Persons of Interest: Dennis Potter

A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Yesterday and today, as I read the fallout of MSNBC’s decision to demote Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann from their anchor duties for the 2008 General Election, I saw feminists hail it as a welcome kick out the door to two of television’s most popular and voluble misogynists. The United States’ “paper of record,” which I have demoted by not naming it, cites the following: “The McCain campaign has filed letters of complaint to the news division about its coverage and openly tied MSNBC to it. Tension between the network and the campaign hit an apex the day Mr. McCain announced Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.”

The paper made no mention of the fact that both Matthews and Olbermann tarred presidential candidate Hillary Clinton repeatedly over the course of her campaign with misogynistic language (maybe because the newspaper’s columnists did, too) and that the network refused to rein either of them in by demoting them despite repeated complaints from Senator Clinton’s campaign staff, Media Matters, and the National Organization for Women. Clearly, when Republican presidential candidates talk, major media listens. Don’t look for Sarah Palin to get the same treatment the former First Lady did at this newspaper or other major media outlets.

Upset about the further degradation of civic discourse as I used to know it, I suddenly found myself thinking about the last interview BBC writer Dennis Potter gave before his untimely death in 1994. This deeply intelligent, self-aware man brimming with appetites, ideas, nostalgia, and a clear-eyed understanding of social intercourse and the ways it can be twisted and degraded is best known around the world for his television series The Singing Detective, a brutal, inventive, compassionate look at a tormented soul that puts most television dramas to shame. I find it ironic that the demotion of two real misogynists by a cynical network with a political agenda was the type of act predicted by a man who was wrongly accused of being a misogynist for his sexually charged series Blackeyes, which sought to reveal how men, “the newest ruling class” according to Potter, use and coerce women as things. This comment and many others in these, his last public words, lift me out of the mire of media, politics, and commercial slop by which I feel assaulted on a daily basis.

Fortunately, a wonderful YouTube member from the UK whose moniker is matt7333 has made this entire interview available, along with other interviews of interest to film fans, including several with Orson Welles, Dustin Hoffman, and Alfred Hitchcock. Please patronize his offerings. The star in the crown, to my mind, is Without Walls: An Interview with Dennis Potter. Here it is in eight parts, which run a total of 74 minutes. Watching any part for however long you can is worth the time. Watching them uninterrupted just might change your life.

A reasonably priced Region 2 DVD collection called The Essential Dennis Potter is available at MovieMail. It includes The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven, Casanova, Brimstone & Treacle, Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton/Stand Up Nigel Barton, Blue Remembered Hills, and The Mayor of Casterbridge.

  • Rod spoke:
    9th/09/2008 to 9:00 pm

    Having viewed it at the time, and having been a Potter watcher as a lad, I testify the Bragg/Potter interview is one of the great moments of television, hands down.
    Potter also wrote one of my favorite films of the ’80s, Michael Apted’s Gorky Park, a film that was sold as the rare policer set in Soviet-era Moscow, but was filled with Potter’s trademark perversity, and ultimately became far more subversive towards the thriller genre than to Russian authoritarianism.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/09/2008 to 9:31 pm

    I remember seeing The Singing Detective for the first time and feeling as though I had been jolted by a thunderbolt. I was simply not used to such honesty and brutality mixed with a willful escape that skewers all notions of escapism in entertainment.
    I saw this interview about 5 years ago on video, which, amazingly, my local library had in its collection. I watched it 3 times in a row, crying and smiling each time. Watching it again today, I feel that same sense of awe and gratitude that a man like Potter was among us when I was alive to absorb his work. Listening to his bone-deep humanity makes me hope that perhaps his integrity has not been lost to others of his species.
    I haven’t seen Gorky Park in many years, but I’m moved now to rent it and revisit another Potter production. Thanks, Rod, for sharing this enthusiasm that it seems few people know about these days.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    10th/09/2008 to 6:36 am

    That was a great interview. It’s been a while since seeing Gorky Park or The Singing Detective but being a sci-fi fan Cold Lazarus is fresher although I can’t be sure at this point (even that’s been years) if I saw the original or some sci-fi channel type remake. I do recall not liking it very much but either way, it’s nothing against Potter, he just happened to reach the end of his career at a lackluster period in futurist thinking when implanted memories and virtual reality (Strange Days, Disclosure, Total Recall) were all the rage, even if now they remind us a bit of the flying cars and ray guns of the fifties. His ideas were still well developed and he elaborates on them beautifully in the interview.
    And what a great rambler he is. He draws you in with his winding discourse on life and art and tv and death all told in that polite, mellow yet quietly resonant voice. And the show itself – I wish more interview shows were like this where the subject is allowed to speak. I always joke that the person Charlie Rose is interviewing is Charlie Rose. Not that he hasn’t had some good interviews but at least half of each interview is Rose relating a story or idea of his own.
    Thanks for calling my attention to this. Really great stuff.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/09/2008 to 8:53 am

    My pleasure, Jonathan. I am always struck by how perfectly he speaks, with almost no hesitations and with, as you say, his ideas fully formed and ready to send into the air, as beautifully composed as his writing.
    One of the things that makes this interview so memorable, besides the fact that Potter is given room to speak, is that Bragg obviously loves him so much and is hanging on every word. I’m not sure any interview could be this good because there is not this level of intimacy, respect, and collegiality between most interviewers and their subjects–they often are not even in the same field and, therefore, do not share that common bond.
    That said, I do think most American interviews are pretty insipid and exercises in egotism on both sides of the table. I can only think of one American interviewer to whom I could listen for hours–David Susskind, now long gone from the air and the earth, and rapidly shrinking from the collective memory.

  • bill spoke:
    10th/09/2008 to 6:51 pm

    He was a genius. The first Dennis Potter series I ever saw was the underrated Lipstick on You Collar. Since then, I’ve seen The Singing Detective and little else (I have Pennies from Heaven — the series — on DVD, but haven’t gotten around to it yet), but I still find Potter to be one of the few truly unique artists I’ve ever come across. The depth and richness, the strangeness and genuine entertainment value of his work can only be compared to itself. There’s no one else like him (although Lars von Trier more or less ripped him off with Dancer in the Dark). In his most famous series, Potter has said that he was sort of trying to satirize the traditional musical, but not really mock them. The genuine emotion gets through anyway. Potter isn’t mocking the values and dreams that musicals exalt; he’s merely pointing out how sad it is that those values are so rare, and how infrequently those dreams come true.
    Okay, The Singing Detective gets a little snarky, but with that character (one of the great performances of all time, in any medium, from Michael Gambon), you can’t really avoid that.
    And I have seen this interview. Many times. I’m with Rod: one of the great moments in TV history.

  • Pat spoke:
    11th/09/2008 to 10:08 pm

    Wow. To be honest, Marilyn, when I started playing the clips, I was skeptical about how long I’d stay interested. But I couldn’t stop watching till I’d finished all 74 minutes.
    I’m embarassed to say that I have little direct experience of Potter’s work. I only know “Pennies from Heaven” and “The Singing Detective” from the film adaptations (and I didn’t even make it all the way through the latter.) I have seen “Dreamchild” and “Gorky Park,” but so long ago…
    I wonder was he always so outspoken about the media, Rupert Murdoch, etc. – or did he become more fearless as he faced his own mortality? You can feel his impatience to have his say all through this interview, there’s an overpowering feeling of time running out and Potter wanting to be heard while he still can. (Especially, but not only, because of the occasional breaks for morphine.)
    My favorite quote: “We should always look back on our past with a sort of tender contempt.”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/09/2008 to 1:21 am

    Bill, you’re so right, of course. I haven’t seen as much of his work as I’d like, simply because of a lack of access. (I’d love to see Blackeyes, but it doesn’t seem to be available in any country.And yes, Gambon gave a career performance.
    Pat, this interview is so rare in its honesty. Like his TV work, it goes right to the heart.
    And yes, I believe he was always this outspoken about Murdoch, but then, by the time Murdoch came on the scene, Potter was a renowned TV legend. I left a comment on Romenesko’s site directed to a journalist who was quite content to have Murdoch take over the Wall Street Journal – of course, it was the one about Potter naming his cancer Rupert. It got a rise out of the journalist.
    I love that line, too. But then he’s endlessly quotable anyway.

  • bill spoke:
    12th/09/2008 to 9:39 am

    Man, how could I have forgotten Dreamchild!? That’s a great movie, and regarded by Potter himself — before he wrote The Singing Detective — as his best work. The plot involving Peter Gallagher and the elderly Alice Liddell is kind of weak, but the stuff about Carroll (and Ian Holm’s performance), and the puppet recreations of scenes from Carroll’s work, are excellent. Well worth tracking down.
    Marilyn, Potter turned Blackeyes into a novel (I can’t remember why, because he hated the form), which I read several years ago, and which I believe you can easily find on Amazon. It’s…interesting. I can’t say I really “got it”, but I also find it difficult to understand how it could be read as misogynist.
    Anyway, it’s a damn shame that so little of Potter’s work is available in the US. I hope that changes some day, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/09/2008 to 10:08 am

    I, too, am a big fan of Dreamchild, and agree about the romance, though it did throw Carroll’s “romance” with Alice into a certain perspective.
    I have an all-region DVD player, so The Essential Dennis Potter is definitely on my splurge list.

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