Dennis Potter

From Academic Kids

Dennis Christopher George Potter (May 17, 1935June 7, 1994) was a controversial English dramatist who is best known for several widely acclaimed television dramas which mixed fantasy and reality, the personal and the social. He was particularly fond of using themes and images from popular culture.

Potter was born in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. His father was a coalminer in the Forest of Dean, a rural industrial area between Gloucester and Wales. During his National Service he learnt Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists. He won a scholarship to New College, Oxford, and started work for the BBC in the late 1950s. He also worked as a journalist and considered becoming a Labour MP - unsuccessfully standing for Hertfordshire East in the 1964 general election, and claiming that by the end of the campaign he was so disillusioned with party politics that he did not even vote for himself - before embarking on his career as a television playwright.

Potter's career as a playwright began conventionally enough with works like Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (The Wednesday Play, 1965), a BBC play about a parliamentary candidate, based on Potter's own experiences as such. He took a major step into controversy with Son of Man (The Wednesday Play, 1969), starring Colin Blakely, an alternative view of the last days of Jesus, which led to his being accused of blasphemy. His 1971 serial Casanova was criticised for its sexual content. Another play, Brimstone and Treacle (Play for Today, 1976), was withheld by the BBC for many years due to concerns over the depiction of the rape of a disabled woman. It was eventually broadcast on BBC2 in 1987, although a film version had been made, with Sting in the leading role, in 1982.

Potter's groundbreaking play, Blue Remembered Hills, was first shown on the BBC on 30th January 1979. There may have been a second showing soon afterwards, but there have been none since then, and the BBC video has long been unavailable. The actors were Helen Mirren, Janine Duvitski, Michael Elphick, Colin Jeavons, Colin Welland, John Bird, Robin Ellis. It was directed by Brian Gibson. The theme was 'the child is father of the man,' and it was a tragi-comedy about morality. It was groundbreaking because adult actors had to dress, think and act like children, while remaining obviously adult - and it worked. It is still remembered by the lucky generation who saw it.

Potter continued to make news as well as winning critical acclaim for drama serials such as Pennies From Heaven (1978) — which brought Bob Hoskins into the limelight — and The Singing Detective (1986), which did the same for Michael Gambon. Although he won many awards for his writing, Potter was generally regarded quizzically by the general viewing public. His TV serial, Blackeyes (1989, also a novel), a drama about a fashion model was widely regarded as self-indulgent. Potter's romantic comedy Lipstick on Your Collar (1993) was a return to more conventional themes.

During the early 1960s, Potter began to suffer from an acute form of psoriasis known as psoriatic arthropathy, a rare hereditary condition that affected his skin and caused arthritis in his joints. There is some indication that this disease is the one the Bible refers to as "leprosy" (which is not Hansen's disease). For the rest of his life, Potter was frequently in hospital, sometimes completely unable to move and in great pain. The disease eventually ruined his hands, reducing them to what he called "clubs". He had to learn to write by strapping a pen to his hand.

In February 1994, Potter learned that he had terminal cancer of the pancreas and liver. With typical sardonic humour, he named his cancer Rupert, after Rupert Murdoch, who represented so much that he hated about British society. He continued to care for his wife suffering from the breast cancer that was to kill her, and then he died a week after her.

Shortly before his death, Potter gave a memorable, if uncomfortable to witness, interview to Channel 4 (he had broken most of his ties with the BBC as a result of his disenchantment with Directors-General Michael Checkland and, especially, John Birt), in which he described his work and his determination to continue writing until the end. As he sipped on a morphine cocktail, he told interviewer Melvyn Bragg: "My only regret is if I die four pages too soon."

His final two serials, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus (two related stories, both starring Albert Finney as the same principal character, one set in the present and the other in the future), were aired posthumously in the United Kingdom as part of a rare collaboration between BBC2 and rival Channel 4.

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