Dennis Potter at eighty

I read Dennis Potter before I’d seen anything by him. Just too young to watch The Singing detective when first shown, just the right age for Blackeyes (I think unfairly maligned – a challenging uncomfortable  watch, it made viewer and writer equally complicit in the male gaze and played with ideas of narration, and free will that had been apparent in his writing for years) and a repeat of Pennies from heaven (I had never experienced the pleasure and excitement of watching the opening episodes in viewing television before – Arthur opening the curtains and singing with a female voice, the rendition of You rascal you as morning tea leeched into a death fantasy, tap dancing on coffins. Who knew telly could do this? Who knew it could be so free?). Here was a writer that had taken a youth interested in telly and how it worked since the days I’d first read Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks’s The Making of doctor Who and shown me that telly could deal with big things, with personal things, and could – when used by someone who knew what they were doing, who knew what they wanted – do anything. Hooked, I sought out other things he’d written. Films (even stuff that was not successful such as Secret Friends and MIdnight Movie). I had a teacher who had an old VHS copy of where Adam stood, one of his many pieces about faith (an ongoing theme in his work – there until the end). I watched old repeats as they appeared – Where the buffalo roam with Hywel Bennett, the BBC4 season that salvaged a Beast with two backs and others. I collected the DVDs as released. Bought the books – the slim volume by Peter Stead, the Graham Fuller interviews, both editions of Jon Cook’s study. Over the year I’ve had various thoughts about his work, paths I would have liked to pursue if not doing the job I do.  The similarities between his work and Philip Roth, for example – where intensely personal work (or what seems to be intensely personal work seemingly drawn on the autobiographical (although that’s always a dangerous assumption as Mrs Whitehouse found out)) plays with form, plays with ideas of authorship. Or that relationship between him and faith (even God?) played out over a lifetime of writing.

But this love of his work did not come from his television work initially. The first thing of his I was aware of was a novel from the library in Carlisle. Over time I read TV plays, Waiting for the boat and others, the Nigel Barton plays, Pennies, Singing Detective, Lipstick on your collar, Cold Lazarus, karaoke. I even managed to find a copy of Son of Man on interlibrary loan. But the first thing was a battered first edition of a novel called Hide and Seek. Potter himself seemed to have an odd relationship with the book. It is the volume Bill Paterson’s psychiatrist quotes to Marlowe in The Singing Detective. It seems to lie at the root of some of the more scurrilous stories about Potter picked over by one biographer. I knew nothing of this then in 1988. I found this book in Carlisle library and what was in it was mine.

A curio, Hide and Seek begins with a character declaring he is a character in a novel. What appears to be his story is then uncoupled and unbundled over later sections with layers of authorship,  an awareness of the dangers of reading character as autobiographical, questioning the extent to which focal point characters don’t share aspects of the writer, questioning whether we really have freedom to act. I’d never read anything like it. A book I n the early 70s playing these games with what fiction is. And for a sixteen year old struggling with issues of identity and self it became, if only for a few weeks, the most important thing I’d read. The book that spoke to me. By a writer who spoke, still speaks to me.

So, on what would have been his eightieth birthday for many years of pleasure thank you Mr Potter from the boy I was.

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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.
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One Response to Dennis Potter at eighty

  1. I had a similar journey with him, hooked enough to tape Midnight Movie, Secret Friends, Where The Buffalo Roam and Track 29 in my late teens and early 20s. I have a copy of Hide and Seek which I picked up at a very reasonable price. Such singular artists are accomodated most easily in music, then in literature, then in film – but we are lucky that Dennis was born at the right time to make tv in what was probably a brief time when tv would have let him. There will probably always be people that make great telly. But like that? I doubt it.

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