‘Waiting for the Boat’ 
Dennis Potter and Television.

by Nicky Fennell



 

"The very idea of participating in a judiciously edited programme called The Psychiatrist’s Chair fills me with even more distaste than the degree of grossness such a series quite justifiably provokes. Perhaps incorrectly I imagined the soft lights, the comfortable chair, the reassuring voice, the absence of technical paraphenalia, the seduction drawn out of intellectual vanity and public attitudinizing."

Such was the response of Dennis Potter in 1983 after he had been asked to do a 40 minute interview with Dr. Anthony Clare for the BBC’s famous radio programme.
Eleven years later, on April 5th, Potter gave what he knew was to be his final interview to Melvyn Bragg under conditions not 100% removed from the above description. Potter was dying of cancer and knew he had approximately 10 weeks to live. It was probably the most riveting piece of television that we are likely to see for some time.

Television is such a casual medium; it is rare indeed that a programme running for 100 minutes can hold a viewers attention. But from the moment the two men began their conversation it was clear that this was something special, a final farewell from a man who had dedicated his life’s work to a medium unworthy of his talents; a medium which he demonstrated again, as he had done so often with his plays, through his passion and intelligence, is as capable as any other medium of producing excellence.

I was exactly one year old when Potter’s first play, The Confidence Course was broadcast on BBC 1 on February 24th 1965. It concerned a gang of con-men running a motivation conference to raise the self-esteem of a group of dull losers. I’ve never seen it, but God, what a lovely idea. Television was a disposable medium in those days. Four of Potter’s first nine plays now exist only in script form; the others were wiped after one screening.
In all, he produced 29 single plays, 5 original series, 5 serialized adaptations, 5 motion pictures and 5 novels. When one considers that since 1961 he suffered from psoriatic anthropathy, a particularly malicious form of psoriasis, which left him, as he described in The Singing Detective, "cracked, scabbed, scaled, swollen, scarlet and snowy white and boiling with pain" this was a phenomenal output.
In a fascinating introduction to his book on television, Waiting for the Boat, Potter described how his condition was directly responsible for his emergence as a television playwright.("To trundle the adjectival noun ‘Television’ in front of the noble old word ‘Playwright’ is not entirely dissimilar to placing ‘processed’ right next to ‘cheese’.").
Bedridden, with a wife and young children to support, he submitted The Confidence Course to the BBC where it was immediately accepted, and he was commisioned to write another play for them.

His early works concentrated on his experiences at the hands of the English class system. Having been born to working class stock in Berry Hill in the Forest of Dean, (his father was a coal-miner) he won a scholarship to Oxford in the 1950’s and came straight up against the English caste system first hand. This experience was to become the subject matter for two of his most successful earlier plays, Stand Up Nigel Barton (‘65) and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (‘65). Estranged, and at times ashamed of his working class origins, yet continually on the fringes of the upper classes, Potter was stuck in a no-man’s land. "I don’t feel that I belong anywhere in particular. I travel between two utterly different worlds." complained Nigel Barton at the end of the second play.

Laid up for six or seven months every year, it is easy to see where the bile and phlegm which Potter was capable of injecting into his work had its origin. Brimestone & Treacle, filmed in 1976 and banned for eleven years by the BBC is Potter at his most diabolical. In the play, he subverts the age old story of an angel arriving in the shape of a benevolent human and performing a miracle. The play concerns a physically and mentally handicapped young girl who is ‘brought back to life’ when she is raped by a handsome young visitor who moves in with her parents. It provoked uproar. In his final interview, Potter talked about the controversy and explained;

" It was diabolical; it was meant to be." (But it was) "meant to make you think about the way we manipulate the words good and bad. If people get so conditioned that they’ll watch these endless pappy series, where there’s violence every 20 seconds, there’s sex used just like that, bang! There are constant sanctimonious references to God or the good. If you try and make people see the real use of these words, they get hopping mad. So be it, that’s what television is for too."

In the mid 70’s Potter began taking the anti-cancer drug Razoxane, which had a remarkable effect on his psoriasis. He was in less pain and able to work at a much faster rate. Over the next six years he produced his greatest works, the plays Blue Remembered Hills and Cream in My Coffee, the masterful film Dreamchild,
which told the story of Lewis Carrol and Alice Liddel, the girl he wrote ‘Alice in Wonderland’ for, and the two series, Pennies from Heaven (‘78) and The Singing Detective (‘84) However, in a sickly twist worthy of one of his better plays, his release from pain proved to have devastating consequences. Razoxane was discovered to be carcinogenic.

Potter had first used the idea of the old songs as ‘an agent of human aspiration’ in his 1969 play Moonlight on the Highway. It was one of the many innovations which he continued to return to and improve as his work progressed. With Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective and the final part of the trilogy, Lipstick on Your Collar, Potter played the idea of the old songs beautifully. All Arthur Parker wants in Pennies is to live in a world where the songs come true. The blend of the songs and the drama achieved a form of magic realism never before seen on television. In his last interview, Potter suggested that the majority of human misery stems from our inability to communicate properly with our loved ones. Bob Hoskins’ Arthur loves the songs because the songs can say it better than he can. Potter told Bragg; "I wanted to write about the way popular culture is an inheritor of something else. You know that cheap songs, so called, actually do have something of the Psalms of David about them. That's why people say 'Listen, they're playing our song!' It's not because that particular song actually expressed the depth of the feelings that they felt when they met each other and they heard it. It is that somehow it re-evokes it but with a different coating of irony and self-knowledge."

This 'coating' accounts for a large chunk of the success which genre films have acquired in cinematic history; the tension created between the past and the present by subtle dollops of irony and self-knowledge.
Where Bing, the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, etc.,were used to coax us into a melancholic empathy with Arthur in 'Pennies', Potter took the device one step further in The Singing Detective. He took that classic genre flick, the hard-boiled private eye, and rooted it firmly in the real world by giving his main character the same condition he himself suffered from, psoriatic anthropy. He then blended form and content by using many of the songs as 'hallucinations', which is a symptom of the disease, and stirred in his childhood memories of the Forest of Dean, a modern film noir subtext and a superbly malignant villain in the shape of Patrick Malahide's 'Mark Binney'. Furthermore, he played superbly with the conventions of television, blending one plot strand into another through space and time and introducing a wonderful pair of blundering detectives, hot in pursuit of Michael Gambon's psoriatic private eye, who realise midway through the series that they are merely a red herring, invented by the writer to spout cliches's like 'Let's get the hell out of here!' and vow instead to kill the writer before he can write them out of the script!!

Lipstick On Your Collar played the music of the 40's against the rock 'n' roll of the 50's as a metaphor for the changes British society encountered after WW 11. "Somebody built it (society), but it doesn't feel as though it was us." muses the young hero. Though weaker than its two predecessors, 'Lipstick' still managed to squeeze new life out of old formats and was perhaps overall the most uplifting series of the trilogy.
" I have spent the greater part of my career trying to write and get on the screen the kind of work which assumes that viewers are not zombies" wrote Potter in 1983. Eleven years later he told Bragg; "I chose the medium (television) with the myopic precision of a watch-maker who was blissfully unaware that quartz crystals would soon be able to take over the job, and it is now too late for me to think otherwise."

Potter referred to working in television as toiling on the 'lower slopes' and 'neglected screes' of 'high-culture'. It was fitting that he should choose the medium to make his final statement, and to use the medium in such a way as to raise it to the highest pinnacles of the same metaphor. He told Bragg that his final two works in progress, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, two interconnected series which the BBC and Channel 4 have agreed to work together in producing, would prove a fitting memorial to his life's work.
"If I can can finish them, I'm quite happy to go."
Thankfully both series go into production in January 1995.
Stay by your screens.

 

 

FW 18