Martin argued for a new form of television drama that sought to capture the messy complexity of interior life against boring identification with characters: free the camera from dialogue, take an objective stand, reject the tyranny of linear time. Potter adored the article and became non-naturalism’s defining practitioner, pioneered with a workaholic’s prolificness across the 1960s and 70s. In his games of interiority and experiment, Potter was similar to avant-garde contemporaries such as Ann Quinn or B.S. Johnson.

Dramas like Blue Remembered Hills, Son of God and the shocking — and, for a decade, banned — Brimstone and Treacle used non-naturalism to ask ink-black questions of a mass TV audience. Could the intervention of the Devil produce positive outcomes for individuals? Is childhood a state of avarice rather than innocence? It surprised BBC executives, then, when Potter wrote a six-part suburban fantasy series where characters broke joyously into song — lip-syncing to crackly original recordings of beloved 1930s popular songs, often gender-swapped — in 1978’s breakthrough Pennies from Heaven. This was a Brechtian alienation technique that suddenly gave his work a resonance with the folk memories of millions.

After Pennies, Potter was now in a position of power. Power was interesting for Potter, who was a leftist — though, on the evidence, not a particularly useful one. Courted by New Left figures like Tariq Ali — who had been galvanised by Nigel Barton’s critique of Labourism— the screenwriter reacted with hostility and typical rancour to perceived intellectual competition. Allegiances, like most things in his life, were difficult. In truth, this stopped mattering: politics was out there, and Potter was increasingly interested in the in here. And more than most, Potter had a complicated in here. Aged 10, he was sexually abused by an uncle — something even the usually verbose Potter struggled to articulate most of his life. Even by the standards of the Scotch-scented 1970s and 80s, he boozed and smoked heavily. Though married from 1959 until his death — to Margaret Morgan, from the same kind of Forest of Dean coal family as himself — he could be obsessive and grimly unprofessional in his idolisation of specific women. Much of this, though, found its way into his towering masterpiece, and one of the count-on-one-hand miracles of British television history.

Across Sunday evenings on BBC One during the high Thatcherite winter of 1986, The Singing Detective — directed by Jon Amiel — was broadcast in six instalments. Michael Gambon starred as Philip E. Marlow, a crime novelist hospitalised with psoriatic arthropathy whose temperature-induced delusions begin a dizzying tour through his subconscious, presented as a stylistic Rubix cube of pulp thriller, movie musical, broad hospital comedy and devastating childhood memoir. Here was a deeply complex work about the Oedipus complex and the nature of original sin becoming a popular and defining success for a grateful BBC.

In the US, The Singing Detective gained an influential following as a piece you swallowed whole in six-hour settings at arthouse cinemas, later broadcast on PBS. It remained an enigma to its creator, who wondered aloud that he ‘didn’t realise this thing would be so fucking near the bone’ during its first script read-through, and was publicly catatonic with tears on watching it during a New York retrospective in 1992.

The success was also the worst thing that could happen to him creatively. Potter was already a respected TV insider — The Singing Detective was literally commissioned over a handshake in the BBC gents’ toilets — but he made a mess of his newfound freedom. You could speculate that his masterpiece had exhausted several long-running creative taps. He broke with trusted producer and collaborator Kenith Trodd, and wrote, directed and narrated 1989’s disastrous Blackeyes.

Blackeyes was intended as a comment on the commodification of female bodies. Sure, Potter had credibility excavating his own obvious Madonna-whore complex in The Singing Detective, but here he had less. It was fairly criticised by feminist writers — as well as hypocritically used to attack the BBC by red-top publications. Like what would remain of Potter’s post-Detective work, Blackeyes had the temper of aimless experimental television, which could be head-scratching when compared to the precision and shock of his long peak period.

Potter’s final piece of appointment viewing, however, was commissioned under more tragic circumstances — in early 1994 both Potter and his wife Margaret were diagnosed with terminal cancer. A Channel 4 audience at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night sat down to watch Melvyn Bragg interview the dying screenwriter in a large, near-empty studio as Potter chain-smoked, drank champagne and glugged morphine from a flask. It is a remarkable, if gently hagiographic, hour of television, as Potter wistfully — sentimentally — opines about the 1945 post-war settlement, the ‘cancer’ of Rupert Murdoch on British public life, and his own imminent death. One week after the passing of Margaret Potter, Dennis Potter died at home in Ross-on-Wye on 7 June 1994.

In 1998, Humphrey Carpenter’s controversial authorised biography of Potter ended with a warning that due to the ephemerality of television as a medium, the writing of Dennis Potter just might slip out of popular history. This has proved prophetic. What happened? Ten years after Potter’s death, there was a BBC Four season and DVD release programme intended to bring Potter’s work into the new millennium. This led to Mark Fisher’s punkish reading of Brimstone And Treacle and comparing of Potter to David Lynch. That, though, has been it. Plans to repeat Potter on the BBC since have — until very recently — been hampered by negotiations between the corporation and the Potter estate. Only a few hours of his vast body of work has ever made it onto streaming platforms. This means that no new generation of screenwriters, directors, journalists or artists have been able to appraise Potter for good or ill. He is outside of the canon.

This matters. Today, in the UK, people from working-class backgrounds are barely able to break into television, with a 2024 study showing that just under 8 percent of people working in film, TV and radio come from working-class backgrounds, let alone occupy power and subvert it. People on the Left are allowed to be pundits, but never to make things. There are no public intellectuals, only comedians with book deals.

With three decades’ distance, Dennis Potter is a remnant of a high-minded and irretrievable moment in British public art, when complex and politically daring work was broadcast to a mass audience. This included John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Stuart Hall’s The Spectre of Marxism as well as dramas like Edge of Darkness, Bill Brand, The Prisoner, Abigail’s Party, The War Game and Penda’s Fen.

‘Naturalism,’ said Dennis Potter in a 1992 interview, ‘assumes that the world out there is as it is, and I know that not to be the case — and most people know it. If they really examine themselves they know that their own feelings, their aspirations, moods, memories, regrets and hopes, are so tangled up with the alleged reality of the out-there, that the out-there is actually interpenetrated by feelings. Naturalism can easily lead to the assumption that you are created by the out-there and by all the imperatives of the world. Non-naturalism and its use of the inside of your head is more likely to remind you about the shreds of your own sovereignty.’ Watch Dennis Potter, where television takes seriously the sovereignty of inside your head.

Conversation with John R. Cook, Researcher at The Dennis Potter Archive

How did your work on Dennis Potter begin?

I was the right age to be very affected by The Singing Detective which aired in the autumn and winter of 1986. I was an English Literature student at Edinburgh in the mid-1980s. I still think, to this day, it’s the greatest piece of television drama ever. Because I was studying English Literature, specifically the novels of James Joyce, I could see very clearly that Potter was working in a similar vein of literary modernism. I’d watched a lot of television, things like The Prisoner which experimented with fantasy, but this was by far the most advanced I had seen.

In the spring of 1990 I spent two and a half hours with Dennis. I was doing a PhD thesis, and I had interviewed Kenith Trodd over four or five hours at BBC Television Centre on the day that the Berlin Wall fell down. After Blackeyes, Dennis was deeply depressed and not talking to anybody. Eventually, and these were his exact words, Dennis felt that ‘Christ, this little so-and-so is digging here, there and everywhere, I better speak to him.’

I remember him bringing out this champagne, with his arthritically buckled and twisted hands, pouring it out and saying, ‘I suppose you’d be wanting some of this too.’ I got drunk listening to Dennis Potter in both senses of the words. One of the ironies of Potter is that he was regarded as quite a public figure who would always do interviews, but he was a deeply reclusive and private person. He was friendly; I went to shake hands with him — not thinking — so with his clenched fist, he patted me on the shoulder. I corresponded with him a little bit on various factual points after that. He was protective of his work, particularly its relationship to his own life.

The Nigel Barton plays have the reputation now of being the most straightforwardly relating to his own life. Is that fair? To me, that early non-naturalism keeps them a lot more interesting today than other 1960s Angry Young Man works.

The Nigel Barton plays are semi-autobiographical; they use some of the details of his time at Oxford and the village school, but Barton is a caricature and a kind of clown. It’s Potter reflecting on his own experiences through a blackly comic lens. The name Nigel Barton, by the way, is a corruption of Nye Bevan. Bevan being the ideal Labour politician, Barton being an opportunist who falls way below that. Even in the mid-1960s, there’s an element of distance already. He’s not just writing everything down that happened to him. The non-naturalism, though, is there right from the beginning. Potter claimed that having watched a lot of television as a critic in the early 1960s, he had thought how the grammar of television could be shaken up and changed. That question of autobiography is always interesting when it comes to Dennis Potter. As his work progressed he became much more self-reflexive, the weaving between fantasy and reality means it is very treacherous to treat any of the works as autobiography.

A couple of years later, the play Moonlight on The Highway feels like the real creative breakthrough. That’s got everything that, really, he’d be working with for the rest of his career.

I still show that to screenwriting students, the cold opening in the first five minutes or so. It blends the use of the Al Bowlly popular song from the 1930s with this image of a young man out-of-time going through some kind of depressive episode. It’s not lost on me, or on many other analysts, that the name of the character is David Peters, which is Potter’s initials. It has all the seminal Potter themes, it has that fluid style oscillating between past and present, but also that crucial scene where the Ian Holm character is miming to the Al Bowlly tune. That’s the first iteration of the miming device that he would use in Pennies from Heaven. It’s not characters breaking the fourth wall yet, but it’s the idea that the emotions of popular music could so overwhelm a character that it allows them to speak some emotional truth. Potter said that the way you could use a cheap Tin Pan Alley song to release a real emotion. It’s not the quality of the song, but how it lodges within you. That’s a theme that runs through a lot of the subsequent work.

And obviously, the final scene, with the confession about using over a hundred sex workers, has been picked over heavily by biographers.

There’s no question that this is the darkest corner of Dennis Potter’s work. Rivers of Babylon, too, is a deeply disturbing script to read. Wordsworth talked about ‘recollection in tranquillity’, and in many ways Moonlight is a more controlled version of the same material. We can only speculate on the real Dennis Potter’s relationship with prostitutes, but there is no question that something is being worked through here, and I would argue that — in terms of the work — it’s not the facts of Dennis Potter’s life that’s important, it’s the power as expressed through the words.

The only reason we are at all interested in Dennis Potter is because of what is being expressed through the works. Pain being explored to try to resolve a deep personal or spiritual crisis. Here, of course, we get into the relationship between the writer and the work. Potter himself, in my interview, said that of course it’s a personal act, but it doesn’t mean that everything is straightforwardly autobiographical. Just letting things out is one of the definitions of bad art. Creative writing is an indirect way of expressing feelings.

There’s no question in my mind, though, that biographically Potter was in a very bad state at this point as a result of his illness. Trying to cope with an illness like that, being a victim of sexual abuse, working through all of that. You know, it’s clear that he’s expressing himself and exploring these ideas in his work. But Potter is in control, exploring work creatively, trying to seek some sort of resolution to this personal spiritual crisis. It’s not really resolved in Potter’s work until the early to mid-1970s. Potter is a writer of two halves; up to about 1972, the work is very dark and tortured. In simplistic terms, until the mid-1970s, they have sad and tortured endings, and from the mid-1970s, you get something more positive. Potter used his work to try and change his spiritual attitude to the world, and the way in which he saw the world. Until 1972 the world was viewed with disgust, Potter said that he used to believe the only meaningful sacrament was for people to go out into the streets and vomit. In retrospect, he then said that only someone going through deep pain could think that. As Potter develops he becomes a different person, rather than the life being changed which affects the work, with Potter it’s the work — and the exploration of spiritual ideas in the work — that ultimately changes the man.

One of those very spiritual works is Brimstone and Treacle. The scandal around its non-transmission and later film version has obscured the searing quality of that script in particular. I watched it again just this week, and for a TV play from the mid-1970s, it is shocking. It’s extremely raw. What is he working through there?

It’s Potter coming out of the spiritual nihilism that affected Rivers of Babylon and Follow the Yellow Brick Road. Potter grew up in a very strict fundamentalist Christian environment, evil and good, and by the mid-1970s, he started to think that perhaps good and evil are not necessarily as diametrically opposed as you might think. That out of evil might come good. That’s what Brimstone and Treacle is about. Conventional Christian teaching is about rigidities: flesh and spirit, good and evil. But for Potter, work through that and it can be the world is much more complex. Good and evil, rather than being diametrically opposed, can work together. You’ve got the Devil coming in and creating all sorts of havoc, but in the end it works towards an ultimate good. What can be seen to be evil can be seen to have an ultimate good.

It’s a dazzling piece of writing and it’s very much Potter as a mature writer. He wrote it in November 1974. Interestingly, that’s post-Exorcist. It carries some influence from Penda’s Fen, too, which has become a bit of a cult. When I spoke to Potter about it, he thought the fault of the play was that he caricatured the Mrs Bates character, making her too much of a simpleton. She is the only good character, who prays for a miracle and gets it.

The Singing Detective is a culmination of themes that had been brewing across various pieces of work, arguably exhausting a couple of taps there. What led up to it?

The Singing Detective emerges in the mid-1980s as, really, Potter’s comeback to television. The BBC was going through a bit of a crisis under the Thatcher government and was desperate to bring people like Potter back. In 1984 he is commissioned by Jonathan Powell to write something, the idea was a six-part serial called Smoke Rings in which a detective in the 1940s tries to find a GI who has run off with a local girl. Typical of Potter, he got the commission and thought, right, what do I write?

There had been an early treatment for The Singing Detective on London Weekend Television called Under My Skin, and Potter wrote the first episode out as The Last Television Play in the early 1980s, before he was commissioned by the BBC to write The Singing Detective. The framework is laid down there. The Last Television Play was a grotesque sitcom in which all of the characters find themselves in this horrific sitcom, with the audience cackling, very avant-garde. As the title suggests, this is Potter trying to reflect back on his career as a television playwright, because by that point he had a hiatus from television after 1980 as he worked in Hollywood. He said that he was digging a hole for himself, how often could a writer write without external stimulus? Going to Hollywood gave him that break from television.

Potter takes those hospital scenes and starts to dig a bit deeper, looking at the central character’s memory, imagination and fantasies. That’s when the 1940s detective motif is fed in. So it works on those three levels: the hospital scenes in the 1980s present, the flashbacks to childhood in 1945, and the fantasy scenes also set in 1945. What’s significant about The Singing Detective is that those three don’t just run in parallel to each other but start to intersect and bleed into one another. The Singing Detective is about the unravelling of the mystery of the self; by going into your own memory and imagination, can you therefore understand yourself better? And thereby provide a better basis for a cure for physical illness? It’s ultimately about Lazarus, the man who gets out of his bed and walks.

And it’s regarded as his masterpiece.

The Singing Detective is regarded as Potter’s masterpiece, and it’s the one where all the themes of his previous twenty-five years as a writer come together. One writer described it as his Hamlet, Ulysses and The White Album in the way that all of his themes come together (laughs). We must pay tribute to the director Jon Amiel, it’s like watching music: every beat, every cut, it’s note perfect. It’s the greatest screen interpretation of the workings of the human mind, probably only David Lynch comes close. But Lynch works in a surreal way, Lynch is a surrealist, where Potter is about charting the way psychology and the mind moves, and the way in which the mind associates events. It works associatively. Traditional scripts have a cause and then an effect, The Singing Detective is non-linear. We see the effect, and then the other five episodes explore the causes. It’s about somebody who remakes themselves by delving into their own imagination, and in many ways that sums up Potter as a writer.

When I interviewed Potter, one of the things he said was that he tried to do what other writers had not thought to do, which is elevate television drama to the same level of theatre or novels. Having work that is consistent with itself, that throws out motifs that relate to other works, that’s perfectly acceptable in novels but not in television. Amongst other things, The Singing Detective is him trying to elevate television to that status, and that is deliberate. Potter was consciously doing that.

That success is arguably the worst thing that happens to him. He then is treated like an auteur, and is able to have a level of freedom that perhaps has a detrimental effect on the work. Not just Blackeyes, but Karaoke and Cold Lazarus.

After 1986, he was regarded with such status that meant he was able to get pretty much anything he wanted at the BBC. I’m slightly more equivocal than you. Blackeyes in retrospect is interesting, it is deeply flawed — the whole issue of Potter directing it. Potter wanted a life where he could direct his work, have one foot in the film industry and another in television. It’s not the case that he declined as a writer, but if he was a bit like a coal miner, he had mined himself and in the case of The Singing Detective wrote everything out. What do you do after that? Blackeyes is interesting after the MeToo movement, as Potter showed the abuse of women by men, albeit in a deeply flawed way. It is a flawed conception. It failed because it was too complicated. It has elements that make us wince today, actually.

Another irony is that he becomes more revered for what he says in the real world than in his dramatic work. Post-Blackeyes, he becomes — as Kenith Trodd said of his Melvyn Bragg interview — the stricken sage telling the world about the truth of what it’s like to be dying and to be human. We should never forget, it’s 30 years ago now, that interview with Melvyn Bragg in many ways redeemed Potter and is still viewed by people as profound.

That’s arguably endured more than his dramatic works.

Bragg knew Potter, and seeing his friend who he had known for so long facing death. The whole thing was organised extremely quickly and at the last minute to give Dennis a final platform on his beloved television. But it is the case that the interview is remembered today, because of the power of it and also because one of the things he said — which I still see in memes — is the fact that Rupert Murdoch is the person most responsible for polluting English public life, and that if he had the time he’d shoot the bugger. That has resonated over the years! For me, it was odd because I watched the interview live and it was the things he had been saying for the later part of his career — about optimism, a spiritual optimism and ultimate good. The way in which we can make a good ending. All of these themes from his work, he articulates to a wider audience at the end of his life, and that’s what affected people.