Beyond the reach of the cartographer: Dennis Potter the reviewing writer and writing reviewer

DAVID ROLINSON

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Dennis Potter’s non-fiction writing is a tremendous body of work – reviews, radio talks and newspaper features on television, radio, books, society, politics and more.1 I was going to just run through some of his television reviews, but Potter wouldn’t let me get off that lightly. His non-fiction work interweaves with his fiction work in characteristically multi-layered, provocative and entertaining ways. He never lets us forget that words matter. So the word “reviewing” becomes unreliable, which is annoying if you’ve put it in your title. He’s not just a writer who wrote some reviews – his writing reviews, and re-views, his own plays and much more besides. There are lots of traps to fall into, as we can tell from the start of Follow the Yellow Brick Road

[Extract: 1:38 to 4.25]

Jack Black sits and comments on drama, including its content and style – it’s tempting to use Jack to introduce Potter the TV reviewer, sitting in Ross arguing with London drama,2 though I’d have to have my tongue in my cheek since Jack uses a string of clichés: wondering when something’s going to happen before viewers “switch over or switch off”; later he says these are dirty, sex-obsessed plays by people who go to Trotskyite parties and sleep around. As always, although there are biographical resonances to this,3 Potter is playing with seeming autobiography and his own previous work: Jack’s visit to a psychiatrist resembles scenes from Moonlight on the Highway and Hide and Seek;4 as does Jack’s trauma about looking for God and finding nothing but “Filth” and “slime”, though Potter in the published play says “I am afraid to concede that the excess of disgust jerking out from Jack Black’s mouth more closely represented what I felt about the cold and faithless world, and its suffocating materiality, or my cold and faithless self”. Jack says “I don’t want to be in this play”.5 His comments about bad dialogue remind us of Hide and Seek and the later Karaoke – the need to write your own lines in life – and our place under an Author-hyphen-God that John Cook traced throughout Potter’s work (one of Jack’s first lines here is “God Almighty”). Whether Jack’s being watched by God or the naturalistic gaze of the cameras, how can he create or re-create himself, we wonder as we see him view and re-view the adverts for Krispy Krunch and Waggy-Tail Din-Din in his subjective memory?

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So how can he create his reality? Previewing Blue Remembered Hills in 1979, Potter said: “The most beautiful part of being alive is our capacity to shape our lives by language, by stories. The world is full of the murmur of human beings trying to reshape reality.”6 Writing, rewriting and revision are vital to The Singing Detective. John Caughie observed the importance of “writing and reading”, as Philip Marlow “tries and fails to use art to sublimate pain and order a disordered reality”.7 Rewriting his fictional stories in his head,8 Marlow is also rewriting himself, as Antony Hilfer observes: “the distinction between replaying and revising becomes crucial, as story-revision becomes self-revision”.9

Potter, too, is rewriting earlier stories: The Singing Detective uses bits of Stand Up Nigel Barton, Emergency Ward 9, the unpublished Country Boy10 and non-fiction including Between Two Rivers, The Glittering Coffin and newspaper columns, plus Hide and Seek (of course, when Gibbon tries to psychoanalyse Marlow by reading a sticky bit of Marlow’s book, the words are from Potter’s novel Hide and Seek). The Singing Detective and Stand Up Nigel Barton are linked by classroom scenes in which a boy is wrongly blamed for the lead character’s childhood crime of either stealing a daffodil or shitting on a desk.11 But between these two pieces came ‘Telling Stories’, a Potter article for New Society in 1975. In a talk about the Forest of Dean, Potter mentioned the real-life incident that inspired the scene, and found out what happened to the real boy. How do we use this? It would be tricky to use it as autobiographical “proof” –12 Potter uses the codes of autobiography as a dramatic tool; as he said, “When the novelist says ‘I’ you know he doesn’t mean ‘I’, and yet you want him to mean ‘I’.”13 ‘Telling Stories’ is a fascinating article in its own right about what Potter calls “the relationship between fiction and lying”.14 Potter doesn’t say whether the boy’s fate is true or a lie because “it’s a truth either way”.15 Over the years, in reviews, journalism and interviews, Potter not only worked through key themes but also made his persona an intertext, just as he said that he survived his illness through the power of “the contest between my real self and my invented self”.16

In The Singing Detective we find “an essentially subjective capacity, a cinema of the mind, by which the subject replays scenes of his subjective formation and past”.17 Except, this is John Bowen’s description of David Copperfield.

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There’s no room here to develop a full comparison between Potter and Charles Dickens.18 However, one quick point can help to explain the idea of Potter as a “reviewing writer”. Several gestures are repeated in The Singing Detective, including characters waving,19 which we see as originating from young Philip’s departure on the train. We see it partly from Philip’s perspective, moving away from his father. Similarly in David Copperfield, the moment in which David’s mother held up her baby while he left in the carrier’s cart – “I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. […] So I lost her.” – is subject to repetition: Dickens repeats the phrase “holding up” during the description and David remembers the moment. The sense of loss, and of moving away from childhood, is underlined in this 1999 TV version, in which we take David’s point of view and move away. These two stories have obvious things in common, each featuring a writer looking back, with a sense of author-character and author playing with modes of autobiography, but there are similarities that could be explored further.20 For now, sticking to my central idea, Bowen describes moments across Dickens’ work “when a character is able to witness, with hallucinatory clarity, a scene from his or her past, and yet is unable to participate in it or change anything” – and that shares a dynamic with Potter. As Potter put it in Hide and Seek: “hypnogogic images, the strangely potent montages which come at a mind already lapsed into a sort of sleep.”21 But Marlow, like Potter, can review as well as re-view. So Potter’s a reviewing writer,22 but he’s also…

…a writing reviewer. What do we do with Potter’s reviews? In his article ‘Dennis’s Other Hat’, Philip Purser said “It is only natural to wonder to what extent this critical function informed his creative process and vice versa. How many of the familiar obsessions of the plays can be first discerned in the reviews? Does he draw on his experience of writing for television to write about television?”23 Purser gives insights into the job of TV reviewing, and his questions here help dig into themes in the plays and Potter’s views on issues such as the use of studio, debates on non-naturalistic form, changes in television practices and policies (which could be developed), and attempts at autobiography. But Potter’s non-fiction needs more attention as non-fiction. We could see this work as an example of current concepts in Television Studies, as “transmedia” texts or as “paratexts” (material circulating around a text, like continuity announcements and trailers). The challenge is to see Potter’s non-fiction work in these areas as part of his body of work.24 Yes, it helps our analysis of The Singing Detective to know the ‘Telling Stories’ article which almost pops into the mouths of Marlow and Gibbon at a crucial moment, but it’s also part of the layers of quote-unquote-biography in its own right and as part of Potter’s construction of himself as publicly-known writer. Potter’s projection of self isn’t just publicity, it’s part of the impact of the fiction – the wanting “I” to be “I”.

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Studies of Potter have barely scratched the surface of Potter’s non-fiction writing, using it in the sort of selective way that I’m about to do myself. I’ll just pick three television reviews that haven’t yet been explored in Potter studies. Giving a glowing review to the fabulous Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, Potter engaged with its themes, with a boy in ‘a patch of landscape and so of mindscape’: “The place where we grow up, where we learn to speak and then not to speak, is always beyond the reach of the cartographer and forever charged with the intensity of those first perceptions which turn words or songs heard in the head into particular configurations of local topography”.25 If we take Purser’s suggested methods then we might suspect that Penda’s Fen helped inform Blue Remembered Hills, were it not for the familiarity of the phrasing. In Hide and Seek the previous year, Potter had written, “No cartographer can trace on any known map the place where we were born and bred. Unlocatable is that lost land where we first hear someone calling our name. Gone is the place where we learn to speak and read and laugh and cry (or, worse, not cry), gone like trees walking.”26 Again, my point here isn’t to just note imagery and themes in Penda’s Fen that would be interesting to compare with Potter’s fiction and non-fiction,27 because it’s the dialogue between texts that interests me, whether you call it recycling, drawing correlations or re-viewing.

David Rudkin, John Hopkins and others remind us that Potter was not unique carving out an individual career and personal themes and styles in that television structure – but paradoxically, recognising this, and Potter’s interaction with them in reviews, helps us to see what is distinctively Potter. Yes, Potter’s engagement with developments in TV helps us study those developments, including the shift to more director-led drama and the phasing out of Play for Today, which – along with documentaries and late-night arts programmes – he said, with a lovely turn of phrase, were “the major area left on TV still capable of transmitting the nourishing zest of an individual imagination which necessarily cares not a controller’s fart for ratings charts or conveyor-belt packaging.”28 He had fun with the BBC, of course. He praised Roy Minton and Alan Clarke’s Funny Farm for “catching the pace and moods of any institution for the unwell, such as a crowded ward, an army billet or the Television Centre […] The patients didn’t seem to watch much television, another disturbing similarity to the inmates whose doors open onto a long corridor that goes round and round the Television Centre and never quite makes it out into the real world.”29

Purser brings out some interesting moments of Potter holding surprising, even contradictory, opinions in relation to what others are doing in TV. We could add others. Potter’s review of the last episode of Philip Martin’s Gangsters described the series as “so obnoxiously delighted with its own gaggle of second-hand styles that it seemed to be licking itself all over”.30 To be fair, his main problem is the racial violence in the series, but it’s a surprising dismissal of this episode, which writes out its lead character in a provocatively non-naturalistic way,31 and in which a character walks off-set, ending a crime series with a non-naturalistic device even more provocative than the ending of Follow the Yellow Brick Road, when the camera seems to confirm Jack’s fear that he’s in a television play. When Lindsay Anderson later showed the studio in The Old Crowd,32 he was criticised by reviewers whom he felt were not able to deal with his innovative approach,33 seemingly unaware of television’s many attempts at Brechtian experimentation: indeed, Julian Barnes criticised the “stale old device […] of including shots of the camera and the director’s gallery”.34 Anderson expected flak from television critics because they disparaged the medium even more than he did.35 But Potter was not that sort of critic.

As programme maker and critic Potter was of course involved in a debate, as John Cook noted, about “the choices between ‘naturalism’ and its alternatives”: “not simply a question of which dramatic style to use but between two fundamentally different ways of seeing.”36 Introducing the Follow the Yellow Brick Road script, Potter talked about “the quality of response.” Just as Jack Black talked about the timeslot of the play he’s in, Potter was interested in how programmes exist in schedules: “Bullets on one side and football on the other… the life of a play so doubly boxed can be sucked away in the surrounding flow. Worse, a panel game, a plastic-prairied Western, a hard-eyed news bulletin, Wimbledon, a detective melodrama and an original play eventually submerge together into the same kind of experience” in what he called a “landscape of indifference”.37 When Potter thought that The Singing Detective hospital scenes should be shot in the TV studio, he, like Ken Loach and Tony Garnett,38 saw how dramas could use their place in the schedule to invite reflection on how other forms (like news) work. Potter – like Gangsters, ironically – blended and confronted genres, from advertising to Westerns to soap.39 His reviews show an awareness of texts in the context of the everyday, in schedules, with the ephemera of broadcasting, and how people watch television.40

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His reviews confront this idea of an indistinguishable flow, and like Follow the Yellow Brick Road hope that television drama and human experience aren’t packaged like tins of dog food.41 Like Russell T. Davies, who said the “T” stood for “television”, Potter was engaged with this popular medium that once made his “heart pound”. So, if we’re to be cartographers drawing maps through Potter’s work, we need to use much more of his non-fiction work. A published collection would be brilliant: important and entertaining, ranging from literary criticism and religious talks to Blake’s Seven, party political broadcasts, sport and Swap Shop, the latter prompting Potter to suggest swapping “Noel Edmonds for an equally hirsute gooseberry”,42 which shows us again that Potter’s work is often timeless. But the arrival of the Potter archive will be an important step.

This is the edited text of a talk at the Dennis Potter Day at Dean Heritage Centre, Forest of Dean, 29 June 2013.

Thanks to everyone at the Dean Heritage Centre on 29 June. Thanks also to Ian Greaves and John Williams.

Since this article was written, myself, Ian Greaves and John Williams have edited a collection of Dennis Potter’s non-fiction writing. Dennis Potter, The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-1994 was published by Oberon Books in 2015.

Originally posted: 31 July 2013.
Updates:
5 February 2017: added link to The Art of Invective.



  1. This essay is an earlier – longer – draft version of a talk I gave at the Dennis Potter Day held at Dean Heritage Centre, Soudley, Forest of Dean on 29 June 2013. The full schedule of the day’s events can be found here. Some of this essay has been rewritten for reading rather than speaking, but most of the new or unused material is restricted to these endnotes. Detailed coverage of the event will appear on the Potter Matters blog, which we will link to when the event’s coverage is uploaded. []
  2. Heritage and “mediating memory” were vital and fascinating concepts in papers delivered by Joanne Garde-Hansen, Hannah Grist and Laura Earley. My comment here ties in with ideas of a “Forest of Dean Potter” and a “London Potter” raised in particular after the acquisition of Potter’s archive by the Dean Heritage Centre in the Forest of Dean, and subsequently tackled in Garde-Hansen’s paper. The “heritage” question related to how his work and archive can live on through exhibitions, archive access and activities. The screening at the event of the Rural Media Company’s film Buried Heart, a piece “inspired” by Blue Remembered Hills and featuring young people from the Forest of Dean, was one example of exciting possible outputs. Given that the audience consisted mostly of locals, with few visiting academics, the question of heritage was even more live. The site also includes a Dennis Potter audio trail, with family interviews accessible in places like a period classroom evocative of the ones in Stand Up Nigel Barton and The Singing Detective. The Potter audio trail doesn’t involve walking round in your pants listening to Potter’s voiceover from Blackeyes. []
  3. Potter’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, can tell you which parties and people this might refer to. More to the point, Potter wrote in his non-fiction work about his disillusionment with attending Left gatherings of this sort. []
  4. Fortunately, in the first paper presented on the day, John Cook screened the opening of Moonlight on the Highway. []
  5. Dennis Potter, ‘Some Sort of Preface’, Waiting for the Boat, p. 20. []
  6. Potter, in Lesley Thornton, ‘Innocence and Experience’, Radio Times, 27 January – 2 February 1979, p. 9. []
  7. John Caughie, Television Drama: Realism, Modernism and British Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 173-174. []
  8. “the Forties thriller which Marlow is “writing” (or rewriting) in his mind” – Carpenter, pp. 439-440. []
  9. Antony Hilfer, ‘Run Over by One’s Own Story: Genre and Ethos in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective’, in Jonathan Bignell, Stephen Lacey, Madeleine Macmurraugh-Kavanagh (editors), British Television Drama: Past, Present and Future (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), pp. 133-134. Marlow is “a character run over by his own story”. []
  10. I haven’t read Country Boy, so here I am indebted to John Cook’s analysis of it. []
  11. For more on the ideas covered in this paragraph, see my piece on The Singing Detective. Appropriately enough given that I’m talking here about writerly revision, I have an edited, rewritten form of that Singing Detective piece forthcoming in the Journal of Screenwriting, Volume 4, Number 3, 2013. []
  12. Given that I’ve quoted Potter’s views on biography in other pieces, here’s a more playful quotation, from his positive review of the book From Newgate to Dannemora: the Rise of the Penitentiary in New York: “Biographies may, it is true, make great play of the fact that a man had piles or caught the 3.14 train on a sunny afternoon in mid-April. Such accumulation of tiny detail, such alleged Insight, seems to have become a characteristic of so-called quality journalism, and the rot has also infected all sorts of biographical studies. Too often we get a heap of pointless detail decorated with a scurfy impertinence, the kind of pseudo-academic opportunism typical of a time where you may find your tutor on the Eamon [sic] Andrews Show” – ‘The battle of the penologists’, New Society, 19 August 1965, p. 27. []
  13. ‘An Interview with Dennis Potter’, Without Walls, tx. Channel 4, 5 April 1994. []
  14. Dennis Potter, ‘Telling Stories’, New Society, 15 May 1975, p. 419. []
  15. Potter, ‘Telling Stories’, p. 420. Potter’s childhood, and concerns with rewriting memory, also feature elsewhere, such as in a piece about Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos – Potter, ‘Marching to Zion’, New Society, 19 June 1975, p. 723. []
  16. Dennis Potter, in Graham Fuller, Potter on Potter (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), p. 10. []
  17. John Bowen, ‘David Copperfield’s home movies’, in John Glavin (editor), Dickens on Screen (2003), p. 30. []
  18. Dickens scholars may be interested in Opium Blue – Potter’s unmade adaptation/completion of The Mystery of Edwin Drood – or his suggestion of a drama about Dickens meeting Hans Christian Andersen, though that was apparently quite a sketchy idea as part of the pitch for a production deal with London Weekend Television and was not developed. (In both of those cases, I am again indebted to John Cook for his references to those pieces.) Potter’s book reviews included The Wild Swan, Monica Stirling’s biography of Andersen: “Nostalgia of the most misleading kind mingles with our memories of stories heard in childhood.” – Potter, ‘Childhood bites man’, New Society, 25 November 1965, pp. 30-31. Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind features in his review of the book English versus Examinations: ‘Even Gradgrind had a point’, New Society, 30 September 1965, p. 27. []
  19. As Catrin Prys put it, the interconnections within memories that “build” into an “insight into […] self-knowledge” – Prys, p. 132. []
  20. I’m not talking about influence here, but correlations between the two texts through which each sheds light on the other. David Copperfield also contains a form of primal scene, and the sense of sexuality being – in John Carey’s phrase – “driven underground”. Bowen writes about “the extraordinary and disruptive power of memory”, and how “Memory is vision before it is anything else”, and goes deeper to consider the extent to which this vision is, via Laura Mulvey, male-centred. []
  21. Dennis Potter, Hide and Seek, p. 77. []
  22. This idea could be developed much further. Reading Gavin Lambert’s 1975 study of crime literature, The Dangerous Edge, it seemed to me that Potter’s appropriation of genre went beyond the iconography, plotting and surface world inhabited by Marlow and instead grasped the layered dark side of writers like Eric Ambler. Not only does Ambler use a character called Marlow and a character (Charles Latimer) who writes detective stories – not that this displaces the importance of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe to The Singing Detective – but Ambler is aware of the face as “a screen to hide [his character’s] nakedness”, with links to Jung and the idea of persona. There is the psychoanalytic sense of impulses beneath the surface, the ape beneath the velvet, and a need to clean the (inside of the) body. Lambert’s discussion of Graham Greene is also relevant, not just because of The Third Man‘s importance to the style of the noir sections of The Singing Detective, but because Lambert discusses another Philip who experiences a primal scene and is dragged into adult lies in ‘The Basement Room’, which became the film The Fallen Idol; scenes in which death and birth are paralleled; and a moment when a character “shot his own unbearable world”, which is one way of reading key scenes in Potter’s serial. Gavin Lambert, The Dangerous Edge (New York: Grossman, 1975), pp. 119, 123, 128, 133, 145-146. See also the discussion of dreams, p. 156. Again, influence is not the key issue here, or else it would be time for a shot-by-shot comparison of The Singing Detective with key sequences in Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing. []
  23. Philip Purser, ‘Dennis’s Other Hat’, in Vernon W. Gras and John R. Cook (editors), The Passion of Dennis Potter: International Collected Essays (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), p. 179. Certainly studies of Potter have made intelligent selections from across his non-fiction work to illustrate selected features, such as the Hoggartian studies of everyday social habits in his early columns through to direct comments on his plays. He does sometimes reflect on his plays in different contexts – for instance, when reviewing Forgotten Love Songs, he talks about “botching Casanova“. []
  24. This is a pretty thin point, suggesting an auteurist-textual reading that was slightly out of keeping with the rest of the day, which suggested refreshing, exciting new developments for Potter studies in line with new developments in the field. []
  25. Dennis Potter, ‘Boy in a Landscape’, New Statesman, 29 March, p. 459. []
  26. Potter, Hide and Seek, p. 20. []
  27. Having said that… Follow the Yellow Brick Road and non-fiction pieces describe an incident involving Potter on a bike with God being “too near” that resembles a scene with a demon in Penda’s Fen, though that operates in the fusion of religion, politics, sexuality and Elgar circulating at that stage of the play, and leads to a devastating seemingly hallucinatory ritual sequence. []
  28. Potter, ‘Boy in a Landscape’, New Statesman, 29 March, p. 459. []
  29. Dennis Potter, ‘Switch Back’, New Statesman, 7 March 1975, p. 319. He again uses “the funny farm” in relation to television in his review of Clive James’s Visions Before Midnight – see later endnote for reference. []
  30. Dennis Potter, ‘The great BBC balancing act’, Sunday Times, 19 February 1978. []
  31. Relegated to an endnote in concern about giving a spoiler to a 35-year-old series: the programme’s writer appears as a hitman in the guise of a version of WC Fields and kills the previously indestructible lead character with a single touch of his hand. []
  32. Though it was made on 21 and 22 February 1978. John Izod, Karl Magee, Kathryn Hannan and Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard, Lindsay Anderson: Cinema Authorship (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), p. 191. Subsequently referred to as Izod et al, Lindsay Anderson. []
  33. Anderson found it “disappointing that critics who spend so much of their time bemoaning the lack of experiment and innovation on television should rush so enthusiastically to club to death a piece which, at the very least, showed a great deal of innovative daring.” Lindsay Anderson, letter to Michael Grade, 18 July 1979, quoted in Izod et al, p. 198. Perhaps my subsequent description of Anderson’s “Brechtian” approach is less accurate a description than satirical, surreal and like Bunuel – ibid, p. 199. []
  34. Julian Barnes, ‘Land of Lost Content’, New Statesman, 2 February 1979, p. 159. Quoted in Izod et al, p. 196. []
  35. “Anderson had no high regard for television reviewers in the press, most of whom seemed to him to have an extraordinary disregard of the work they commented on.” Izod et al, p. 195. Izod et al, drawing on Erik Hedling’s work, place hostility to Anderson in the context of standards of television reviewing. This is well done, and readers of Lindsay Anderson might want to update it with reference to Phil Norman’s excellent post on television reviewers here, although I don’t necessarily agree with the specifics of every Old Crowd review that Lindsay Anderson gives as evidence. Clive James’s review of The Old Crowd draws the response that Clive James ‘showcased himself’ rather than write on his topic. Potter’s review of James’s Visions Before Midnight describes his Observer reviews as “stunning” and finds “extremely moving” James’s statement that “Television is for everybody. It follows that a television critic, at his best, is everybody too – he must enjoy diversity without being eclectic and stay receptive without being gulled.” We might playfully consider the response of Anderson – previously a film critic – to Potter’s statement that “Those who get bitten by a critic’s vulpine fangs almost always cry out, in the agony of their little death, for the salve of “constructive criticism” with which to bind up their torn flesh. James rightly dismisses this standard ploy as ‘the eternal plea of the kitsch-merchant’.” Dennis Potter, ‘Glop’, 22 April 1977, p. 535. Given that Anderson once called James “the thinking man’s Rolf Harris”, we can only speculate – Anderson, letter to Jeremy Isaacs, 18 July 1979, quoted in Izod et al, n91, p. 205. If Anderson was more aware of television drama than he indicated in interviews, he may have shared Potter’s concern (in relation to Gangsters) with types and effectivity of non-naturalistic forms – the “quality of response” I talk about in the next paragraph. []
  36. John Cook, Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen Second Edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), p. 144. []
  37. Potter, introduction to script, p. 148. Or, as he put it elsewhere, a Robin Day and pinging spittoon choice. []
  38. Loach noted that “we were following the news so we tried to work in the style of World in Action […] so that people didn’t think ‘we’ve had the facts and now we will have the fiction’ but rather ‘we’ve had the facts – now here’s some more facts with a different point of view'” – John Hill, ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff’, in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance, Trowbridge: Flicks Books, p. 160). If “texts do their work in contexts”, drama-documentary “occupied a progressive role” not only because it “introduced into the discourses of television a repressed political, social discourse”, but because it might in turn shape the audience’s “scepticism of the other representations which television offers” – John Caughie, ‘Progressive Television and Documentary Drama’, Screen, Volume 21, Number 3, pp. 33-34. There’s more on this in Dave Rolinson, ‘Small Screens and Big Voices: Televisual Social Realism and the Popular’, in David Tucker (ed), British Social Realism in the Arts since 1940 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). []
  39. Certainly there’s something about the transitions between songs and “reality” in Pennies from Heaven that is jolting above and beyond the usual reference points of “non-naturalism”. There are interesting reasons and possible effects of Potter wanting to do the hospital scenes in The Singing Detective in studio on video, in the context of what others in the industry were saying about, and doing with, studio at that time. Potter talked about wanting those scenes in the studio because he wanted them in what was still the dominant language of television naturalism, the language with which audiences were familiar. []
  40. Jason Griffiths’ paper on the day included audio recordings of Potter’s family at home in the 1960s, a lovely underlining of the need to engage with the everyday. The day showed that Potter can be just as much a part of new methods of television scholarship as he was of the old ones. Indeed, if the first part of the day seemed to be likely to include textual analysis from experienced Potter scholars, speakers like Glen Creeber were keen to place their analysis in relation to their personal responses and experiences as viewers (seamlessly slotting in alongside John Belcher’s hugely entertaining talk on growing up in the Forest in the 1950s, a last-minute replacement paper that I think actually ended up being pretty much central to the day). This is just one of the ways in which the presence of locals improved the event, as well as making for such a lovely, friendly day. The presence of brass band and other music wafting into the marquee from a 1950s nostalgia event held the same day only added to this sense of heritage; as speakers commented, it was ‘Potteresque’. []
  41. A few years later, reviewing the Arena documentary ‘When Is A Play Not A Play?’ about drama documentary after the banning of Scum, Potter observed Alasdair Milne’s comment that such productions are worrying when the “labelling goes wrong”, and thought “his words splendidly (and appropriately) convey the vocabulary and the attitudes of a man stocking up the supermarket shelves.” Dennis Potter, ‘The easy way to spot Brand X’, Sunday Times, 23 April 1978. []
  42. Dennis Potter, ‘The Cup that cheers – and also inebriates’, Sunday Times, 14 May 1978. A week earlier, another enduring light entertainment personality had drawn Potter’s eye: “There is a manic streak of delicious self-loathing in the English which makes us respond to such aggression [in Scorpion Tales] and rudeness in a fictional character, and on […The Generation Game] I was able to see for the first time why Bruce Forsyth (the most unlikely of all fictional characters) is so popular when he suddenly bared his teeth at the audience and gave them a look of utter contempt.” – ‘A whiff of sulphur’, Sunday Times, 7 May 1978. []