It’s 25 years since Dennis Potter’s masterpiece, The Singing Detective, premiered on the BBC. This vintage interview from 1986 shows Dirty Dennis to be in fine fettle...
It’s 1986 and Blitz Magazine has sent me to interview Dennis Potter in his Central London flat. At this time, Potter is at the dizzying peak of his creative powers. The Singing Detective is soon to air and will cement his reputation for all time. I’d been warned by his own publicist that Potter could be a fairly combative individual, and so it proved. I’ve barely introduced myself before he starts stirring it up.
“Are you a Welshman?” he demands.
I confirm it is so.
“I hate the Welsh,” he says, “every last one of the fuckers. A sly lot, the Welsh. Dirty bastards. Coming from Berry Hill in the Forest of Dean I was practically born on the Welsh borders. I used to play rugby with the Welsh lads and I still have tender ears from being bitten in scrums. If they’d told me they were sending a Welshman, I’d have stayed out of London altogether. I notice you are fairly young. Now, if there’s one thing I hate more than the Welsh, it’s the young. I hate young people with a passion. I wish them all ill. People under the age of forty don’t see anything. Even if they do, they don’t really know what they are seeing.”
A few minutes went by and Potter was in scintillating form, perfectly formed quotes effortlessly tumbling out of him like coins from a change dispenser that didn’t know when to stop.Then the photographer turned up, something of a surprise to both myself and Potter as neither of us were expecting photos to be taken. Ignoring my gentle suggestion to return when the interview was finished, the overconfident young man simply knuckled down to business. And how. While I continued in my attempts to interview the great man, the photographer would intermittently bark out inane questions like, “Wotcher reckon to Neil Kinnock then, Den?” Potter, who was enduring one of his crippling bouts of psoriatic arthropathy and in considerable pain, found himself being directed like a willowy young model on her first shoot. “Let’s get you out on the balcony here, Den, so you can throw a few shapes for the lens. Any chance of a costume change? No offence, matey, but you look like a dosser. Get yerself into a nice suit, that would be my advice.” You could have cut the atmosphere with a cricket stump. Inevitably something had to give and I soon found myself engaged in a war of words with the cocky young upstart of a lensman, stopping just short of punching him straight up the bracket. Meanwhile, Potter seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.
Fast-forward 12 months and Faber send me a proof copy of Potter’s new novel, Blackeyes. Halfway through he introduces a character called Mark Wilsher, a journalist with style magazine Kritz who is sent along to interview a cantankerous old writer and manages to get into a squabble with an uncompromising photographer. “Mark was dressed on the cutting edge of young male fashion,” Potter witheringly writes. “He regarded himself as a New Journalist. Older members of the same disreputable pseudo-profession would have vented their contempt in roughly similar terms by calling him a new kind of journalist, without the capitals.” I read on with a mounting sense of bewildered intrigue as Potter described an insufferably smug hack who communicated in babbling streams of pretentious media jargon without suggesting for a moment that he had the faintest clue what he was on about.
Observing the fictional version of myself graduate from the page to the small screen, as Blackeyes became an uncelebrated BBC series, my feelings were mixed. On the one hand, I’d become a character in a Dennis Potter story which is, I suppose, some kind of vague achievement. On the other, I’d become a character in a very minor Potter work in which the author’s shallow, ham-fisted treatment of male sexual desire saw him humiliatingly reduced in tabloidese to “Dirty Den” and quite possibly harkened his steep creative decline through the 90s. I might have done better for myself. Had my Dennis Potter moment occurred a year earlier, I might have won a walk-on part in The Singing Detective, possibly one involving a scene in which the imaginary version of myself receives a sponge bath from the nurse, played by Joanne Whalley. Thus, I have to content myself with the thought that being depicted in Potter’s lamest work as a wanker in a bad suit with a gift for talking hogwash is as good as it’s ever going to get.
Potter was in scintillating form, perfectly formed quotes effortlessly tumbling out of him like coins from a change dispenser that didn’t know when to stop
Potter lights up the first of many cigarettes, leans forward and fixes me with a cold stare.
“I’ll tell you what the trouble with the world is,” he says. “It’s the next word. You can usually predict what politicians, businessmen and ironmongers are going to say. If they would only think about their next word, the world would be an infinitely better place. But I’m not so close to the cuckoo-house that I can believe this will change. But I think it’s the duty of a writer to use words with care because nobody else does.
“The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouths they’ve been in. That said, I love words as vehicles. Because of my illness I’m unable to type. It’s just too painful. But there’s a blessing in that because I have to use a pencil. And I love the feel of it. I love making the curl of the comma, the cross of the ‘t’, the shape of the ‘w’.”
Is writing a need for you?
“Of course it fucking well is. You see, that’s the sort of question I would expect a young person to ask. It’s a question that answers itself. Think of someone playing the piano, if your imagination stretches that far. They start as a child, take all those exercises, do all that practice. When they’ve got it, they’re not going to piss on it, are they? They’re going to sit at that piano every day and play. I’m no different. Every day I sit down and write, unless circumstances are so physically impossible. It’s not expressing something and having done with it. The need to express is coaxial with the need to share. As human beings we aren’t, in the last resort, able to live in total isolation. We are social animals and we can walk about full of love (in its proper sense), pity, mercy, the awe of what it’s like to be a human being, knowing that it’s going to be taken away anyhow. Therefore the moments have to be celebrated in an almost religious sense. Unless you have that, I don’t think you’re capable of producing considerable art, better art. You’re simply a journeyman wordsmith. There’s plenty of those and there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be. It’s a matter of using words – the materials of everyday discourse – in the way you would use a prayer or a psalm. It should be the same motive: celebration. In terms of my own work, it might seem bleak and pessimistic at times. But it’s still a celebration. With words, it’s a way of looking at the world that no other structure allows you. The magic of fairy tales and suchlike is that they help you to grow and to know that there are these holes in all that suffocating materiality in which the imagination can thrive. Words are like the chariots of imagination and they’re the same words you use in a shopping-list.”
Potter was born in 1935, the son of a coal miner. As he explains, story telling always came naturally to him. “Oh yes. At primary school, the teacher would say, “Dennis, come to the front of the class and tell a story. From the age of six I was identified as one who could do that. Being something of a show-off, I always looked forward to being asked.”
At an early age, he felt the burden of convention and longed for something different, something more. “That was a big pull for me. There were all these things you couldn’t do because of all the conventions encircling you. There was the father-son consideration. There was this thing called Englishness and the fact that I was dragged up by the examination system to scorn some of those things. You were led to believe that the sole purpose of life is to pass exams and go to Oxford. Then I realized I didn’t want all that.
“Because someone is inarticulate or uneducated it doesn’t mean to say that they don’t feel exactly the same things as we do. One of the dreadful assumptions of class-based culture is that somebody who clearly behaves and looks like a yob does not feel what we feel when the wind gets in our hair or feel something when they see a particular person. Many inarticulate people are extremely embarrassed by the very idea of saying something tender. Therefore they turn the tenderness into a sort of parody in order to avoid the embarrassment of expressing it. One of the problems facing the dramatist, a playwright in particular, is to show that feeling, education and articulacy have nothing to do with each other. Sometimes you can be articulate in order to be better able to mask what you feel.”
“Every day I sit down and write, unless circumstances are so physically impossible. It’s not expressing something and having done with it. The need to express is coaxial with the need to share.”
Potter spent his adolescence in Hammersmith and won a place at New College, Oxford. In his third year he finished his debut novel, The Glittering Coffin. He worked as a general trainee at the BBC and as a leader writer for the Daily Herald before moving properly into television, writing scripts for That Was The Week That Was, a weekly satirical review. In 1964 he stood as a Labour candidate in the General Election, but in a safe Tory seat. It would be his final flirtation with party politics.
His first play, The Confidence Course, was screened in February 1965, the start of a highly eventful and often controversial career in TV drama.
“At eighteen,” he recalls, “my ambitions were to be a politician or an inside-right for Fulham FC. I particularly wanted to be a footballer. I wanted to be like The Maestro, Johnny Haynes. But I was only ever good in my imagination. When I entered the world of television drama, it was at a time when there was an enormous respect for authenticity. Even worse than that was the widespread assumption that television drama was a derivative form, a lesser form of theatre. Only theatre seemed to matter. In 1964, they even used to introduce their major play of the week with parting theatre curtains. What I was attempting to do was to step out of the narrative convention, to remind people that was they were seeing was a fiction, as opposed to that continual imperative of television to tell you that what you’re seeing is actually there, that what you’re looking at is the real world. At this time they called television ‘the window on the world’. It isn’t that at all, of course. It’s what you see when you look out of the window, what you make your eyes see.”
Throughout the 60s his reputation grew with every TV play, including such works as Stand Up Nigel Barton, Emergency Ward 9, A Beast With Two Backs and Moonlight On The Highway. Along with the likes of John Mortimer, John Hopkins and John Osborne, he emerged as a new kind of playwright, rising at a time when the notion of “naturalism” in TV drama was beginning to be questioned, when daring innovations were the order of the day. The Potter style became easily identifiable but impossible to classify. “I’m just concerned with interior drama,” he once said, “rather than external realities.”
These days he regards himself as a writer, pure and simple, rather than just a television dramatist. The 70s and 80s brought him widespread public and critical acclaim and saw him move into the world of cinema with big-screen versions of Pennies From Heaven, Brimstone And Treacle, Dreamchild and his adaptation of Gorky Park. “If you are a writer,” he says, “the possible forms for television are exactly the same for cinema, given the added fact that television is obviously domestically received and it’s flowing all the time. Now, this can be a weakness or a strength. You don’t have to dress up. You don’t need to go out. You don’t have to pretend that you like something because the rest of the audience happens to like it. With television, you have to realize the possibilities given the great river of sludge. There’s these little islands. You try to reach one and stand on it. That’s true of our culture in general. You have to rise above the shit.
“Basically, in the film industry, you simply cannot do what you want to do. It’s a constant fight, very exhausting to deal with, infuriating at times. With Brimstone, as with Pennies before it, the play was so much better than the film. With cinema, the constraints are different because, firstly, they are completely commercial, and second, the people who exercise that commercial power are usually complete charlatans, they really are. You would be amazed at how many of the top positions inn the movie industry are occupied by complete fucking idiots.
“Whatever the medium, however, it’s emotion I’m interested in, not emotionalism, which implies a false use of feelings. The only fundamental difference between good and bad writing, good and bad art is the authenticity – not its relation to supposed actual fact, but to the emotion, conviction, feeling and sense of truth of the person who created it. Since we are all human beings together, despite appearances, there is sufficient authenticity to be grasped by the audience. They know whether it’s true or not. You get this feeling from bad art. It can be OK but it can’t last because, as soon as you’ve had your cheap buzz, the emotion has evaporated. It gives you nothing apart from that initial kick.”
With the arrival of the photographer, tension fills the room like a bad musk. But Potter seems unperturbed. In fact he appears to be enjoying the conflict playing out in his own living room. The more the temperature rises, the more he seems to relax. He becomes far less antagonistic. As the conversation turns to his most famous work, Pennies From Heaven, he suggests that he might even turn friendly, even going so far as to offer me a Rich Tea biscuit from his plate.
“Whatever the medium, however, it’s emotion I’m interested in, not emotionalism, which implies a false use of feelings. The only fundamental difference between good and bad writing, good and bad art is the authenticity”
In Pennies From Heaven, Bob Hoskins played sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker whose constant lament rang, “Why can’t life be more like the songs?” With Brechtian use of period dance music – Harry Roy, Ray Noble and the mighty Al Bowlly – Hoskins took the role by the scruff of the neck and made sure it was unforgettable. Against a quaint backdrop of Thirties England, Parker escapes his humdrum everyday existence only to find that he cannot escape from himself.
“Parker is not a straightforward character,” Potter explains. “He’s chirpily optimistic but also deeply frustrated. He’s not without charm but, all the way through the serial, he’s screaming inside. He prefers fantasy to reality. He can’t stop telling lies, being deceitful. Basically he’s a coward. His compulsion is to seek something better than the world around him. He is using those songs like the psalmist would use his psalms. They are saying, ‘this world is shimmering with otherness, if only everybody could see it.’ Parker can see it but he’s unable to articulate it. The songs express the yearning that he cannot express.
“It’s a dark play in many ways. But, behind it all, beyond his terrible loneliness, Parker wants the next minute to be so much brighter, so much clearer, more vivid, full of richer emotions. The only way he can get to that place is through these cheap songs which send him the message that the world could be other than what it is.”
Potter’s other undisputed 70s masterpiece, Blue Remembered Hills, used seven adult actors to play the parts of children, a group of eight-year-olds passing time on a summer’s day in the middle of WW2. In a melting pot of childish wonder, together with all the small loyalties, deceits and cruelties, it builds to a terrifying climax where one of the group is trapped in a burning barn.
“I had no idea whether it could possibly work,” admits Potter. “Nobody who worked on it had any idea whether we could pull off the conceit of using adults to play children. There’s the opening scene when Colin Welland is running around pretending to be a jet fighter. I remember sitting at home, watching it in my living-room. There’s Welland’s big fat arse filling the screen and I’m thinking, ‘Is anyone going to buy this idea?’ Then, a few scenes in, I knew it was working, that the audience were seeing children, not grown-ups playing kids. Even so, it teeters on the brink of being ludicrous. But I had to go down that road. If I’d used children for the roles, it would have been twee, nostalgia as the enemy of feeling as it were. Instead, the adult bodies are used as magnifying glasses. It wasn’t a fond, indulgent memory of childhood. It reminded you of what being a child was really like and how much of it is still in you. There were all these adults letting it out. It had to work completely, otherwise it would have been a complete catastrophe. It worked but I’m sure there were two million people who switched off as soon as Colin Welland’s arse swept into view. I’m sure they thought, “Who’s this escaped lunatic?”. I’m sure the subtle metaphor was lost on a lot of viewers.”
Though I’d yet to see The Singing Detective at the time of meeting Potter, I had been sent a script. There was no doubt in my mind that this drama was in the league of Pennies From Heaven/Blue Remembered Hills. The six-part serial proved to be Potter at his most moving. The narrative counterpoints the life in a hospital ward of a writer (played by Michael Gambon) crippled by psoriatic arthritis with the plot of his own detective novel, reaching the point where fantasy and reality collide violently. More pained than Pennies but with equally large dollops of humour, it uses Potter’s frequent device of treating time in a multi-dimensional way so that past and present are considerably blurred.
Though I’d yet to see The Singing Detective at the time of meeting Potter, I had been sent a script. There was no doubt in my mind that this drama was in the league of Pennies From Heaven/Blue Remembered Hills.
“Think of the way that’s used,” says Potter. “The point is that we do that in our heads all the time. Some smell, some tune, some expression, the way a person walks…everything will remind you of something else you’ve had and lived through. Your mind is darting amongst what is in front of you – a man walking with a dog, the smell of meat from a butchers, an old lady’s hat, a small boy dropping an apple, the wind in your hair, snatches of a song heard through a bedroom window – and you are making connections with all that, setting off all kinds of emotions. All drama is so cumbersome compared to the agility of the mind to manipulate and control emotions, making sense of the vast complexity it is faced with at every moment. The more we remind ourselves of those two things – our complexity and the sovereignty within that complexity – the more likely we are to be free, no matter what the political system.
“With The Singing Detective, I’m aiming to employ the force of autobiography without being literally true. There’s various ways in which this is achieved, unlike Pennies, which was using one device to access the emotions. Although this one again uses songs, 40s material this time, it also uses the conventions of the pulp detective novel and the conventions of autobiography. Central to it all is the struggle of Marlow, the Michael Gambon character, who is humiliated and disfigured by his illness.
“He’s not a pleasant person. In fact he’s consumed with hatred. He believes in nothing. He is the ultimate cynic. He’s so battered by life that the only real thing he can cling to is his next cigarette or the next opportunity to make someone else recoil in extreme discomfort. Somehow he needs to throw off his cynicism in order to move towards the light. “Throughout, we begin to see the connections between what it is we fantasise about and what it is we actually are, more closely bonded than we sometimes think. The struggle to grow is not unlike conquering an illness. That illness is called mortality. The very fact we’re going to feel bereavement and that we’re going to suffer whether we like it or not. That’s not a pessimistic message if you understand the main point.”
For Potter, Marlow’s suffering and attempts to cope have special resonance. Since the early 60s he has suffered from the same illness as his character. It is only when he sharply warns the photographer to avoid shots of his hands that I notice that they are covered in unsightly lesions and bloody sores. Potter sees me observing and says, “I’ve just got over another bloody onslaught of the thing. It comes on every six months and it’s extraordinarily painful. My skin just goes mad, cracking and bleeding like crazy. I have to fight it head on. I just try to carry on working and refuse to accept that this wicked thing is going to completely imprison me. I’ve been on heavy medication since 1969 so I’m constantly poisoning myself. It comes on like clockwork now. I know the exact date it’s going to kick in. I can set my watch by it. In between these bouts I do my work. When it does arrive, I’m in too much agony to start anything completely new. I can only amend and adjust a work in progress. But it’s almost impossible to maintain a sitting position. At one point I feared I’d be unable to do up the buttons on my cardigan, let alone hold a pencil and write. The buttons upset me as much as the writing. With some effort, I can just about do both now.
“All drama is so cumbersome compared to the agility of the mind to manipulate and control emotions, making sense of the vast complexity it is faced with at every moment.”
“The Marlow character is dangerous territory for me because I’m getting close to the source of my own energies, passions, braveries or cowardices. Of course, a great deal of Dennis Potter goes into anything I write, but straight autobiography is a completely wretched form. There’s nobody so saintly that they can avoid pleading their case when they’re writing in that form. But it’s not the actual facts that are interesting. It’s the emotional force, the resonances that are felt and experienced over a lifetime.”
I mention the film director Lindsay Anderson who has recently taken a swipe at Potter in his introduction to Alan Bennett’s The Writer In Disguise. Hardly sparing Stoppard or Pinter either, Anderson writes that English intellectuals, “shrink from the abrasion of reality. They claim to find significance boring in order to disguise their fear of ideas. It’s a case of flattering their audience without disturbing them.”
Potter allows himself a chuckle.
“I’m surprised he says that. But I’m not offended in the least. If I wanted to flatter it would be a lot easier and I could do it a lot more quickly. It’s no problem to induce an audience to be on your side if you want that. I’m not out to surprise my audience or shock them. I don’t think about my audience in that sense. If they’re disturbed by my work, it’s only because I’m disturbed, or it’s simply part of the logic of what I’m attempting to convey through drama. To actually set out to disturb an audience is one of the sure signs of a charlatan, no doubt about that. It’s too easy to shock. Manufactured outrage is a detestable thing.
“In television drama you can be subversive simply by writing well. All good art is subversive by definition. I don’t mean that it induces people to smash windows or set things on fire. Good art reminds you of your uniqueness and the fullness of your feelings. Everything else is conspiring to tell you that you’re not special. It’s either selling you something or telling you how to think.
“I can’t generalize about my work, you see. To me, it just comes down to a way of looking at the world. With the next minute you are always breaking upon a shore that the waves haven’t touched before. The next minute is the only brand new thing in your life. Mostly you have to fill the next minute with 99.99% of the last minute, otherwise there’s complete chaos. With that 0.01% of something utterly new, that’s where the danger is, and that’s what I’m writing about. Even if I’m writing about the past, or if it’s still only dealing with the next moment. Maybe people think of me as a pessimist. But I’m not. I regard my work as optimistic. You see, my definition of an optimist is the man who is waiting in his prison cell to be executed at 9am the following morning in a part of the country where he knows that, just before dawn, the nightingale sings. He says, ‘I bet you the nightingale sings tonight.’ The point is that we’re all going to be executed in a way, but is the nightingale going to sing? Well, I believe that it will.
“You see, I’m proud to think of myself as a Puritan. In the sense that there are things about being a human being that are extraordinarily difficult to deal with unless you deal with them “cleanly”, and that’s certainly a Puritan word. By that, I mean that you don’t fuck people up for the satisfaction of your senses. Maybe that’s an exceptionally antique position to maintain, that fervour for believing in the care you show for other people. The decency in your response to other people should be the paramount one, which means having to say no when you sometimes want to say yes. Our only obligation, religiously if you like, is to be human.”
“In television drama you can be subversive simply by writing well. All good art is subversive by definition.”
The photographer is long gone and Potter appears to be tiring. He looks meaningfully at his watch and I suspect he’s about to ask me to leave. Instead he says, “Have I been hard on you?”
No more than I expected, I tell him.
He laughs. “I didn’t mean to be. Having said that, I do hate the fucking Welsh.”
For a few minutes we chat idly, mostly about football. “I do fancy Fulham for the Cup this year,” he says. “If that’s not a definition of optimism I don’t know what is.” I promise him I’ll send a copy of the magazine when it’s out.
“Oh, don’t bother. I know how these things work. An assessment in print is always going to be vulgar or wrong. I shan’t read your piece so you can do what you want. Be as rude about me as you like. I won’t be popping into my local newsagent to read what you’ve said about me. I’d feel slightly self-conscious saying, ‘Erm, do you have the latest copy of Blitz Magazine?’ It would be like one of those Punch cartoons.”
He sees me to the door. As I’m about to leave, he offers up one last thought.
“You know what’s important to me, Jon? It’s the fact that I wish to tell others what it’s like. It’s a need to empty myself before there’s no more emptying to do. Before I die, that is. I don’t have a choice in the matter. I have to empty out whatever is there and, of course, it’s endless. I’m addressing myself and others at the same time. If you write for decades and you never try to write shit, never try to pass something substandard off on people, that’s the best way of protecting whatever it is you need to empty yourself of. I hope I go to my grave knowing that I’ve gone through life and never sold myself short.”
After exchanging farewells, I’m halfway down the winding staircase when Potter calls after me.
“Thanks for not making it all painful. And fuck the Welsh!”
I can still hear him laughing as I make my way out onto the street, thinking about the next brighter moment.
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