Fifteen years after his death at age 59 from cancer of the pancreas and liver, Dennis Potter’s legacy is still up for grabs. Die-hard fans swear by every well-turned piece of dialogue the British television playwright wrote. Others believe he wrote two, maybe three masterpieces — Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective and possibly Blue Remembered Hills — and then lost his bearings, repeating himself with more malice than bite. And Potter, who sexed up the starchy BBC with a carnality more frank than lovely, drew his share of indignant detractors. Mary Whitehouse (Britain’s Phyllis Schlafly, give or take a few frosted hairs) denounced him as a gifted perv whose filth should never have been allowed near a public medium like television. Feminists accused him of misogyny; humanists wrote him off as a cynic.
They’re all right, and all wrong. Potter’s juicy contradictions were the lifeblood of his plays. The Oxford-educated son of a coal miner was an astringent intellectual with a particularly acute bullshit detector, not to mention an aspiring Labour M.P. — a job for which the bellicose redhead was wildly unsuited and which, thankfully, he never got. His plays brazenly crossed the lines between Britain’s rigidly differentiated social classes, and between high and low culture. More than most, he corralled the power of the popular arts to corrupt and uplift. In a medium famous for treating its audience like idiots, he never talked down to the viewer. He despised the term “mass audience,” and took it as read that the British public would embrace his pioneering break with entrenched tele-realism if it addressed their terrors and desires as deeply as it did his own.
Despite a long and stable marriage to Margaret Morgan, a fellow native of his beloved Forest of Dean whom he nursed through her own cancer around the time he got his diagnosis, Potter was tormented and inspired by a twisted sexuality (he was reportedly molested by an uncle as a child) and a bottomless ambivalence toward women. One way or another, his actress muses — Cheryl Campbell, Kika Markham, Gina Bellman (with whom he became obsessed offscreen) — were temptresses plotted along a madonna-whore continuum. Yet he also treated them as sympathetic victims of men who lied and cheated in their efforts to escape dreary reality for the stars.
Potter’s people are all angels and devils, and almost every drama he wrote took the corruption of innocence as its ground zero. A great sufferer in body and spirit, Potter was also an ecstatic romantic who nonetheless abhorred sentimentality. And all this went into his work, even the virulent psoriatic arthropathy that left his hands crippled and gave birth in 1986 to the stunning six-part series The Singing Detective, an exquisitely controlled blend of detective fiction, popular song and brutal realism articulating the despair and the longings of a desperately ill writer.
At his best, Potter was sublime, but like many prolific geniuses, he could crank out the dross too. I’ve never yet seen a poorly scripted, directed or acted Potter play, but absent the overarching sympathy he felt for his fellow sufferers, he could come off cheap and nasty, and his work deflates like a pricked balloon when he sticks to pure naturalism. The three feature-length television dramas included in the new DVD boxed set “Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember” — the fruit of a brief and troubled 1979 defection to commercial television with his longtime producing partner, Kenith Trodd — are at best uneven, at worst programmatic and unpleasant. Blade on the Feather, starring Donald Pleasance as an elderly writer whose quiet life is horrifically upended by the arrival of an enigmatic stranger (Tom Conti), offers dispiriting evidence of Potter’s habit of falling back on political sloganeering and reflexive hatred of the upper classes. Sexual betrayal, literacy and religion mingle incoherently in Rain on the Roof, with Cheryl Campbell once again doing duty as a spurned wife who doesn’t know her maternal from her carnal as she takes advantage of the mentally handicapped boy she’s teaching to read. It’s no accident that the best of the three, Cream in My Coffee, returns to popular song to dramatize the yearnings in youth and old age of a couple stranded in an unsatisfying marriage.
Still, “3 to Remember” is worth every penny of its $40 pricetag for its inclusion of Potter’s famous last television interview, which has to be one of the most startling and moving pieces of television drama I’ve ever seen. There sits Potter, having recently buried his wife and within weeks of dying himself, facing Melvyn Bragg (England’s Charlie Rose, except that Bragg actually knows something about the arts), sipping the morphine cocktail that dulls his constant pain and clutching one cigarette (“a lovely tube of delight,” he tells the unusually mute Bragg) after another between his knuckles.
Astonishingly, one of England’s angriest men looks utterly radiant and serene as he holds forth (a shameless interrupter, Potter is nobody’s idea of a good listener) in a stream of fully formed paragraphs delivered in a border-country accent softened by Oxford and long years of hanging with the intelligentsia. He defends himself vigorously, though hardly defensively, against charges of cynicism and misogyny. He laments the long slide of England from the glory days of the postwar Labour Government that gave him and me and thousands of other working-class children their shot at elite education, into political cant and commercialism. (“I love my country, but sometimes I get out of bed and I don’t know whether I’m right or I’m left.”) He riffs on the spiritual dilemmas that course through the biblical language in his plays (“God’s a rumor, and religion is the wound, not the bandage”). Best of all, he expounds his aesthetic choices with near-rapture, insisting that pop culture “illuminates something beyond itself,” and that his formal experiments reflect his need to express something, and not the other way about.
Terminal illness failed to blunt Potter’s edge. “I’m not interested in reassuring people,” he tells Bragg. “Bugger that.” But he is almost Zen in his acceptance of mortality, his noticing of the transient but crucial pleasure of the plum blossoms in his home town of Ross-on-Wye. “My only regret,” he says finally, visibly exhausted, “would be to die four pages too early.” Then he shuffles out of the studio to get back to work on his last two plays, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. That both turned out to be minor Dennis Potter is not a tragic irony, but part of the ballast that props up many a genius of vast output.
DENNIS POTTER: 3 TO REMEMBER | Released by Koch Vision | $39.98