“I first saw television when I was in my late teens. It made my heart pound.” – Dennis Potter
Messages for Posterity: The Complete Dennis Potter is showing at BFI Southbank June-July 2014 and June-July 2015
The Dennis Potter collection in BFI Mediatheques includes Arena: Potter on Television (2005) as well as several other Potter interviews and documentaries about his work.
Dennis Potter spent his life writing for television; defying conventions, refashioning themes, thrilling and shocking the audience at home. His bold single plays and series like Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective earned him the reputation of Britain’s greatest TV writer, but Potter not only wrote for television, he spent a good deal of his career writing about it as a television critic.
Filing columns intermittently over 16 years for the Daily Herald, the New Statesman and the Sunday Times, Potter appraised the latest shows and, along with millions of others, sat down to watch the soaps. Mark Lawson summed up Potter’s career as a critic in this way: “Most television critics were jesters but Potter, although capable of jokes, was more of a hellfire preacher.” He was certainly keen to damn the programmes he thought witless or distasteful, but his reviews also reveal some surprising pleasures and reaffirm Potter’s complete devotion to his chosen medium.
While working as a reporter for the Daily Herald in the early 1960s, Potter was diagnosed with psoriatic arthropathy, the illness which afflicted him for the rest of his life and often severely restricted his ability to work. In his own sardonic words: “In those days the cripples, the has-beens, the deadbeats and those due for retirement were allowed to be television critics.” Nancy Banks-Smith described it as “a nice little job for a woman at home” and credited Potter with her start as she replaced him at the Daily Herald. Both of these assessments are rather self-effacing. Television was a booming industry as well as a burgeoning artistic form and its dissection in the daily press became well established. In retrospect, television criticism of this period seems all the more important for its function to commentate on a medium which seemed at the time to be ephemeral.
The post of TV critic allowed Potter to work from home and view the world through televisual means. In his early years of reviewing, he enjoyed Doctor Finlay’s Casebook and recommended the BBC series Maigret as “a bulky package of garlic-flavoured pleasure”. As early as 1964, Potter was complaining that Z Cars had “lost its old polish” and comparing it (unfavourably) with Coronation Street. Traces of Potter’s interest in the power of what he called “cheap music” appear now and then as he writes witheringly that The Black and White Minstrel Show “is a triumphant testament to syncopated nostalgia”.
Potter was thoroughly aware of the power of television, having taken up a traineeship at the BBC after university and writing and directing his own documentary, Between Two Rivers (1960). The programme focused on Potter’s experience of leaving his hometown, and his feelings upon his return from studying at Oxford. This foray into documentary seems to have convinced Potter that fiction was the way forward, and that programmes prying into people’s personal lives were highly suspicious. He was, however, fond of Denis Mitchell’s work, remarking that he was “by far the most talented and humane documentary maker television has yet produced”.
Humanity seemed to be in short supply in some of the programmes Potter was watching, at least from his perspective. His avowed socialism gave him a keen eye for criticising exploitation and he was severely unimpressed with Tony Palmer’s 1974 documentary The World of Hugh Hefner, deeming it “indistinguishable from a commercial for most of the time, except that it lacked the one merciful virtue of most TV ads, brevity”. Hefner was “a lascivious pedant” and later Potter would also find Miss World 1978 to be “a sickly male fantasy”.
A decade later, Potter would find himself labelled by the press in much the same way following the critical mauling of his series Blackeyes (1989). The series aimed to portray the exploitation of women by men in a critical way, but it backfired spectacularly, leaving Potter with a lascivious reputation of his own.
Having had his first play produced by the BBC in 1965, Potter was a television writer for most of the time he spent working as a television critic. Although he always considered himself a ‘temporary’ critic, these dual roles were only occasionally complimentary. Most of the time they were in opposition to each other and Potter can’t help but rail against critics, even as he writes his own columns from behind enemy lines.
Bouts of illness forced him to withdraw from writing columns quite regularly and when he returns to the world of writing drama, parting shots are frequently fired. In 1977 he announces a short break from the Sunday Times – “I cannot quite take the particular strain of a weekly column any longer – valedictory words which already permit me, in returning to the less hectic pace of writing plays for the little screen, to look once again at television critics as sadistic monsters beyond all possible redemption.”
It’s the journalistic equivalent of having his cake and eating it, but Potter is always aware that – even if he thinks they are loathsome – critics matter. His seldom-won praise is applied to single plays, where he has a special appreciation of the role of the writer. In 1974 he calls for a repeat of David Rudkin’s fantastical drama Penda’s Fen, finding much of it “beautifully done, gloriously resonant”, and Mike Newell’s 1978 adaptation of David Edgar’s play Destiny has “great acting, great writing, great direction; among the very best I have ever seen”.
But Potter the critic is not only absorbed in single dramas and documentaries, he appreciated the full flow of television, keeping up with Blake’s Seven (“mildly diverting”) and worrying that continuing to watch Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) will have a negative effect on his mental health.
Away from the reactions caused by the broadcast of his plays, Potter’s columns give him an extra opportunity to stoke up controversy and decry all that is wrong in the world of television and beyond. Robert Powell’s Jesus of Nazareth is “a Dettol Messiah” on Easter Sunday and Potter proclaims “I shall not be wasting any more of my time on this holiest and most triumphant of days watching another three hours of Robert Powell in a deodorised djellaba camping it up in the sand dunes”. Certainly the words of a hellfire preacher, or perhaps a televangelist.
Above all, Potter believed in television, often referring to it as emancipatory and in several interviews voicing his long-held hope that it could provide a “common culture”, one where knowledge and understanding would leap out of the screen at anyone who happened to be watching, regardless of sex, race or social standing. As the New Yorker’s television critic Emily Nussbaum recently commented: “If you love television, expecting it to be good is a form of praise.” Though he departed from criticism after 1978, Potter expected the best from television, just as he tried to make the best television possible.
His fellow TV critic and contemporary Philip Purser aptly compared Potter to George Bernard Shaw in terms of his criticism and artistic output and Potter’s criticism also allowed him to have a larger conversation about the quality of his own work, as well as others’.
But Potter not only wrote columns, he gave television interviews and appeared on both TV and radio programmes, including Question Time and Start the Week. His standing as a fully fledged media personality helped to publicise his plays but also his point of view, and each new Potter work was heralded in TV listings precisely because he was a household name. As we celebrate his work on the 20th anniversary of his death and reflect on his contribution to television, we must also regret that he is not still around to pour scorn on constructed reality programmes and Downton Abbey.