Mark Lawson: Dennis Potter’s message to today’s TV execs – risk everything

How the great TV dramatist and screenwriter was driven by innovation and risk. Plus, bank-breaking art at the RA Summer Exhibition.

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In a Dennis Potter television play called Message for Posterity, an elderly artist is commissioned by a government committee to paint a portrait of an octogenarian, Churchillian former prime minister. Both men have lived to see their achievements devalued and overturned by a younger generation.

Potter died in 1994 at the age of 59 and avoided such a fate – and if his ghost happens currently to be haunting London’s BFI Southbank, he will learn that he has avoided even posthumous irrelevance. That play about cultural redundancy gives its name to a festival that illustrates the contrary: between this summer (20 years since his death) and the next (80 since his birth), the BFI’s “Messages for Posterity” will screen every surviving piece of his screen work.

The benefit of the comprehensive scope of the seasons (co-curated by Potter’s most crucial collaborator, the producer Kenith Trodd) is that, alongside much-seen pieces such as the dramas-with-music Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, there is also space for undervalued plays such as Cream in My Coffee, made for ITV in 1980, in which a married couple is seen in youthful passion and dried-up old age.

Possibly due to his fascination with music, Potter was prone as a playwright to refrains and repeats of certain themes (betrayal, faith, fantasy) and, as he also frequently reworked television plays for film versions, these creative rhythms allow for some curious doublings and pairings, such as two scripts about Lewis Caroll: the TV play Alice (1965) and the movie Dreamchild (1985).

Brimstone and Treacle, banned in 1976 by the BBC because of a scene in which a severely disabled woman is raped by a man who may be Satan, can be compared both with the inferior 1982 movie and a 1974 television play Schmoedipus, which introduced to the Potter repertory company Bob Hoskins. He later played the delusional song-sheet salesman Arthur Parker in Pennies from Heaven and his recent death gives a second memorial aspect to the screenings.

To take up the implications of the season’s title: what are Potter’s messages to the television of today? The first is the extent to which he was driven by innovation and risk. Revisiting screen hits is often disappointing because the techniques and tastes of visual media change so rapidly and controversies become tame. But, with Potter, the theological provocations of Brimstone and Treacle still shock now and, even if you know it’s going to happen, it remains a delightful surprise when Hoskins mimes to a song for the first time in Pennies from Heaven.

It’s fitting that one of the writer’s final works should have been called Karaoke because Potter was utilising the concept long before it became an office night out. That it is now common for even the most populist genres of TV drama to feature song and fantasy sequences and intricate interlocking flashbacks can be attributed directly to the influence of the structural daring – the shifts between realism and surrealism – in works such as The Singing Detective.

Apart from the benefits of boldness, what the contemporary medium could most learn from Potter is the proper limits of an idea. Although his early career included a sequel to one play – following Stand Up, Nigel Barton with another piece about the working-class title hero – he never wrote a second series of anything, whereas now every TV drama success (Broadchurch, Happy Valley) is required to have at least the possibility of continuation.

The question underlying the festival is whether it would be possible to have such a career as a writer in television now. Network executives will tell you that their editorial procedures would have weeded out some of the weaker pieces, such as Blackeyes,  but we suspect that they would also have killed off at least some of his masterpieces. If Dennis Potter were starting now, he would be writing crime and police series: brilliant ones, probably, but forced variations on peak-time genre nonetheless. He wrote in a time of moral restraint but artistic freedom. In television now, it’s the other way round. 

 

Cash in the attic

“Six hundred thousand! Must be a misprint for £60,000!” an enraged visitor exclaimed as I arrived at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. He was standing beside Last Train by Ron Arad, featuring electrified writing on a glass screen, which is indeed priced at a six followed by five zeroes.

Most artists and critics dislike concentration on what a work is worth but the summer show encourages a dialogue about financial and artistic value. The pocket-sized catalogue tells us exactly how much each entry costs: from that bankrupting Arad to a pair of etchings of hands at £150 each. A few artists avoid scrutiny by having their works identified as “NFS” (not for sale) or “*” (refer to sales desk). The work I most coveted has money as its subject and banknotes as one material: David Mach’s The Paper It’s Printed On. It’s not NFS but unfortunately costs £32,000, which means my bank manager would say NFL.

The Summer Exhibition runs until 17 August at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup