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Thinking outside the box – Potter the columnist

A new collection of non-fiction proves TV playwright was ever the political animal

29 November, 2016 — By Conrad Landin

Dennis Potter

TOO many people were getting to ask the same question. And it wasn’t because they wanted to polish my shoes for me. No, sir.” It’s for lines like this, spoken by PE Marlow in the 1986 TV serial The Singing Detective, that we remember Dennis Potter.

These days his 30 years of plays for the box seem strikingly dated. Not so much for their graininess or their failure to represent women as characters in their own right but in the climate of today’s unimaginative program­ming, something as innovative as Potter’s work would surely face short shrift.

Its political content would be worrying to TV executives; its political form would be suicidal. But the strongest message of a new volume of the playwright’s non-fiction is that, for Potter, it always was about politics. The book mainly consists of newspaper columns which evidently received a strong billing in their day.

But whether it is his reportage from the wreckage of Aberfan or his condemnation of the state of TV programming on religion, this aspect of Potter’s output is largely forgotten. The editors’ prescient selection of articles expose the injustice of this neglect.

“Why, oh why, is Labour so apologetic for its statement of radicalism?” Potter asks in a letter to the Mirror in 1959 – but his complaints over “the stale framework of Great Power idiocies – H-bombs and all” could have been aired just as easily last year.

For Potter, television provided the playwright with not only the power of a vastly bigger audience, but an autonomy absent from the stifling stage. The screenwriter could, and should, he says, “sit in judgment on oneself”, as Ibsen put it. The editors clearly believe Potter’s interest in Ibsen is worth dwelling on.

And the parallels between his own work and the Norwegian’s go beyond the explicit references. “If I am no poet, then I have nothing to lose,” Ibsen observed after his play Peer Gynt was pilloried. “I shall try my luck as a photog­rapher.”

He knew, of course, that photography is more than a duplication of the subject. And Potter is equally keen to warn that TV’s very ability to relay real-life drama so quickly can lead to a lazy perpetuation of pre-existing agendas.

“The technology which can show us murder within the hour and grief by the reel does not, and cannot, offer ‘explanations’,” he says. “We still need thought for that.”

Potter was convinced that TV offered “no extraneous social ritual”. But the television of Potter’s age seems social indeed when compared with the isolation in which we watch programmes now on NetFlix. True – modern communication gives us a pretence of community. But what’s the use in live-tweeting Orange is the New Black when everyone’s watching at different times?

“Don’t it always seem to go,” a wise woman once sang, “that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

• The Art of Invective, Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94. By Dennis Potter. Edited by Ian Greaves, David Rolinson and John Williams. Oberon, £24.99


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