[10 April 2009]
“Does it disturb you?” a spurned housewife queries her childlike, Bible-thumping male student, as he recoils from her suddenly exposed cleavage. Janet has no clue just how disturbed Billy will become, and subtle disturbances may be the philosophical cornerstone of the work of Dennis Potter. Potter is an esteemed British dramatist who probably has no equivalent in American television – the US system being more of a producer’s medium.
Nor can I conjure up a name amongst Hollywood’s high-priced scribes who has garnered the sort of critical kudos regularly bestowed upon Potter. One can imagine Potter working in American television during live drama’s brief ‘50s reign, or possibly developing weekly serials for HBO, but there seems nowhere else to insert this Serlingesque figure in the American media landscape.
The late Dennis Potter – most renowned for Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective - - may not have set out to become an enfant terrible of British drama, but he unwittingly achieved that goal by crafting unsettling suburban-gothic morality tales that polarized audiences, while attracting heated denouncements from numerous politicos and pundits, especially the scabrous censorship czarina Mary Whitehouse. Indeed, his 1976 stage play Brimstone and Treacle – later filmed with Police frontman Sting – was withheld by the BBC for over a decade due to a perceived antireligious bias, and an earlier serial he penned, Casanova, was damned for risqué sexual content.
Potter’s 1980 TV triple-play, Blade On The Feather, Rain On The Roof, and Cream In My Coffee, initially broadcast on London Weekend Television – how pleasantly innocuous that sounds! – has now been released in a smart DVD package, titled Three To Remember, and one won’t soon forget them, rest assured. The three telefilms premiered over a three-week period in mid-autumn, Halloween viewing, if you will, for the thinking man.
The first two tales utilize the time-honored device of the mysterious stranger who infiltrates a comfortable, even posh, household, leaving emotional and physical wreckage in his wake. In “Blade”, the sleek young Daniel (Tom Conti) intrudes on the baronial setting of Jason Cavendish (Donald Pleasance), a wealthy, but decidedly right-wing writer, ensconced in a lavish seaside manor, cosseted by his young wife and resentful daughter. Daniel arrives unannounced – their manservant Hill (Denholm Elliott) is off cycling in the countryside – and the family are surprised to learn he “has no appointment”, an apparent no-no in this fortress-like home.
As the impudent Daniel insinuates himself into the family in decidedly intimate ways, Jason suffers violent flashbacks, which seem to forebode dark secrets anxious to be revealed. He and Daniel argue politics at the dinner table, a sinister dialogue of parrying verbal thrusts, as we gradually learn the interloper’s real intentions, an elaborate revenge plot hinging on a past connection with Jason.
In Rain On the Roof, Potter examines how vengeance and betrayal can unleash holy hell, as they do in the life of an upper-middle class housewife – the aforementioned Janet – who, upon sensing her husband’s infidelity, chooses to cuckold him with young, mentally-challenged Billy, her frighteningly earnest literacy student and the product of a broken home. The loquacious, working-class Billy is taken to fire-and-brimstone Christian rants – claiming, in fact, to have met Jesus Christ—and poor Janet realizes too late that she’s grasped a tiger by the tail.
In “Blade” and “Rain”, Daniel and Billy, respectively, can be read as physical manifestations of internal conscience. These seemingly harmless individuals are in fact anything but. The difference between them is that young Billy’s rage is triggered by the nastiness of Janet’s callow husband, not to mention her own reckless flirtations. Daniel, by contrast, is clearly on a mission to ravage the ill-fated Cavendishes, and Potter treats Daniel’s devilish machinations with subtle black humor.
The final film is Cream In My Coffee, a melancholy look at the life of an elderly couple, Jean (Peggy Ashcroft) and Bernard (Lionel Jeffries), as they return to the tony seaside resort they first visited as passionate young lovers in the ‘30s. The action moves back-and-forth between the present day and Churchill’s era, and Potter allows us to fill in the blanks of the couple’s 40 or so years in between.
Bernard hails from a genteel, upper-crust family, while one pictures Jean running a counter at Selfridge’s. Nevertheless, they’re enraptured with one another, and plan to marry, much to the predictable distaste of Bernard’s formidable widowed mother, the stone-faced Mrs. Wilsher(Faith Brook).
This setup has served as the backbone of countless dramas, but instead of sanctifying Bernard and demonizing the admittedly imperious Lady Wilsher, Potter focuses on Bernard’s own insecurities and prejudices, and we come to see that he is ultimately a product of his upbringing, and can only view Jean through this prism. When Jean is needy, Bernard is scornful. And he doesn’t shy away from instructing her on proper etiquette.
During their optimistic youth, director Gavin Millar bathes them in a gauzy glow, as if to suggest that anything is possible, love conquers all, and modernity is all – young Bernard(Peter Chelsom) tells his mother, testily, “It’s 1934!”, implying that times have changed, and he can bloody well marry whom he pleases! Things look a bit drearier in the present day, as the aged pair sit glumly in their lounge chairs, obviously in their twilight years.
Bernard, to an extent, has assumed his mother’s place in his dotage. He detests the sometimes grim realities of growing old, muttering scornfully to Jean about how “too many old people make fools of themselves”, as he watches his peers stroll the beach in revealing swimsuits. The old boy has little use for the younger set, either, shouting at teenage beachgoers to turn down their music, while long-suffering Jean quivers with embarrassment. She’s also subjected to cruel insults from her husband, who sadly seems to regret defying his Mommie Dearest to spend a life with Jean.
Oddly, this DVD package only contains a single extra, but a significant one. Disc 1 features a lengthy four-part interview – the last – with Potter, taped in February 1994, and broadcast on Britain’s justly celebrated Channel 4. Potter spend a good part of the chat discussing the controversies surrounding his works, and his being dubbed “Dirty Den” by the infantile British tabloid press. He seems simultaneously an avuncular, polished gentleman and an erudite version of the Angry Young Man popularized in British postwar cinema.
The son of a coal miner, Potter describes himself as a “cripplingly shy person”, but we see a glint of the rebel in him as he says, “bugger that!”, to the notion of writing feel-good, hopeful stories. The interview aired in April, a mere two months before his own death from pancreatic cancer, only nine days after the passing of his cancer-stricken wife.
Dennis Potter’s work may never find a large mainstream audience in this country, but he reportedly influenced the likes of Steven Bochco, Alan Ball, Charlie Kaufman, and Alain Resnais, to spotlight a few. For me, Rod Serling’s still-creepy The Twilight Zone immediately came to mind as I watched Three to Remember. Both Serling and Potter wanted to unsettle the masses – not merely the intelligentsia – while making them think.
In “Gray Flannel Suit” 1950s America, when White, middle class Americans were tacitly encouraged to decamp to the suburbs, and think shiny, happy thoughts, Serling sought to expose the disturbing underside of the American psyche, or as much as network censors would permit, at any rate. One can easily draw a creative analogy between his work and Potter’s, as Potter liked to stir up the distinctly homegrown tensions of a chilly, gray, de-industrializing Britain, bereft of its colonies, and uncertain of its international identity.
Both men struggled with corporate restrictions, both suffered early deaths to cancer, and both avoided the technical aspects of film and TV work, choosing instead to focus on the written word. If the two ever met – and it’s possible – one wonders how the conversation might have gone. Peter Morgan … Are you also wondering? What are your thoughts? Bloody well write ‘em down!