As Christmas is all about television, a Dennis Potter season will be true to it. The man embodied televisionby Andrew Billen / January 16, 2005 / Leave a comment
An unexpectedly affecting moment in BBC2’s forthcoming documentary on Dennis Potter comes when we hear how the dramatist hit upon the idea of having actors mime to records of popular songs. Painting the Clouds with Sunshine, the documentary’s title, is taken from the song ventriloquised by Bob Hoskins’s music salesman in Potter’s 1978 masterpiece Pennies from Heaven. It was also, it turns out, the favourite lyric of Potter’s father, a Forest of Dean mineworker. But Potter senior was a terrible singer. We can imagine his son in his moment of inspiration in front of his shaving mirror, opening and closing his mouth in synchronicity to his 45 rpms, by artifice bettering the sounds his dad ignorantly mangled and realising the technique’s potential both as a dramatic trope and a metaphor for the way in which art perfects reality.
Potter recognised cheap music – Coward had already noted its strange potency – as the source of spiritual wealth for the poor in the first half of the last century. In the second half, he believed television too could equitably distribute happiness. Although it marks the anniversary of a death (Potter died in 1994) rather than a birth, Nigel Williams’s celebratory Painting the Clouds is an appropriate Christmas offering from BBC2, since Christmas for some decades has been more about television than religion.
Potter was a total creature of television – both of them coming of age at more or less the same time. Precociously, he made his first documentary, Does Class Matter?, in 1958 while still at Oxford. Two years later, in Between Two Rivers, he turned the television cameras on his home. Soon he was devouring his childhood and political prejudices for his semi-autobiographical plays, Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton and Stand Up, Nigel Barton, based on Potter’s experience of standing unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate in 1964.
Blue Remembered Hills returned once more to his childhood, although it is better remembered for the conceit of having adults play children, a device he actually pioneered in Stand Up, Nigel Barton. The Singing Detective fast-forwarded to his adult affliction with psoriatic anthropathy. The man was the work and the work was television, but television at its leading edge. His reviews of the medium, published mainly in the Sunday Times, sneered at the banality of what trailed behind. An accompanying documentary on BBC4, Potter on TV, will argue that his criticism of television was indivisible from his creative contributions to it, which were their own rebukes to its timidity.
Because Potter remains the unofficial patron saint of BBC drama, Williams, author of The Wimbledon Poisoner and sometime Omnibus editor, keenly takes his side over his rows with the BBC authorities, from Greene through Milne to Birt. He is less ready to own up to Potter’s weaknesses, let alone admit that, just occasionally, the corporation may have been right. The clip shown from Brimstone and Treacle, in which the devil fucks a brain-damaged young woman back to sensibility, looks, in extract at least, as gratuitous today as it must have done to the then director general, Alasdair Milne. Williams also grants Potter a free pass over the increasingly leering take on young women that came to dominate his later work. He interviews his friend, the director Kenith Trodd, to whom the young Potter confided about his use of prostitutes, but concurs that the habit probably ceased quite soon into his marriage. A daughter says it is inconceivable that Potter, who tucked his pyjamas into his socks when staying in hotel rooms lest he shed skin over the carpet, would have inflicted intimacy on strangers. But is it not possible that his enforced abstinence made his work sexually preoccupied?
Having lived by and through television, it was fitting that Potter should elect to die on it, giving a terminal interview to Melvyn Bragg in which he settled some old debts (he called his cancer Rupert, after Murdoch), boasted of a dying man’s heightened visual sensibility (“the blossomiest blossom”) and reiterated his pennies-from-heaven philosophy: be thankful for what glimmers through the dross. With some cause, Painting the Clouds counts Potter’s oeuvre as some of what shone most brightly of all.
“Potter at the BBC” begins 25th December on BBC2 and continues into the new year on BBC4 with documentaries and classic Potter plays. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/potter