Dennis Potter at LWT Volume 2 Review

Roger Keen reviews this latest release of archive Potter from Network, consisting of three early plays plus some South Bank Show interviews with the man.

Whist the 2 Entertain, the BBC home entertainment division, is dragging its heels in releasing early Dennis Potter material – they went no further after the 2005 Nigel Barton Plays and Blue Remembered Hills – Network have most laudably followed up their Dennis Potter at LWT with a Volume 2 release of early plays from the late 60s and early 70s. The two Saturday Night Theatre pieces that Potter did for LWT through independent Kestrel – Moonlight on the Highway and Lay Down Your Arms – are an obvious pair for a DVD release, but what has beefed-up the package and made it more of an event was the discovery in 2005 of a copy of the 1968 play Shaggy Dog. Hitherto it was believed to be a lost work, with any copies wiped and recycled, as was the custom then, but vintage TV enthusiast group Kaleidoscope unearthed the copy whilst trawling through LWT’s archives. So with three early plays, plus extracts from two South Bank Shows on Potter from the 70’s, Dennis Potter at LWT Volume 2 is a substantial package, making available pieces that have never been seen in any form since their original transmissions.

Shaggy Dog (dir: Davies) is a one-of-a-kind as a Potter drama – and indeed a one-of-a-kind as any sort of drama! In keeping with the freeform experimental spirit of his early plays, here Potter tried his hand at surreal black comedy, which was not a direction he pursued any further. Combining traditional drama sets and techniques with madcap Goon Show-like tomfoolery, it is an odd piece by any standards.

Wilkie (John Neville), an upright bowler-hatted businessman, is on his way to attend an interview for a top job at the Restawhile Hotel chain. As he traverses the city streets, we hear jungle noises, wild animals and drums, and Wilkie avoids treading on the cracks in the pavement lest it lead to bad luck at the interview. The Restawhile management have decided to employ a consultant, Parker (Derek Godfrey), to attend Wilkie’s interview who will use unconventional techniques in order to put him more fully to the test. Parker turns up wearing a large false clown nose and personnel manager James (Cyril Luckham) starts to have his doubts about the whole idea. While Wilkie waits to be interviewed, he chats to the receptionist, going into raptures about creatures known as Rarys, because of their rarity, which had soft rubbery paws and the ability to talk, but were hunted to extinction. He returns to the subject of Rarys again and again, the animals obviously holding some unique significance for him.

At the interview, James proceeds in conventional fashion whilst Parker, now wearing a long blonde female wig, throws in embarrassing questions, such as, ‘How old were you when you stopped wetting the bed?’ Wilkie is unfazed at first, and launches into a criticism of Restawhile’s business methods, but then he starts to show signs of stress, complaining of headaches. This is exactly what Parker wants and he turns up the pressure, probing into the reasons Wilkie left his last job, suspecting it was due to a breakdown. Wilkie brings up the Rarys again and finally he cracks, exhibiting behaviour neither of the two interviewers are prepared for.

In trying to mix drama and comedy Shaggy Dog doesn’t quite come off, largely because Potter’s wordy dialogue, making subtle points about the evils of capitalism, is at odds with the general tone of absurdist humour. If it is to work as comedy then it has to be directed with brisk pacing so that the gag elements properly orchestrate. As it is, it’s far too slow. But then we must accept that to a degree this is deliberate. Often during Shaggy Dog one thinks: Where’s this going? What’s the point? temporarily forgetting that the title explains everything! Looking at it another way, purely as an experimental idea, then Potter’s blending of drama, comedy, farce, satire and grand guignol, designed to completely thwart audience expectations, is masterful. As a shaggy dog story, it’s totally successful, as the groans induced when one gets to the ending will testify!

If Shaggy Dog is a piece of throwaway whimsy, then Moonlight on the Highway (dir: Mactaggart) is, by contrast, a seminal Potter work, clearly recognisable as a precursor to his two most celebrated pieces, Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective. Having explored his working-class background, Oxbridge education and political ambitions in the semi-autobiographical Nigel Barton Plays, Potter now unveils a whole new set of ‘personal’ themes – childhood trauma, mental sickness, sexual difficulties, psychiatric intervention; and on the flipside, an infatuation with 30’s and 40’s popular music and the creation of an attendant dream world to which this music provides the score.

The play begins with a very telling scene in a hospital waiting room, where each of the patients articulates a key memory in the form of voice-over stream of consciousness. When we get to David Peters – note the initials – played by a young Ian Holm, his memory involves a denial of being sexually assaulted at the age of ten by ‘a man with spiky hair and eyes the colour of phlegm’. The effect of this event is put across in an imaginative montage sequence of superimposed images, showing low-angle views of the sinister assailant, Peters’ nonplussed face and a funeral, which turns out to be that of Peters’ mother. The soundtrack has a boy’s voice, pleading and protesting, counterpointed by the haunting melody and lyrics of Al Bowlly’s ‘Moonlight on the Highway’, the chorus ending with the words: ‘…Through Memory Lane’. Already the piece has a distinct Singing Detective-like feel, and in the hands of director James Mactaggart it also feels very cutting edge for its time.

.article_full img {padding:0px 10px 0px 10px;}Prone to ranting and dissociative outbursts, Peters is visibly a bit of a nutcase, and he becomes involved in an altercation with some of the other patients. Later, on his own in his fleapit of a flat, which is festooned with Bowlly memorabilia, he relaxes by listening to his hero, and in a landmark moment, from which so much would follow, he picks up his guitar, looks in the mirror and lip-synchs to the lyrics of ‘Lover Come Back to Me’. Peters edits a Bowlly fanzine, and in relation to this he gets a visit from an attractive TV researcher (Deborah Grant) who is working on a programme about Bowlly. In the face of a desirable member of the opposite sex, Peters’ is handicapped by his awkwardness and low self-esteem and inevitably he ends up making a mess of everything.

Next we cut back to the hospital, and in a continuation of the earlier scene, Peters meets his psychiatrist, the urbane Dr Chilton (Anthony Bate). In bumbling fashion, Peters tells of the issues that are troubling him – the childhood sex-attack, the recent death of his mother and also the deaths of his father and Al Bowlly, both due to enemy action during the war, followed by his mother’s subsequent dependency on him, the whole narrative becoming intertwined and melting down into a confused melange. Dr Chilton, however, takes it in his stride, dispatching Peters with some antidepressants and then conferring with a pair of medical students about the case.

Again using the device of non-linear cross-cutting, Chilton’s summation is laced through the climactic scene, where Peters attends a festive meeting of the Al Bowlly Appreciation Society, complete with dancing to favourite numbers, film shows and speeches. Chilton’s says that Peters’ mother’s death has triggered a guilt reaction that has plunged him into depression, dredging the other murky issues of his childhood to the surface. Interestingly, he goes on to say that Peters’ obsession with the singer Bowlly is an attempt to reconnect with a lost childhood ‘Eden’, a time when all was happy, before the ‘fall’ of the sex attack and the wartime tragedies.

Chilton advised Peters not to mix his antidepressants with alcohol, but at the Bowlly bash, Peters disregards this, and when the time comes for him to make his speech as a fanzine editor, he is pretty well smashed. To the startled gathering of mainly elderly fans, Peters contrasts the romantic lyrics of Bowlly’s songs with the realities of physical sex and then goes on to make a controversial confession, which is hastily covered over by the organiser with another Bowlly record. But far from feeling he’s made a fool of himself, Peters is liberated, having taken responsibility for his mental healing into his own hands.

Although an excellent play in its own right, what is remarkable about Moonlight on the Highway is that it’s so evidently a ‘sketch’ for The Singing Detective, with all the key elements present and correct in embryonic form. Also it shows that long before Potter created his psoriatic author Philip Marlow, he was using very sensitive personal material in his fictions – Potter was indeed molested at age ten, just like Peters. This ‘something-nasty-in-the-woodshed’ event is the axis about which both works revolve, though in The Singing Detective it is represented as the young Philip witnessing his mother’s adulterous sex in the Forest of Dean, in the famous scene that got Mary Whitehouse so worked-up.

And Singing Detective also draws on Moonlight for its psychotherapeutic rationale, its world of fantasy and nostalgia, woven together with lip-synched old songs and the notion that the catharsis of self-revelation extends beyond the boundaries of character and drama, reaching the author himself. Moreover, this is not only apparent in the writing but also in the audio-visual fabric of the piece – the layering, the montaging, the non-linear associating and the threading of the songs throughout the whole. At the end of Moonlight we are left with the feeling that at 52 minutes it is too short, and there is much more mileage to be had in this particular direction. For Potter it proved to be the beginning of a gold-paved path.

If Moonlight is clearly a sketch for The Singing Detective, then Lay Down Your Arms (dir: Morahan) is equally clearly a sketch for Lipstick on Your Collar. Breaking out of the monochrome era of TV drama, it is richly coloured, using 16mm location filming of the changing of the guards, in their bright red uniforms, in order to set up the lead character, the hapless Private Bob Hawk (Nikolas Simmonds), a northern lad, down to do his national service, who doesn’t know his way around London. Although he’s from humble origins, Hawk has a high IQ and speaks fluent Russian, hence his posting to the War Office, to assist in monitoring Soviet military activity. Amongst his toffee-nosed officer colleagues, Hawk is an oddity, who doesn’t fit in and is made the object of scorn and ridicule. Cut off from all that is familiar, he becomes morose and subject to dubious temptations.

In a way Hawk is another version of Nigel Barton, again following in his creator’s biographical footsteps. As with Nigel and Philip Marlow, we get scenes of Hawk’s homely working-class background, with a gauche mother and father talking in broad accents, this time northern rather than Forest-Gloucestershire. This shows us the play is primarily ‘about’ Hawk and his life, rather than about national service in Cold War Britain, with Potter once more delving into the personal – and with Potter, personal means sexual. Subject to taunts about his lack of a girlfriend, Hawk is forced to examine the thorny issue of his virginity and how he sees the larger world of love and eroticism. He attends a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull and experiences Trepliov’s declaration of idealised love to Nina. This has exactly the same function as Bowlly’s love songs in Moonlight, an artistically elevated expression of the romantic that is removed from the baser animal functions of intercourse. To make the point about the dichotomy, we see Hawk’s first encounter with a prostitute intercut with the play’s action.

Now propelled on a weird journey of self-discovery, Hawk attempts to befriend a group of drinkers in a pub by speaking in part-Russian and pretending to be the goalkeeper from the visiting Moscow Dynamo team. He then starts to propagate more tall tales about himself, blurring his identity further and further. Back on the work front, the Suez crisis is brewing and Hawk’s playacting and detachment from reality land him in deepening trouble. Many of these scenes are amusing and played for laughs to a degree, but the idea is so derivative from the 1963 Billy Liar that it is limited in its effect, lacking in true Potteresque originality.

Again it’s notable how similar the play is to its later counterpart, Lipstick on Your Collar, which by virtue of the inclusion of lip-synched roll ‘n’ roll song-and-dance routines aimed to follow in the footsteps of Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective. In the same way as Lipstick falls short when compared to those superior works, so does Lay Down Your Arms when compared to Moonlight or Stand-up, Nigel Barton or A Beast With Two Backs or Son of Man. As a not totally successful Potter experiment, it still has much to recommend it though, and also it’s a fine example of the generally flashier approach to TV drama that ITV took in competing with the BBC in that era.


Two twenty minute extracts from separate South Bank Shows completes the package. The first, from Dennis Potter – Man of Television (1978), has Potter talking to Melvyn Bragg about the generally sweep of his career and the importance of television as means of ready access by a writer to his audience, enabling him to connect with many more people than he could through other media, such as the theatre. As ever, Potter talks in a fluid, oracular way, a joy to listen to for his sheer intensity and intelligence as he skips from theme to theme. In Brimstone and Treacle: Censorship (1979), a strikingly long-haired Potter discusses issues surrounding the banning by the BBC of that play and its subsequent stage production by the Open Space Theatre, including film clips. Potter is very magnanimous about censorship, acknowledging the responsibility of writers and broadcasters in television to gauge the effect their work might have on its viewers, many of whom might be watching casually rather than having made a definite choice, as they would when buying a book or seeing a cinema film. Nevertheless he stresses the importance of a proper debate in this area – something which didn’t happen with the knee-jerk banning of Brimstone.


Disc 1 contains Shaggy Dog (b/w), Moonlight on the Highway (b/w) and Dennis Potter – Man of Television, and Disc 2 has Lay Down Your Arms and Brimstone and Treacle: Censorship. Presented in non-anamorphic 4:3 ratio, the quality of the material varies from occasionally poor to reasonable. The are a number of artefact problems, tape dropouts, moments of horizontal banding and surface dirt; but the underlying image quality is satisfactory, considering the age of the material. The mono soundtrack is mostly adequate, with the old Bowlly recordings sounding very good on Moonlight, though there is some volume loss on one section of Shaggy Dog.


Overall Potter enthusiasts will love this package, as it has a little of everything – oddness and curiosity value in Shaggy Dog; one of the master’s best and most important early works in Moonlight on the Highway; and an entertaining, off-beat work in Lay Down Your Arms, plus some choice bits of Potter being interviewed. Lets hope it sends a message to 2 Entertain to release some more from the BBC’s much larger archive of early Potter.

For a general overview see: Dennis Potter on DVD

Roger Keen

Updated: Dec 27, 2007

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