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True Detective 

The painful, fruitful life of British writer Dennis Potter

Wednesday, Aug 4 1999
St. Martin's Press
A RECENT SYMPOSIUM IN HARPER'S MAGAZINE HAD half a dozen querulous scholars weighing in on the age-old question of William Shakespeare's "true" identity. Of course none of the scholars agreed, almost none of them made sense, and the glaringly obvious conclusion to be drawn from their bickering was: It doesn't matter. The technology of literature is founded on the idea that here is art transmittable in its ideal form without the artist needing to be there, without the artist needing to be alive. Or, as in the example of Shakespeare, without necessarily needing to be himself. This is why, in a nutshell, literary biographies suck. In the dynamics of literature, biography acts like a layer of epoxy, rendering its subject shiny, occlusive and repellent.

That said, Humphrey Carpenter's life of the British television playwright Dennis Potter doesn't suck at all. The reason for this is that Potter's body of work already reads like an exploded diagram of his famously tortured "real" life. While all writers reference their own experience, Potter toyed with the layers of man, author and character in a strange, lifelong exercise that made his autobiographical fictions both shocking and alien and grievously personal.

In Potter's most celebrated work, the six-hour miniseries The Singing Detective, Michael Gambon plays Philip Marlow, a writer of dime detective novels, including one called The Singing Detective, whose suave hero is also played by Gambon. The novelist lies in hospital, immobilized by the same skin and soft-tissue disease, psoriatic arthropathy, that afflicted Potter himself. The narrative interweaves childhood flashbacks of sex, betrayal and suicide with scenes from the detective story, and with hallucinatory lip-synched musical numbers starring nurses, shrinks and evangelists. Gradually, the "true" story and the "fictional" stories break down like meats in a marinade. In the final shoot-'em-up, the sick novelist is pitted against the detective, who has come to rescue him, kill him or perhaps both. It's a tale of psychological breakdown and synthesis, and it contains key elements of Potter's life -- all of which crop up in his work (Pennies From Heaven, Track 29, Dreamchild et al.) again and again.

Carpenter (author of biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten and C.S. Lewis) has gathered up an armload of found objects and dumped them at our feet, trusting the ordered disorder of nature to provide a sense of beauty, and it does. Carpenter seems motivated by a mature sense of nonreductive wonder at this life, eager to arrange the details and see what suggestive patterns they make. There are no revelations here; as a writer, Potter himself wrote over and over again about his molestation at 10 by a relative, his obsessive visits to prostitutes, and the guilt-ridden, psychosomatic nature of his disease. (While his character Marlow is eventually cured through psychological insight, Potter himself repeatedly refused to see psychiatrists, on the grounds that he had no desire to disturb whatever underlying patterns fed his work.)

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The best moments are smallish: We hear how Potter worried about finding hotel rooms with light-colored carpets, because his skin shed all over the place, causing him acute embarrassment. The milestones of Potter's life are filled in from interviews with his friends, family and business associates: his childhood in the Forest of Dean, where people still spoke in "thee"s and "thou"s; grammar school; Oxford; early marriage.

Potter set out to be a politician, a career cut short by his downward spiral into psoriasis and writing. Early on, he recognized television as the most pervasive medium available for the broadcast of his message; it's clear that he was never a writer driven by a yen for self-expression, but a politically motivated idealist from the get-go.

Even so, he was a forcefully intuitive writer, refusing to submit outlines or treatments for his commissions. He wrote with ripping speed, in extremely legible print. He was also a shrewd businessman who built up a comfortable living and left a well-ordered estate. He wrote for money, and for art, and didn't appear to have any soft-boiled ego trouble distinguishing between the two.

Public opinion wasn't always with him: With the 1989 airing of Blackeyes -- the story of an exploited lingerie model, which included a lot of long, lurid gazes at the body of its star, Gina Bellman -- he was called "Dirty Den" and widely painted as a misogynist. Then, in 1993, when the sweet and hopeful '50s musical Lipstick on Your Collar premiered (with a then-unknown Ewan McGregor), Potter was chastised for being not quite arty and provocative enough.

There were also battles over censorship with the BBC, which banned his TV film Brimstone and Treacle when executives decided they weren't very comfortable with the story of a crippled girl miraculously cured after being raped by Satan. Potter had his ins and outs with his producers and the networks and the press, to be sure, but the story that's most shocking here is how easy Potter really had it, how much freedom he and his young BBC producers had to make original work, and lots of it. At the heart of this book is a thrilling success story: The fact that this career happened the way it did, so seldom stunted, so sparingly thwarted, is something that anyone working in Hollywood today will take as a miracle.

THE TALE OF POTTER'S DEATH IN 1994 AT THE AGE OF 59 comes as an extraordinary, unexpected sequel to the harrowing and exquisite story of his life. Potter learned suddenly that a misdiagnosed stomach pain was in fact symptomatic of advanced cancer of the pancreas, an untreatable condition, and was given three months to live.

Potter's response to this news was tactical: He set aside two weeks to take care of business. He enlisted the help of a trusted family physician to help him achieve a balance of pain medication that would leave him clear-headed enough to write. Then, based on a modest estimation of the time remaining, Potter set himself a schedule of so many pages per day and began Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, two four-hour miniseries that would be his twinned final salvos. In his final filmed interview, he seems deliriously liberated, as if death has finally given him the ideal working conditions his psoriasis could only approximate. His terminal status truly freed him, for the first time, from the burden of the human condition. A thriving, productive lifetime took place in those few months, and he knew and appreciated this, even as his death and the progress of his wife Margaret's own advanced cancer began to derange those around him. Potter's last hero, in Cold Lazarus, is literally a disembodied head, cryogenically frozen and revivified in a distant future, a kind of backward-gazing oracle.

In the end, Potter managed to outlive Margaret, long enough to finish his miniseries on schedule and then to write a parting short story, a relish-laced death note (which Carpenter includes here in its entirety). There's nothing particularly noble about Potter's demise, and Carpenter wisely refuses to paint it as bravery in the face of the great unknown, instead allowing the death to play out as an arresting story about lucidity and pure character in the moment.

In life, in his incurable state, Potter wasn't interested in resolutions, only epiphanies. When the crippled girl in Brimstone and Treacle is brought back to life by rape, he's affirming the profoundly transformative nature of any kind of trauma. When we make sentimental claims to learn from experience or grow through adversity, well, Potter seems to be saying, what's the logical extension of that? Think about all that inner strength you claim to have gotten from surviving that messy divorce . . . now extend that thought, and imagine just how much character- building a rape by the devil might accomplish. To judge by the range of his physical and emotional experiences, Dennis Potter was in a unique position to know.

DENNIS POTTER: A Biography | By HUMPHREY CARPENTER St. Martin's Press | 704 pages | $40 hardcover

  • The painful, fruitful life of British writer Dennis Potter

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