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Dennis Potter - Binge Watch

A couple of weeks ago I started reading The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-1994, a collection of writing by Dennis Potter.  I'm not sure why I was so keen to read this book since I’ve hardly watched any Dennis Potter, but I do remember his interviews and always thought he was rather good company.  The book does not disappoint.  It does however, unsurprisingly, make reference to his various bits of TV work and I realised I should do the right thing and get up to speed.

To this end I bought the box set The Essential Dennis Potter which includes all the most obvious works - but I decided to be perverse (as seems appropriate) and start with some less celebrated work.  Thankfully the BBC has done us all a great service by releasing many of Potter’s plays and serials digitally here.  I love this because, while some things are clearly too niche to be released on DVD, at least this stops them moldering in the archives and Auntie Beeb gets to make a few extra bob too.  Everyone’s happy.

I started off with Traitor, a play I’ve been curious about for years.

This play was inspired by Kim Philby, a British double agent who handed secrets to the Russian government and, when he got caught out, then defected to Russia where he remained until he died. The entire play takes place in the Russian apartment of Adrian Harris, a spy who has defected. He is being interviewed by a group of newspaper journalists asking him to justify his behaviour. 

Throughout we see various flashbacks that may explain how Harris has arrived where he is. While it is partly a story about spying and betrayal it's also about Britishness and Class. As one of the journalists asks him, why would a comfortably off upper class gentleman decide he'd rather live in the austerity of Soviet Russia?  Harris struggles to tell us but the flashbacks we see to his youth suggest that his beliefs are not so alien or inexplicable. 

The play is dizzying as we spiral downwards into Harris' despair and confusion. As a lover of British comedy Le Mesurier is a very familiar presence to me: the upper class authority figure, the well meaning patrician face of the establishment. Here he is a very different character but still playing to his strengths; he is absolutely brilliant. So brilliant that it makes me sad that he didn't play more straight roles. 

Of all of the Potter plays I saw this week this is the one that keeps replaying in my mind. I see Le Mesurier gripping his whiskey tumbler struggling to answer questions from three incredulous inquisitors. Strong stuff. 

Both of these semi-autobiographical plays were shown on following weeks in 1965. Firstly Stand Up covers a lot of ground in a short space of time, so clearly Potter had not yet learnt to pace himself.  But he did come back to this and cannibalise it for ideas later on (from the plays I watched this week I could point to Blue Remembered Hills and Traitor alone).  It can really be split into two parts: his struggle with becoming “classless" after leaving his working class mining town to go to Oxford, and a key incident in his childhood that clearly left him with a lingering sense of shame (and which turns up a couple of times in The Art of Invective too).  The former is interesting but particular to Potter, however the latter is something everyone can relate to and feels like it must have been a breakthrough moment for Potter as a screenwriter.

Vote, Vote, Vote is about the time Potter stood as Labour Party candidate in a safe Tory seat.  Apparently Potter was so disillusioned by the end of his campaign that he couldn’t even summon the energy to vote for himself.  Right from the start we are dropped into what is a miserable grind, and Nigel’s cynical agent speaks straight to camera about the home truths of political campaigning - it doesn’t look glamorous and it’s less glamorous than it looks.  In the end Nigel is crushed between conceding some idealogical ground to the electorate in order to attract votes, and the lofty, leftier-than-thou, idealism of the party membership.  At one point a party member says she would rather get no votes at all than give up her socialist principles.  A few years ago I would’ve thought that a very fanciful bit of dialogue but these days it’s the common chorus of the constituency Labour Party (yes comrade I sympathise, but the wilderness is no place for socialism).  It’s remarkable that a play like this can seem so current today but it really resonates.  The only thing that lets it down are some angry young mannerisms that were in vogue at the time.

From here I then went to a much more well known play: Blue Remembered Hills. It’s reputation is richly deserved although I feel I can’t say much about it without spoiling it.  In short it is Potter’s childhood memories of the Forest of Dean in war time but played out by adult actors.  The cast is brilliant and the performances faultless.  Most of all, such a simple idea works brilliantly.  At first the actors appear to be behaving childishly but before long we realise that they are adults being their true selves.  It is disturbing, creepy and funny, like looking into the monkey house in the zoo and realising that we have not changed so much as we like to think.

It had all been going so well so I then decided to watch Blackeyes.  This 4 part serial was famously a disaster at the time. This was Potter’s follow up to his greatest commercial success and was perhaps an unwise move on several fronts.  Yes, the press were deeply unfair, but this was too complex and flawed a concept to throw at the public after a massive success.

The central strand is the story of a model who calls herself Blackeyes and how she is sexually exploited by men. To one side of this is a second strand which is the story of how the novel about Blackeyes was written, its author and the woman he stole her story from. And then there is the third strand, the narrator, undermining and mocking everything.  This narration is voiced by Dennis Potter himself, writer and director of this series and author of the novel it is based upon. I wonder if that means something?

Focusing on sexual exploitation of women is a brilliant idea on television because television  sexually exploits women all the time, often while simultaneously tut tutting about it. It is  common that rape scenes are filmed to be sexually titilating, and then we get to cheer when the horrible rapist is killed at the end. The joy of double standards. Throughout Blackeyes it is clear that Potter is struggling with the way he manipulates his female characters as well as the actors that portray them, treating them like puppets for his own enjoyment, questioning his motives. He is showing the exploitation because his motives are pure but then realises that maybe his motivations are not pure at all and he is also an exploiter of women. 

Unfortunately once you understand this premise then everything else is repetition of the idea. There is not much of a plot. Is it a murder mystery? A revenge fantasy? A whowroteit (rather than a whodunnit)? All of these are mooted but none gain much traction. There are no real characters. Do I like any of these characters? No. Do I feel sorry for any of them? No. Am I given any reason to care? No. Do I hate any of them enough to hope I might get to see their downfall?  Sadly no. 

Without plot or character all you’re left with is chin-stroking about female exploitation and while worthy it just seems dramatically inert on it’s own. 

So what we get is the endless humiliation of Blackeyes. At one point a man attempts to rape Blackeyes and she screams so much and for so long that a group of men and women wearily and reluctantly enter the room. Blackeyes protests that she is not a prostitute. There is a brief pause and then the room erupts in loud derisive laughter for what feels like five minutes. Is this too 'on the nose'? It doesn’t make for good satire. 

Which then brings me to the next problem. Every man (with one exception) snarls and snears. All the time. Even the narrator. 

Ultimately this nihilistic thrashing away is exhausting. Every scene goes nowhere - it only serves to hammer in the same nail with the heel of an old boot. My tired old brain couldnt take the dull, thudding noise after a while. And then to stretch such tedium over four episodes is quite frankly taking the piss - two episodes would've been better, a single 90 minute movie would've been ideal. 

A side note: Traitor and Blackeyes both have a camera man grumbling about walking up stairs to take pictures in someones apartment. I wonder why?

Because of Blackeyes I felt I should see it's first incarnation: Double Dare

A scriptwriter who has been unwell for a year and has suffered writers block meets an actress at a hotel bar in the hopes of finding inspiration. He has a vague idea of a story that would require the actress to play a prostitute, and wouldn't you know it, there just happens to be a prostitute meeting her client right there in the bar. She looks an awful lot like the actress. At various times the scriptwriter is aware of what will happen before it does. It appears he is writing events and not just living them.

We know that the scriptwriter is reaching out from the page, through the actor and talking to us directly but the lines are blurred.  At one point Potter’s character is incredulous that the actress would do a highly suggestive commercial for a chocolate bar but then clearly has no issue having the same actress doing a sex scene in the very play we are watching.  Is Potter manipulating the actress for sexual kicks? Is he manipulating her in his play and in real life? Does he want to sleep with her? 

Knowing that the entire play was inspired by Kika Markham (the actress playing both leads in this play) and Dennis Potter meeting in a hotel bar and seeing a prostitute and her client does give the play an extra frisson. What is real and imagined?  Is Potter really acting out a fantasy? Potter and Kika, sitting in a tree, script R I T I N G. The fact that the viewer doesn't know about this additional layer if they've come to it cold is I guess what lead to Blackeyes and it’s multilayered commentaries. 

There is a thing about this play I struggle to get over and that is the idea that female sexuality is something that is sacrosanct and pure.  I’m sorry but I just don’t think that an actress getting her kit off is that big a deal as long as she’s comfortable to do so, regardless of it’s at the behest of a man or a woman.  Potter’s hand wringing over it just seems to be a bit overwrought.  Sorry to be all capitalistic about it but I would be more worried his female actors got paid the same as their male equivalents for the same sort of work.

But I’m being a bit churlish. This play could not be any more seventies and it should be seen in that cultural context - at least Potter has the decency to think about this stuff and make it the central issue. In 1972 feminism was still screaming in its crib and I don't imagine too many TV screenwriters were listening. 

A side note: there is a moment in Double Dare where we see the actress in an advert for what is clearly a Flake but being the non-commercial BBC, and seeing as Cadburys were unlikely to give permission for use of their brand, it becomes the very similar Fraggie bar.  Intriguingly the Fraggie bar also appears in Blackeyes.

Anyway, Double Dare is a better use of your time than Blackeyes not only because of its succinctness but because it's a much richer experience with never a dull moment or wasted scene. 


And here we have a play that's just as weird as all the others but rather more self contained. 

The story starts with a familiar scene of a middle aged suburban couple where love died long ago and there is nothing left to say. After hubby goes to work (to somewhere remarkably like Reggie Perrin's Sunshine Desserts) the wife suddenly has a mysterious visitor - why it's Tim Curry looking all wide eyed and crazy. This predatory lunatic has some secrets and home truths to share. 

Schmoedipus is madness on stilts, and creeps like a millipede.  It’s barking mad, unsettling and absolutely top notch.

Part of Potter’s obsession here is with people reliving their youth - inititally shown with the husband’s model railway which he pretends is a serious adult interest. What he would have made of adults today with graphic novels, Star Wars collectibles and fizzy pop one can only wonder.

Finally, in a desperate effort to tie this up in a neat little bow, how about I list the serials/plays in the order I would recommend them:
  • Traitor 
  • Blue Remebered Hills
  • Vote, Vote Vote for Nigel Barton
  • Schmoedipus 
  • Double Dare
  • Stand Up Nigel Barton
  • (Almost anything else*)
  • Blackeyes 
* While reading The Art of Invective I was delighted to find the following and you can see the famous clip he refers to here:
"But more delight came in Parkinson (BBC1), in which mine host –his nervous fidgeting and fawning long since flattened into weary ease –played the perfect straight man to a puppet emu. This horrible bird comes menacingly alive on the end of Rod Hull’s arm. It has bright blue feathers, a yellow beak which curls into a snarl, long loose legs and eyes which Angela Rippon keeps for news of the pound sterling. I thought Parkinson was overdoing it more than a bit when he greeted this bizarre creature with such an uneasy simper, and I scribbled the single word ‘fool!’ to help find a way through my brief, exclamatory notes. But there followed a scene so manically aggressive, so outrageously funny and so perfectly staged that I managed to cross out the premature abuse before collapsing into the longest and loudest laughs which the glum old screen has provided in months."

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