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Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)

Writer, Director

Main image of Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)

Dennis Potter was one of the most important creative figures in the history of British television. From 1965 until his death in 1994, he constructed a personal body of work of such remarkable depth and range that has yet to be matched in the TV medium. The most prolific yet also most controversial of television playwrights, he remains the undisputed figurehead of that peculiarly British phenomenon of writers who expend much of their working lives and passions attempting to show that television can be just as powerful a vehicle for artistic expression as cinema or theatre.

Born on 17 May 1935, Potter was raised in what he later described as the "tight, enclosed, backward" world of the Forest of Dean, a remote rural idyll nestling between two rivers, the Severn and the Wye, on the aggressively English side of the border with Wales. The product of a remote God-fearing community, he attended chapel at least twice every Sunday and the vividness of its language and metaphors formed a powerful influence on his writing.

He came to prominence in 1965, when, after an earlier career in journalism and politics, his first four plays were all transmitted by the BBC within the space of a year, as part of The Wednesday Play slot's ground-breaking policy of introducing radical new writers to television. Of these, the most successful were Stand Up, Nigel Barton (tx. 8/12/1965) and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (tx. 15/12/1965) - a pair of semi-autobiographical dramas which expertly dissected the effects of social class upon the psyche of its working-class hero, winning awards and helping to seal Potter's reputation as a major new playwright of passion and ideas. Only as the 1960s wore on and he continued to write for The Wednesday Play and its successor Play for Today, did it gradually become clear that underlying the broadly political attacks of his earlier work was an older world-view: a personality moulded by Biblical teaching and imagery, yet one now in desperate search of answers in the face of acute spiritual crisis.

In 1969, Son of Man was transmitted, a Gospel Play in which Potter audaciously created the Messiah in his own image: a human, suffering Christ, racked by doubts over his own mission and plagued by the fear that he has been forsaken by God. With this and other titles that followed, such as Angels Are So Few (1970), Where Adam Stood (1976) and most controversially of all, Brimstone and Treacle - originally intended for transmission in 1976 but banned by the BBC for eleven years on account of a scene where the Devil rapes a mentally handicapped girl - it became clear that Potter had discovered his true vocation as a dramatist of religious or spiritual themes, albeit one highly unorthodox and sometimes offensive to the political and moral establishment of the day.

Central to Potter's quest for spiritual answers was his own personal affliction of psoriatic arthropathy: a painful combination of psoriasis enflaming the skin and arthritis crippling the joints. It was a condition from which he had suffered since the age of 26 and which had necessitated his withdrawal from the public worlds of politics and current affairs into the more private realm of life as a television playwright. This inwardness was also manifested in Potter's famous non-naturalistic style: his determination to challenge the dominant British television drama tradition of 'dreary' naturalism, through an alternative emphasis on inner, psychological reality. He successfully customised a whole series of non-naturalistic devices - including flashback and fantasy sequences, direct-to-camera address by characters, the use of adult actors to play children - all of which he believed represented more truthfully "what goes on inside people's heads". In 1978, Potter showcased what became his most famous technique when Bob Hoskins burst into song, miming to an old 78 rpm recording, in the BBC serial Pennies from Heaven. The international success of Pennies transformed Potter's career, leading to a lucrative spell as a Hollywood screenwriter which included a disastrous movie remake of the serial in 1981.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, however, Potter continued to produce original work for television, though serials now rather than one-off plays: nowhere perhaps more decisively than with The Singing Detective (1986), in which his famous device of characters miming to popular song was used to punctuate a narrative as complex and layered as any work of serious literature, one that will undoubtedly endure as Potter's monument to the creative possibilities of the television medium. In 2003, a long planned Hollywood movie version of The Singing Detective, starring Robert Downey Jr., was finally premiered, though inevitably it lacked the impact of the original six-part television version.

The rapturous plaudits which greeted the first Singing Detective in Britain and the United States may have elevated Potter to the rare status of TV 'genius', but the period after 1986 was not an easy one for him. In 1989, after a falling out with his erstwhile producer Kenith Trodd, Potter decided to direct a television adaptation of his 'feminist' novel, Blackeyes. The result was a critical bloodbath in Britain, with the director accused of precisely the misogyny and sexploitation he claimed he had been trying to expose on screen. Nor was Lipstick on Your Collar (1993) - a six part 'drama with songs' set in the 1950s - the resounding popular success he had hoped for, though it did help to bring Scots actor Ewan MacGregor to public attention, providing him with his first big starring role in film and TV.

In February 1994, Potter was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the pancreas and died four months later, but not before giving an extraordinary television interview in which he talked movingly about his imminent death and revealed his plans to complete two final television serials to be uniquely co-produced by rival channels BBC1 and Channel Four. Defying the medical odds, he succeeded in completing the works Karaoke and Cold Lazarus and, in accordance with his wishes, these were transmitted posthumously by both channels in the spring of 1996. Though critical reaction in Britain was somewhat mixed, the very fact of the joint production seemed to confirm Potter's creative legacy as the practitioner who, above all others, aspired to raise television to an art form and whose pioneering non-naturalism had indeed been successful in opening up its drama to the landscape of the mind.

John Cook

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Track 29 (1988)Track 29 (1988)

Disturbing Oedipal drama from Dennis Potter and Nicolas Roeg

Thumbnail image of Angels Are So Few (1970)Angels Are So Few (1970)

An angel visits a suburban housewife in this provocative Dennis Potter play

Thumbnail image of Blackeyes (1989)Blackeyes (1989)

Controversial drama by Dennis Potter about sexual objectification

Thumbnail image of Blade on the Feather (1980)Blade on the Feather (1980)

Meditation on loyalty and treachery by Dennis Potter

Thumbnail image of Blue Remembered Hills (1979)Blue Remembered Hills (1979)

Dennis Potter recreates a 1940s West Country childhood, using adult actors

Thumbnail image of Brimstone and Treacle (1987)Brimstone and Treacle (1987)

Potter's notorious banned play about a Satanic visitor

Thumbnail image of Double Dare (1976)Double Dare (1976)

Disturbing, apparently autobiographical play by Dennis Potter

Thumbnail image of Interview with Dennis Potter, An (1994)Interview with Dennis Potter, An (1994)

Classic Melvyn Bragg interview with the writer shortly before his death

Thumbnail image of Lipstick On Your Collar (1993)Lipstick On Your Collar (1993)

Dennis Potter's third and final 'serial with music', set during the Suez crisis

Thumbnail image of Mayor of Casterbridge, The (1978)Mayor of Casterbridge, The (1978)

Dennis Potter adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel

Thumbnail image of Pennies From Heaven (1978)Pennies From Heaven (1978)

Groundbreaking TV masterpiece that made a star of Bob Hoskins

Thumbnail image of Singing Detective, The (1986)Singing Detective, The (1986)

Controversial Potter series blending sex, songs and skin disease

Thumbnail image of Son of Man (1969)Son of Man (1969)

Potter's typically provocative retelling of the Crucifixion

Thumbnail image of Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965)Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965)

A coal miner's son wins an Oxford scholarship in Dennis Potter's play

Thumbnail image of Traitor (1971)Traitor (1971)

Dennis Potter's imaginative exploration of the Cambridge spies story

Thumbnail image of Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton (1965)Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton (1965)

Second of Dennis Potter's dramas sees Nigel trying to enter politics

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Play for Today (1970-84)Play for Today (1970-84)

Single drama slot known for its provocative political work

Thumbnail image of TV Literary AdaptationTV Literary Adaptation

From page to screen

Thumbnail image of Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)

Long-running, often provocative BBC drama strand

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Smith, RogerSmith, Roger

Writer, Script/Story Editor, Actor

Thumbnail image of Trodd, Kenith (1936-)Trodd, Kenith (1936-)

Producer, Script Editor