Unraveling The Mystery And Talent Of Dennis Potter David Potter's gripping, enigmatic writing for TV made him one of British culture's defining figures from the 1960s through the 1980s. Critic-at-large John Powers reviews the new DVD collection Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember.
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Unraveling The Mystery And Talent Of Dennis Potter

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Unraveling The Mystery And Talent Of Dennis Potter

Unraveling The Mystery And Talent Of Dennis Potter

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TERRY GROSS, host:

The late English writer Dennis Potter is known in America for such brilliant television work as "Pennies from Heaven" and "The Singing Detective." Both were turned into Hollywood movies. But throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s, his TV dramas were regular, eagerly awaited events on British TV.

Three of the works from 1980 have just been released on a DVD called "Dennis Potter: Three To Remember." Our critic-at-large John Powers says that while these dramas make for riveting viewing, the real centerpiece of this collection lies elsewhere.

JOHN POWERS: Late in Dennis Potter's greatest and most famous work, "The Singing Detective," the mystery writer hero Philip Marlowe is grumbling about the public's desire for art that offers easy answers. People want all solutions and no clues, he says. What I want is all clues and no solutions.

The same is clearly true of Potter, whose gripping, enigmatic, controversial writing for TV made him one of British culture's defining figures from the 1960s through the 1980s. Mixing ferocious reality and game-playing fantasy, guilty regret and acid-bath nastiness, his work pushed the limits of what television can do farther than anyone since.

Not all of Potter's work was great, of course. He was too unstoppably prolific for that. But even his routine work is worth seeing. I was reminded of this as I watch the new DVD collection, "Dennis Potter: Three to Remember." It brings together three television dramas that showed on successive November Sundays in 1980, plus the unforgettable 1994 interview he gave in the brief weeks between learning he had incurable cancer and actually passing away.

On the face of it, the three telefilms could hardly be more different. "Blade on the Feather" is a psychological chess game about espionage. "Rain on the Roof" shows a 30-something wife beginning a flirtation with a disturbed, Bible-obsessed young man. "Cream in My Coffee" presents the anatomy of a marriage, from randy young love to bickering old age.

These stories are united by their common themes - I'm tempted to say obsessions. Each film offers a power struggle, illicit sex, violent death and the haunting memory of a dead father. Each bristles with Potter's trademark rawness. He's great at showing how people are soiled and suffers from the ugly, bleached-out cinematography that marred English television back then.

And each boasts unforgettable moments, like the scene in "Blade on the Feather" when a monologue about watching someone eat a fast-food hamburger turns into the most lacerating sexual putdown in history.

If you only knew Potter from these three films, you might think him the most corrosively cynical man who ever lived. That's why the real revelation of this box set is his dying interview, which, endowed with the authority of death, is astonishing for its peaceful, even beatific lucidity. Here, for instance, he talks about how impending death has enriched his sense of living in the present.

(Soundbite of Dennis Potter interview)

Mr. DENNIS POTTER (Writer, "The Singing Detective"): Below my window in Ross(ph) when I'm working in Ross, for example, there now, at this season, the blossom is out in full now there in the west early(ph). There's a plum tree. It looks like apple blossom, but it's white. And looking at it, instead of saying, oh, that's a nice blossom, you know, now - last week, looking at it through the window when I'm writing, it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, you know, and I can see it.

And things are both more trivial than they ever were and more important than they ever were. And the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous. And if people could see that, you know, there's no way of telling you. You have to experience it, you know. But the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance - not that I'm interested in reassuring people, you know, bugger that - the fact is that if you see the present tense - boy, do you see it, and boy, can you celebrate it, you know?

POWERS: Potter always believed that our lives are largely unconscious performances. We act out scripts written by childhood family dynamics, pop culture cliches and the class-defined realities of the workplace. In contrast, this interview is a highly self-conscious performance by a man who, in talking to us, is forcibly pulling himself away from the work he desperately wants to finish before he dies.

Dramatically drinking morphine on camera to fight the pain, he tries to make sense of his life, private and public - everything from his failure to show love to his coalminer father to his insistence that Rupert Murdoch's media empire is destroying British culture. He even jokingly nicknames his cancer Rupert.

For much of his life, Potter had a reputation as an angry, difficult man whose mind was writhing with snakes. This wasn't wrong, but in later years, it became clear that the underlying theme of his work was actually the search for health and transcendence, the attempt to recognize and eventually get beyond the crippling effects of regret, anger, self-pity - of all of life's inescapable wounds.

That's what happens in "The Singing Detective, " whose haunted, skin-ravaged hero walks out of the hospital a wiser man. And to judge from that final interview, which was a final attempt to write his own story, that's what happened in Potter's life, as well. As he sips his morphine and chain-smokes his cigarettes - no reason to quit now - Potter seems to be surrounded by light, as if the acceptance of death has miraculously purged him of darkness and left him transfigured. He's become his dream version of himself, and if he hasn't yet found the solution to life, he at least knows he's followed its clues.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.

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