Dennis Potter and Mary Whitehouse

 Earlier tonight the Beeb broadcast Filth, a drama about the early Clean up TV campaign ran by Mary Whitehouse.

I was aware that she often targetted Dennis Potter’s works (eg 1976 she was threatening to prosecute him for blasphemy and obscenity in DOuble Dare (an unsatisfactory play of Potter’s with a writer and actress meeting in the same hotel as an escort and client – with the writer played by Alan Dobie, one of the earliest Potter alter egos in his work (although ths is subsequent to Hide and Seek, his novel where he really plays on the idea Roth/Zuckerman-like) and both actess and escort played by Kika Markham – the writer/actress meeting is based on one Potter had with Markham); she complained about his Forest of Dean drama The Beast with Two Backs (missing the religious allegory – something that she often failed to appreciate while complaining about blasphemy);and sought to have Potter prosecuted for blasphemy over his wonderful Wednesday play about the life of Christ, Son of Man – a work in the tradition of Kazantzakis).

I had a quick look at some of my Dennis Potter books and note the following

IN 1973 Stanley Reynolds wrote in The Guardian

“[Potter] loves the idea of Mary Whitehouse.  He sees her as standing up for all the people with ducks on their walls who have been laughed at and treated like rubbish by the sophisticated metropolitan minority.” (from W S Gilbert, “Fight & Kick & Bite: the life and works of Dennis Potter” (1995) p 148

And after the furore around Brimstone and Treacle Potter was interviewed on the South Bank Show and said

“I don’t for example join in the chorus of abuse about Mary Whitehouse because I think that at least she acknowledges the central moral importance of, to use the grandest word, art … People say the worst form of cnesorship is self-censorship.  Well, I think that’s the best form of censorship… Quite honestly, it took me six months between finishing Brimstone and Treacle and actually giving it into the hands of the BBC because I myself was worried about it..  If you think at all about the reception of the play on a level other than the ideas within the play or the characters or the emotions, then I think you’re well on the way to writing pap series …  if you can’t sometimes give alleged offence in order to open up something else then drama itself is being asked to limp along on one leg and that’s a great shame.”

(quoted by Gilbert at p 220)

Mrs Whitehouse objected to The Singing Detective (and sought prosecuion under the Obscene Publications Act writing to Mrs Thatcher and encouraging the involvment of Norman Tebbit) and in a 1989 interview with Anthony Clare explained that Dennis Potter’s skin trouble (as she put it – he had psoriatic arthropathy a virulent form of psoriasis that left him hospitalised, more than mere “skin trouble”). was caused by shock.  “You see, as a child he had seen his mother having sex with a strange man in the grass.” which – while a central element of the drama in The Singing Detective – was completely untrue.  The BBC was sued by Mrs Potter over these defamatory comments – and Mrs Potter won, with a full apology.

Mary Whitehouse explained her comments by noting that she had blacked out during her interview (yet kept talking – how marvellous) “I am quite certain in more normal circumstances I would never have made such a remark.”  (quoted in G Creeber, “Dennis Potter: Between Two Worlds” (1998) pp 11-2 and 151-2.

With fear that I have blacked out and am consequently saying something I regret there is, I think, something to be said for Mrs Whitehouse – the delimitation of our television with the watershed owes something to her campaigns, and the idea that television in the early evening is not a free for all is not unobjectionable.  However, that she failed to acknowledge artistic motives, the intellect and skill of the writer and had no feel for metaphor, meant that in this evening’s play my sympathies lay throughout with Hugh Greene, no matter how heavily he was caricatured by the script as a metropolitan liberal.

About loveandgarbage

I watch the telly and read when not doing law stuff and plugging my decade and a half old unwatched Edinburgh fringe show.
This entry was posted in dennis potter, mary whitehouse, television, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Dennis Potter and Mary Whitehouse

  1. bagrec says:

    Excellent post!
    I thought that drama was very disappointing/a bit rubbish.

    • Thanks. I was 13 when The Singing Detective was first broadcast, 16 when the Beeb repeated Pennies from Heaven. I hadn’t realised television could be that good. Even a script many perceive as a failure (Blackeyes) was interesting, characters drawn with a few words or gestures, ideas worked through in a manner missing from much of the usual diet of telly. These three series led me to seek out Potter’s scripts, and copies of his earlier dramas. And by the time I was 19 I’d seen A Very British Coup, GBH, The Monocled Mutineer, and the like. I thought all television could and should be that good. And have been disappointed by much of the output since, as I was in Filth – with the script and a great cast (Walters, Armstrong, Bonneville) wasted on it.
      Having posted, I subsequently read the long post by septicisle at his blog (there’s a link on the left of my page to Obsolete – the post might be of interest, he looks at modern perceptions of the 1960s social revolution among other things). I agree with much that he writes, but think that, as I said in the post, on the issue of early evening television Mrs Whitehouse had a point.

  2. tanngrisnir says:

    She had no grasp of dramatic necessity. She used to hate Doctor Who, citing it as one of the most violent programmes on TV (practically everything a villain could do to the goodies was classed as violence: Jo Grant loosely tied to a chair, for example), and never seemed to grasp that if you have a drama based on the idea of good fighting evil, the bad guys actually have to do bad things. Thanks to her, Doctor Who became (post-1977 or so) increasingly rubbish because they were afraid of her complaints. Not at all the most important negative effect she had, but possibly one of the silliest.

  3. Joanne Garde-Hansen says:

    Dennis Potter Heritage Weekend, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, June 29th and 30th. Potter scholars and producers will be there. To celebrate the DP archive. Contact the Dean Heritage Centre,

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