When people are reminded of Dennis Potter, certain things will always bubble to the surface, archipelagic images insistent on being associated with the man: Michael Gambon’s hospitalised skin. Mary Whitehouse. The Devil raping a disabled girl. Gina Bellman’s eyes. Michael Elphick and Helen Mirren playing seven year-olds. Those clenched, seemingly unusable fists. “The whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be.” In the twenty years since Potter died, it could be argued that his works – as revered and universally recognised as they were during his lifetime – are now more objects of literary and academic reverence than public remembrance, which consists mostly of the snapshots listed above.
Another swift modern reassessment is often, “Wasn’t he rather sexist in his attitudes towards women?” The controversy surrounding Blackeyes, his 1989 BBC series, consists of a murky mix of Mary Whitehouse’s outrage at its sexual content; public knowledge that Potter was infatuated with actor Gina Bellman during production; and its brutal satire of women as sexual commodities. Of all of Potter’s major series, Blackeyes seemed to rattle the most cages, confirming for many the notion that he, the writer of such revered and beloved series as Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective, was just a dirty old man at heart. Contrived public/private personas of Potter became irrecoverably fluid: he was smeared or sneered-at in the tabloids, and he retreated from the attention of television work for some time, having been seemingly turned-upon by “the most important of the mass media”, as he himself claimed in a 1978 interview.
The only thing that seemed to extract Potter’s image from the mire of the Blackeyes controversy was, tragically, his very public terminal illness in 1994. His final interview with Melvyn Bragg is a mesmerizing experience: stimulating because you get to hear Potter’s new-found philosophies of acceptance and resolution, yet almost anatomical in the fact that you are watching a man die so quickly that he’s sipping neat morphine just to function.
Between 1989 and 1994, Potter had one more television series broadcast: Lipstick on Your Collar, a period critique of mass media consumption. The series is a clear recycling of several older plays and simply doesn’t carry the same impact of The Singing Detective or Pennies From Heaven, but the fact that Potter returns to certain themes repeatedly was always an important part of his writing process. Blackeyes was different by being set in contemporary London: his other series tended to occupy remembered versions of the 1920s, or 1940s onwards. Perhaps the contemporary setting of Blackeyes was the reason Potter was exposed to contemporary criticism: politically reactionary, and given the desperation of the (soon to be deposed) Thatcher regime, full of empty right-wing moralising. Although The Singing Detective was framed within contemporary Britain, most of the action takes place 40 years before, therefore Potter’s messages are atemporal; outside of time and therefore harder to pin-down and kick to death for being sexist.
But this returning to certain themes again and again – the wartime struggle in both the public and private arenas; obsession with the unobtainable woman; Al Bowlly; the Forest of Dean – never actually meant Potter was running out of ideas. Instead it showed how he chose to play the long game with his television series (his television plays were a different thing altogether; often one-off devices for him to flex new ideas.) Potter clearly had axes to grind, including the harrowing but cathartic release of certain childhood traumas inflicted upon him by others, and also concerns he possessed with his own character: his obsessiveness, and vitriolic bitternesses. His self-importance as a writer. His animalistic pursuit of the unobtainable woman. None of these themes could be manifested satisfactorily in one single play for one single time, and like the unquenchable powers of recollection and hindsight, they will keep coming back again and again, therefore you must address them.
Potter’s romantic obsessions with the actors Gina Bellman and Kika Markham are well documented. They read like some of his own scripts, specifically Double Dare and Blackeyes. But if Potter carried unhealthy fixations with his leading ladies, isn’t it better that he wrote it into the scripts – channelling his animalistic thoughts into art rather than acting on them? Writing was everything for Potter: exposure, embattlement, resolution. A lesser artist might have just emailed them a picture of his dick and have done with it.
It’s easy to forget that Blackeyes was a novel which was turned into a television series. It’s probably easy to forget that Potter even wrote novels, given his standing as a television writer. His first novel, Hide and Seek (1973) features several themes which he would revisit in The Singing Detective, and also one-off plays such as Double Dare to a certain degree.
Ostensibly, Hide and Seek is that most repeated of postmodern literature: the story of a character who knows, or suspects, they are in a story. Daniel Miller is undergoing psychiatric treatment: he believes that an omnipotent figure, “the Author”, dictates his every move, and nobody – not Dr. Hadley, nor his immature students – can understand his concerns:
“As far as Daniel was concerned they were still hanging their harps in the trees and weeping for Zion. In effect, they were objecting to the plot of the Book without even realizing the Book, let alone the Author, existed. They were fish who did not know about the sea.”
Daniel’s literary outlook gives him a poetic sense of perspective above and beyond the other characters. Only the Author (the occasional narrator) shares Daniel’s cultured perspective. Yet throughout the novel, the narrator insists on Daniel not sharing any personality tropes of his own; that this is not a biographical text. The many prostitutes Daniel has slept with is not an equal representation of the narrator’s own sordid personal experiences.
The real story of Hide and Seek, the supposed narrator’s actual life experiences, are skirted over repeatedly: instead Daniel Miller is subjected to the vicious tenderness of obsessively detailed memory, and the constant reassessment of actions committed by men:
“‘It wasn’t me,’ a man can say after some foul abomination such as hitting his wife or putting his penis in a prostitute’s dribbling mouth, ‘It wasn’t really me. I am not responsible.'”
The book offers a play on the themes of becoming outside oneself; how responsibility can often be explained-away as being down to some higher force than our conscious selves. The force changes shape also, as the years pass. In the scene where the young boy plays alone in the Forest of Dean, the boy becomes entranced within the beauty of nature, this “..place where the trees sang to each other in a secret tongue made for praise. The birds, bright and beautiful, dipped their wings exultantly in the lucid flow of air.” Like Daniel Miller, the boy understands the world around him not simply by experiencing it, but also via literacy and ingrained culture (“All things bright and beautiful..”)
But when a traumatic events happens to the boy, there is no obvious frame of reference to help him understand: the boy is suddenly approached by a middle-aged foreign man, who proceeds to sexually assault him. At first, the boy thinks the figure might be God – the trees and natural world around him are, after all, the holiest of things – therefore surely this figure appearing from nowhere must be a further aspect of Paradise. The scene is excruciating to read, portraying the rigid powers of recollection and the destabilization of trauma on both character and outlook. The sullying of Paradise is something Potter will later revisit in The Singing Detective (where the young Philip Marlowe witnesses his mother having sex with a strange man on the forest floor) and also the deadly turn of events taken by the children in Blue Remembered Hills. Potter’s focus is as much on innocence as it is biblical, where he effectively takes William Blake’s conflation of the spiritual (in Potter’s case, literary endeavour and poetic marvel) and the corporeal (traumatic, unbidden moments, often of violence and regret) to produce a single but faceted narrative on how a person’s life is effectively made up of several parallel, occasionally overlapping strands of perception, rather than just a series of events which occur, then end, then occur, then end.
The reader is taken further into the ‘past’ of an individual, when they are lead into the dank room where a young Guyanan prostitute serves her client whilst her infant child lies sleeping in the corner. At first, the scene is painted in Gothic imagery:
“The Abyssinian maid groped at the wall and switched on the light. The merchant, the client, has willingly stopped into the dungeon of lust.”
But then the same scene is ‘rewritten’, uttered slightly differently each time, as if the memory of an event is being fought until it is reshaped and can be digested (or undigested) quickly, depending on the narrator’s intent. It’s only when the baby in the corner becomes apparent in the gloom of the cell that the scene becomes focalised correctly: it is not about the sin of Man, it is not about the subjugation of women (well, it is); it is about the future of this child, and what the child sees in that room night after night.
For Potter, scenes such as the assault in the forest and the baby in the prostitute’s room were only able to be addressed via the form of the novel. The novel offers his take on the sordid underworld of Paradise and innocence more leeway into the gothic and the gruesome. Even Brimstone and Treacle, the story of the Devil charming his way into the lives of a middle-aged couple in order to rape their severely disabled daughter, does not carry the same horror as Hide and Seek. Brimstone and Treacle relies on the humanity gained from the actors’ performances to convey the nuances of despair, palpably British awkwardness, and, ultimately, relief: Potter’s dialogue and description alone are not designed to convey them. Hide and Seek depends entirely on the mid-way meeting formed from the text and readerly schema: how else can the author, and “the Author”, possibly succeed unless a work is read and digested?
“Coleridge said that Shakespeare was ‘miriadminded’, but the term can also be applied to its gifted originator, too. It is this glistening miriad of impressions, moods, intuitions, intimiations, dreams and visitations which I am seeking now to catch in these orderly lines of print.”
Hide and Seek gives evidence to the fact that Dennis Potter’s television series were born from literature first, in many ways. Where it is perhaps initially easier for a novel to make huge analeptic and proleptic dives in narrative than it might a television script, Potter proves that both media can portray it, but in differing ways. Hide and Seek is presented like a novel and a novel only, but the destabilising shifts in narrative viewpoint offer a glimpse into his televisual long game to come, particularly as a medium which was becoming increasingly consumed by mass audiences (unlike the novel, which was arguably moving the other way in popularity.) The novel provides evidence of the themes and strengths which would go on to define Dennis Potter as a playwrite, and someone who, until the end, had a firm artistic grasp of the media he chose to master.