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GaretH Jenkins

Beautiful dreamer

(July 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 177, July/August 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Those who watched Dennis Potter’s last interview, given when he was racing against death to complete his last two plays, will have been moved by his personal courage and that he was still committed to fighting back against what he once called ‘the occupying power’.

His weapon was writing – not for himself but for the millions who have access to television and who are perpetually threatened by the deadening effects of commercialisation.

The price Potter paid for writing serious but accessible television drama was a vicious campaign waged by Mary Whitehouse and the rest of the morality brigade. He was attacked for bringing bad language and sex to the small screen.

This campaign frightened the BBC into banning one of his best plays, Brimstone and Treacle, for over a decade. Nevertheless Potter kept up a breathtaking output, with his phenomenally successful plays, Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986), proving that a mass audience could be created for complex and challenging culture.

Potter was a political writer. He was clearly on the left, but suspicious of pat phrases and easy solutions. Perhaps this reflected his own personal development and the political period that formed him.

He was born in 1935. His father was a coalminer in the Forest of Dean, an area of industrial villages between Gloucester and Wales. He gained a scholarship to Oxford University and then started work in the BBC in the late 1950s. He also worked as a journalist and thought about becoming a Labour MP before embarking on his career as a television playwright.

This left him with a tangled sense of where he belonged. As a working class grammar school boy he did not fit into the privileged world of Oxford. He saw and criticised the society it represented from the outside. At the same time he was for ever cut off from his background.

There was no possibility of returning to the ‘land of lost content’ – a line he used in Blue Remembered Hills (1979), which explored childhood with all the children played by adults. He did not wallow in nostalgia. If he hated the narrow ruling class interests masquerading under the high culture to which he was educated, he did not forget that the close knit community from which he came could be cruel and repressive. At the same time he felt guilty at denying his family and community as the price paid for widening his intellectual horizons. He was both victim and traitor.

This complex double role was a theme he constantly returned to in his plays, particularly when he explored its roots in childhood trauma. The Singing Detective, Philip Marlowe, is haunted by it as he delves into his past and begins to realise the responsibility he bears for his fate.

We see virtually the same images of childhood in the play Potter wrote 20 years earlier, Stand Up, Nigel Barton. This and its companion piece, Vote, Vote Vote for Nigel Barton, show Nigel’s use and betrayal of his working class roots.

Potter never settled for easy explanations of complex personal and social problems. He always went for uncomfortable topics. The most memorable of these was the banned Brimstone and Treacle. This featured what was becoming a central feature in Potter’s work – the use of fantasy to explore the dreams of ‘ordinary’ people and show what lurked beneath the appearance of respectability.

Brimstone and Treacle features a suburban couple whose lives have been wrecked because their daughter, Pattie, has been reduced to a drooling, slobbering wreck as the result of a car accident. Into their lives walks Martin, who claims to have known her before her accident and whose wholesome niceness offers relief from the everyday burden of caring for her. But his miraculous presence proves (literally) diabolical. He rapes the girl and she is restored to a ‘normality’ which reflects badly on her father’s sexual morality.

The devil who walks into this couple’s life is not an outsider. He brings out what is diabolical in the situation of suburban respectability: the mother’s vulnerability to religious manipulation and the father’s membership of the National Front.

Potter’s most ambitious work came after the excruciating skin disease which paralysed him and nearly ended his writing career. In Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective and Lipstick on Your Collar he looked at the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s respectively and perfected the technique of using popular songs as expressions of people’s dreams.

He was neither sentimental nor dismissive about images of popular culture. In a cheap and nasty world, the heaven people search for cannot avoid being cheap and nasty. But their aspirations are still compelling for all that.

Potter also wanted to show individual aspiration in a collective context. In Pennies from Heaven this was the little man dreaming of independence in a world where no such independence is possible. Arthur’s ambitions to make something of his life, have his own business and profit from the new, expanding world of song recordings perpetually runs up against his own limitations.

In The Singing Detective there was the same attempt to mix fantasy and reality, the personal and the social. The ‘hero’, the aptly named Philip Marlowe, has a mixture of self loathing and paranoid contempt for his fellow human beings. In Lipstick on Your Collar the focus is on the Suez crisis, an episode which marked the eclipse of British imperial power and the triumph of the US as a world power.

His hatred of ‘the occupying power’ went with a proud love of the country under occupation, which smuggled in a kind of nationalism by the back door which had been kicked out the front.

It was similar to his fascination for religion’s role in people’s lives, which came close to a kind of surreptitious endorsement.

But these are minor difficulties. All the indications are that his last works, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, will confirm his achievement as the greatest television dramatist.

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