Dennis Potter on DVD

One of the most influential writers of TV drama from the '60s through to the '90s, who in addition had a hand in the making of several feature films, Dennis Potter's total screen output is large by any reckoning, consisting of twenty-nine single TV plays, eleven TV serials and nine films. But up until recently there was little of his work available on DVD, and because of the vagaries of search engines in online shops—which work by title, actor and director, and not writer—what was available was hard to find. That situation has changed, and now there is a reasonable body available on DVD; and moreover the name 'Dennis Potter' has been incorporated into many of the package titles, so search engines can find it. In this case, at least, the writer has been elevated to his rightful position in the scheme of importance.

Potter's available works will receive detailed discussion in individual DVD reviews (see below), and here I will give a broad overview, and look at what may and may not be released in the future.

The Singing Detective, Potter's most famous work, has long been out on VHS, and in March 2004 it finally got a DVD release from BBC Worldwide. The semi-autobiographical story of psoriasis-wracked writer Philip Marlow and his alter-ego, the debonair film noir-derived Singing Detective, has been a favourite of TV drama connoisseurs since its first showing in 1986, and the eulogies and five star ratings in the customer reviews section of Amazon speak all too eloquently of the success of the DVD.

Its release was followed shortly by the other BBC works Pennies From Heaven, Casanova and Brimstone and Treacle, which were also marketed as a package, together with The Singing Detective, as The Dennis Potter Collection. Pennies From Heaven is another Potter favourite, made in the late '70s and set in the '30s, featuring a string of popular songs from that era, lip-synched by the characters, in the first example of Potter's now legendary device. Dating from the early '70s, Casanova was Potter's first TV serial, an attempt to move with the times both in tackling an extended work and a real historical figure—one who is in vogue again, as the recent TV drama and the upcoming film attest. Brimstone and Treacle is a cause célèbre of censorship, internally banned by the BBC because of its implied depiction of a diabolical figure interfering with a mentally disabled girl—not the first or the last storm of controversy that Potter was to cause.

This September BBC Worldwide are releasing the 1965 plays Stand Up, Nigel Barton and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, plus the 1979 Play For Today, Blue Remembered Hills, and the seven part serial The Mayor of Casterbridge. These new works, together with the four already available will form a new thirteen disc boxed set, entitled The Essential Dennis Potter. The Nigel Barton plays, made in black and white for the Wednesday Play slot, are fascinating examples of the master's early work, and show he was skilfully using metafilmic devices even then. Probably Potter's best-loved single play, Blue Remembered Hills is another masterpiece to match Singing Detective and Pennies, albeit on a smaller scale. Set in the Forest of Dean during the '40s war years, it sports the daring device of having adult actors playing the parts of seven year olds, and has a magical, fairy-tale atmosphere. The Mayor of Casterbridge is more regular TV fare, being a straight adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel. It was well liked, with Potter's rural background lending him an affinity for the material.

The three 1980 LWT plays—Blade on the Feather, Rain on the Roof, and Cream in My Coffee—are also out in September from Network, as a collection entitled Dennis Potter at LWT. They are quality but again more conventional dramas, featuring fine performances from Donald Pleasence, Cheryl Campbell, Lionel Jeffries and Peggy Ashcroft, and dealing with the familiar Potter themes of British espionage, adultery and looking back to an earlier part of one's life.

BBC Worldwide (now going under the name 2 Entertain) tell me they have no immediate plans for future Potter releases—but what might they put out on DVD over the coming years? The stock of Potter material at the BBC is huge, but naturally DVD release is a commercial activity, and only scholars are likely to be interested in the more obscure works. A lot will depend on the success of the Nigel Barton disc as to whether more early plays will appear, but there are several other early major works which should find an audience—in particular for the way they show the themes of Potter's famous later work in embryonic form.

A Beast with Two Backs (Wednesday Play, 1968) is the first Potter drama to be set in the Forest of Dean, and prefigures both Blue Remembered Hills and Singing Detective in way its shows the workings of an isolationist community, with the need to project negative feeling onto a scapegoat—either a weakling or an outsider, in the case of Beast an Italian traveller and his dancing bear. This is really gritty, compelling drama, as is Son of Man (Wednesday Play, 1969), which uses those same terms in re-telling the story of Jesus Christ. Very controversial, but generally positively received, it gave the Gospels a grungy, contemporary feel, and showed the crucifixion in a graphic way that has much in common with Mel Gibson's recent portrayal.

Another seminal early work—this time from ITV—that should be released is Moonlight on the Highway (Saturday Night Theatre, 1969), which is a precursor of Pennies and Singing Detective, in that it shows obsessive fandom of '30s and '40s songs, and weaves in childhood sexual abuse, dark deeds with prostitutes and scenes with a psychiatrist—very ahead of its time. A useful companion piece would be Lay Down Your Arms (Saturday Night Theatre, 1970), based on Potter's '50s National Service stint as a translator in the War Office, and prefiguring the well-known Channel 4 serial Lipstick On Your Collar.

(Update: December 2007. Network have now released Moonlight on the Highway, Lay Down Your Arms, together with Shaggy Dog as Dennis Potter at LWT Volume 2.)

Two other experimental BBC plays from the seventies are worthy of note. Follow the Yellow Brick Road (The Sextet, 1972) is a kind of Truman Show of its day, featuring a character who believes he lives perpetually within a TV play, and consults a psychiatrist for the condition! Double Dare (Play for Today, 1976) employs the Chinese box structures of fictions-within-fictions found in Singing Detective and Karaoke, and also the writer's—and 'real' author's—obsession with his muse/leading actress found in Blackeyes. All of these unreleased BBC works were recently aired in the BBC Four Potter season, together with most of the famous ones now on DVD, which indicates their pre-selection as significant. Watch this space.

Of unreleased Potter serials, there's Late Call (1975), Tender is the Night (1985) and Christabel (1988) from the BBC—plus, of course, the notorious Blackeyes (1989). Starring the young and voluptuous Gina Bellman—now best known for the comedy series Coupling—it's like watching an accident in slow-motion, as Potter, directing for the first time, allows his private fantasies to take over a piece of film, with authorial objectivity flung to the winds. It was screened just once and invoked an enormous media circus, where the celebrated writer of Singing Detective had the tables turned on him and was dubbed 'Dirty Den' by the tabloids. For those who never saw it sixteen years back, it has acquired a mythic status somewhat similar to A Clockwork Orange during its banned period. People want to know what the fuss was all about, and the work now deserves re-evaluation as a historical piece. Bootleg copies occasionally appear on eBay, described as 'very rare'—yes, indeed. A DVD release would undoubtedly create interest, but I think it's a long shot at present.

Much more likely to get a DVD release is Channel 4's Lipstick On Your Collar (1993), which has been out on VHS in the past, but is now deleted. As a serial it closely resembles Pennies and Singing Detective in that it unfolds over six episodes and features lip-synched songs, this time from the '50s, in a Cold War, sexually repressed London setting. In a sad way it demonstrates what a high water mark Singing Detective was, since Potter is clearly trying to recapture some of that glory and falling short. But as middle-ranking Potter, it's still a worthy piece, and is notable for being the screen debut of a certain Ewan McGregor.

What about Potter's final two serials, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, telling the story of dying film writer Daniel Feeld and his cryogenic re-animation in a sci-fi future land? In his final interview with Melvyn Bragg (Without Walls Special, 1994), Potter expressed the wish that the BBC and Channel 4 join together to produce and screen these last two works, making a last grand sweeping political gesture in breaking down the boundaries between rival TV stations. It happened, but Potter did not foresee the problems it would create on the home entertainment front, where rights have to be nailed down before a release can proceed. To this day the BBC and Channel 4 cannot agree who owns what, so any DVD deal remains in suspension—ironic considering Potter's intention was to make the works a more universal viewing event.

(Update: October 2010. Acorn Media have now released Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, both separately and as a boxed set. Acorn have also released Lipstick on Your Collar, which receives a review—see below.)

Moving on to the big screen, Potter's movie career took off in 1981 when he met Hollywood director Herbert Ross and showed him the screenplay of the movie version of Pennies From Heaven. Others had turned it down, but it suited Ross, who'd had some experience of musicals, and it suited MGM, who were trying to revive their fortunes and saw a lavish but edgy musical, with big names attached, as just the right kind of project. Fresh from his success in The Jerk, Steve Martin had the leading role of Arthur, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why the film flopped—audiences couldn't accept a comedy actor in a straight role. But also the vision of the original TV serial mutated by degrees into something else in the film, which is more pre-occupied with the bleakness of the '30s Depression than the inner realms of Arthur's fantasy life. Nonetheless the film received a Region 1 DVD release in 2004, and in this different climate where edgier musicals such as Moulin Rouge have a place, it has created positive interest. A Region 2 release is a strong probability.

Other Potter films followed. 1982 brought the home-produced cinema version of the banned Brimstone and Treacle. Again, due to compromises, it was not a box office success. The American backers wanted a glamorous leading man, which was how Sting got the role of Martin, but it was hardly the greatest piece of casting. Also, expanding the piece to cinema scale only served to emphasise that it was essentially modest-sized TV fare. Brimstone the movie is available on both Region 1 and 2 DVD.

However another film from that era, Gorky Park (1983), adapted by Potter from the Martin Cruz Smith best seller, was reasonably successful. A classic Hollywood Cold War thriller, it is devoid of any recognisable Potter tropes, and he was critical of the final result. Really for Potter it was mainly a piece of jobbing work in order to bring in money for his pet projects, though its echoes can be heard in the noir stand of Singing Detective. Gorky Park is available on both Region 1 and 2 DVD, and is reviewed on this site (see below).

Dreamchild (1985) was Potter's next excursion into film, and whilst the final product was most satisfactory, it didn't get the distribution it deserved, due to the collapse of its backers, Thorn EMI Films. Based on Potter's early play Alice, Dreamchild deals with the relationship of the real Alice Liddell with Lewis Carroll, involving flashbacks to her childhood and Carroll's fictional world coming alive on screen with the help of Jim Henson's Creature Shop—paralleling to some extent the recent Finding Neverland. I remember enjoying Dreamchild greatly at the cinema, but because of its orphan status, it has since sunk virtually without trace. It has been out on VHS in the past, and a DVD release would be most welcome.

Track 29 (1988) came about when Potter's film producer Rick McCallum got him together with Nic Roeg, after the two had worked on Castaway. Again based on an early play, Schmoedipus, it deals with bored housewife Linda and her psychodrama, involving incest with her son and its symbolic connotations. In Roeg's hands the film becomes a vehicle for Theresa Russell as Linda, and as the complex specifics of Linda's mental processes become subjected to Roeg's stylistic touches, coherence becomes slightly shaky. An interesting oddity, but neither Potter's nor Roeg's best, it has been out on VHS but never on DVD.

Potter's two homegrown films Secrets Friends (1991), which he directed, and Midnight Movie (1994), which he produced, are both way down the scale of quality, and demonstrate his talents really lay in ideas and writing rather than screen actualisation. If the early plays show those familiar ideas in a vibrant, nascent form, these two works show them in a threadbare, enfeebled form. Secrets Friends has different threads intersecting, but because they are visually so alike, they easily become confused, and the whole story is so watered-down it hardly seems worth telling. Midnight Movie takes the well-used film-within-a-film device and reduces it to a silly soft-porn farce, with Lipstick actress Louise Germaine way out of her depth. Both have been out on VHS, but a DVD release of either is extremely doubtful.

Mesmer, concerning the relationship of the famous hypnotist and a female patient, was made in 1994 but not released till later because of a legal dispute. Starring Alan Rickman in his usual dashing form, it has a certain resonance with the serial Casanova. It received a Region 1 DVD release in 2000, so a Region 2 follow-up is likely.

So we come to the final Potter film, which like so many others was based on a TV work—this time none other than The Singing Detective. Potter wrote the screenplay in 1990, on the back of the TV serial's surprise success in America, but potential collaborators were not keen on this heavily pared-down version and it never got made. But then in 2003 Mel Gibson's Icon picked up the rights and turned it into a vehicle for Robert Downey Jr. There are some good things about the movie, but on the whole it demonstrates, like many other Potter films, that much is lost in translation from small to big screen. I will leave the last word to Robert Altman, who when offered the project turned it down, saying how could anyone do better than the TV serial? The movie received a Region 1 and 2 DVD release in 2004, and is reviewed on this site (see below).

Individual DVD Reviews:

The Singing Detective
The Singing Detective - the movie
The Nigel Barton Plays
Blue Remembered Hills
Dennis Potter at LWT
Dennis Potter at LWT Volume 2
Gorky Park
Lipstick on Your Collar

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