The cultural establishment claims that demanding television programmes draw smaller but more committed audiences. New research suggests that this is wishful thinking. Harold Lind sees no escape from cultural elitismby Harold Lind / July 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
I knew Dennis Potter slightly at university and was never in the slightest doubt that he was a person of extraordinary talent, so great that it could reasonably be described as genius. Thus far, I align myself with our cultural establishment. But we part company in our view of the nature of that genius. The establishment view is that it was manifested in Potter’s social and political thinking, even more in his writing. When I knew him, I regarded Potter’s thinking as typical of the confused soft left, and his writing as producing adequate but not exceptional journalism. His real talents lay in two quite different areas. He always had great charisma, and this was allied to a unique ability to generate self publicity. He worked hard on the former, but the latter appeared to come naturally. He seemed able to pinpoint exactly how to arouse the most widespread controversy about his activities, thus ensuring a recognition far greater than their intrinsic quality deserved.
His battles with Mary Whitehouse about the alleged prurient content of his television plays brought him great publicity-even an audience of hopefuls, waiting, usually in vain, for the sexy bits. His attacks on Rupert Murdoch and John Birt were timed to achieve mass coverage in a mainly sympathetic press. The culmination of this publicity fest came in his final interview with Melvyn Bragg. The most pathetic part was watching poor Melvyn being led around like a bear with a ring in his nose. But by achieving the objective of his final fling-to ensure that his last plays, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, were transmitted without any editing on two separate television channels-Potter may have over-reached himself. The growing self-indulgence which tarnished all his work through the 1970s and 1980s, as he strove to retain the Mary Whitehouse imprimatur for filth, finally reached a level which even the average television critic found hard to ignore. These plays also suffered from the drawback of not having Potter around to defend them. He could always talk a superb play. It was a pity that he could not write one.
My views of Potter’s writing ability are purely subjective. That is the nature of criticism. I suspect that without the assistance of Potter’s charisma, his work will, before long, disappear without trace, until resurrected some time in the late 21st century by a student of media history (which is what English…