There is a moment in The Singing Detective in which Marlow asks Binney whether he visits the zoo. He notes that it is often the case that tigers try to escape through the bars of their cages, and observes that this is a rather sad thing as, “for all their stripes”, the tiger does not realise, will never realise, that “there is no way out – not through the bars.”
Captivity is a continual theme in Dennis Potter’s work; physical captivity,* situational captivity, and most frequently of all, mental and emotional captivity. Invariably he wrote about this captivity from the perspective of the victim: as such his works are suffused with vivid dreams of liberation, of release, of freedom from emotional bondage. It is always clear that these dreams are impossible desires; things that can never be fulfilled in this life, only in the next.
Although Potter’s works were never strictly autobiographical, he often wrote of what he knew** and his body of work thus stands as an incredible outpouring of frustration against his personal captivity; against the medical condition that left him “a prisoner in his own skin”, against his frequent hospitalisations, and above all against the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his uncle as a boy. Yet note again that his works were not strictly autobiographical: Potter was not just writing for himself. He understood well that there is a universality in suffering, and that the aspect of it that can be particularly difficult to deal with is the fact that – unlike the tiger – those who find themselves trapped inside traumas past are well aware that there is no way out through the bars. As such for those who have these problems, the experience of watching the extraordinary fantasies of freedom that Potter wove throughout so much expertly realised pain and darkness can be overwhelming and thoroughly wonderful.
*Although almost always in the sense of being trapped in a hospital, in a house – or even in a paralysed body – rather than within the confines of the criminal justice system. When Potter wrote about the latter at all (as towards the end of Pennies From Heaven) it was to throw barbs at Establishment hypocrisy, rather than to explore the theme of captivity in its most clichéd setting.
**Of course so does everyone else. One of Potters distinctive features as a writer was that he was actually aware of this.