Dennis Potter

Tiger Cage

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.



“There are writers who have didactic intent, and there are some, I presume, who work out everything before they sit down to put the words in order. For me, and certainly many others, writing – however hard it can sometimes be – is more like pulling and pulling and pulling on a string that already has its weights attached, or dipping a thimble again and again into a pool that was already there. The effort, the curiosity, the surprise or the anxiety are each strong enough so to fill the mind that there is no room for ‘thought’.”

From Dennis Potter’s introduction to Waiting for the Boat.

Aspects of working-class life with special reference to publications and entertainments

In the end Richard Hoggart, who has died at the age of 95, outlived not just his best known son but also himself.

A personal hero of mine for various predictable reasons, he was one of the most important British intellectuals of the 20th century and his death has been noted in countries other than this one. The influence of The Uses of Literacy is so immense that any form of measurement is impossible: indeed, I would argue that it is literally impossible to understand British cultural and intellectual life between the publication of The Uses of Literacy in 1957 and the election of the Thatcher government in 1979 without having at least a reasonable understanding of the book and the arguments contained within it. One of its early readers, for instance, was a young Dennis Potter, and a clear Hoggartian strand runs through his vast and brilliant output, from Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton to Cold Lazarus and everything between (including the Hamlet of television that is The Singing Detective). Even in post-social democratic and post-industrial Britain (in which Hoggart’s big-hearted highbrow labourism with its almost evangelical agenda of cultural democracy has been eliminated even – especially? – in academia), The Uses of Literacy continues to matter, to provoke, and, yes, even to influence, even if as as a sort of opposition manifesto. Consider, just for a moment, the distinction that Hoggart made between what he described as ‘popular culture’ and what he dubbed ‘mass culture’: popular culture to Hoggart was culture created by ordinary people for themselves, while mass culture is the product of the culture industries. Much contemporary discussion about football and the culture of football could be improved with reference to this careful distinction. And Hoggart’s legacy does not end with his most famous work: he was (amongst other things) a co-founder of the Centre for Contemporary Studies, a key figure in the creation of BBC2, and a star witness in R v Penguin Books Ltd. (also known as the Lady Chatterley trial). Hoggart was not just an important intellectual, he was one of the faces of the genuine cultural anti-elitism that mattered so much in the 1960s and 1970s. Given the main argument of The Uses of Literacy, it is perhaps appropriate that the death of Hoggart reminds us with a sudden sharpness of what has been lost in recent decades.

The Uses of Literacy concludes with the following passage:

‘So much is profoundly encouraging. And it may be that a concentration of false lights is unavoidable at this stage of development in a democracy which from year to year becomes more technologically competent and centralized, and yet seeks to remain a free and ‘open’ society. Yet the problem is acute and pressing – how that freedom may be kept as in any sense a meaningful thing whilst the processes of centralization and technological development continue. This is a particularly intricate challenge because, even if substantial inner freedom were lost, the great new classless class would be unlikely to know it: its members would still regard themselves as free be told that they were free.’

As it happens I never actually watched the channel, but…

“A programme costs to make what a programme costs to make.”

Dennis Potter

I don’t think I’ve ever watched BBC3 and when – as now seems pretty inevitable – it ceases to be I will certainly not miss it. But the BBC’s decision to two-thirds kill it off (you can read about the details elsewhere and most likely have already done so: this is hardly news by now) speaks volumes about the BBC’s current ‘difficulties’. The principle of thing is important, if nothing else.

One of the most important of which is that the people running the BBC appear to live in a strange world of their own in which the normal rules of logic do not apply. This is obviously a tiny bit of a problem.

If the point of mostly-scrapping BBC3 is to save money, then it makes no sense (no sense whatsoever) to continue to commission programmes for the channel. It also makes no sense to also declare that the money (thirty million quid, no less) ‘saved’ from mostly-scrapping BBC3 can be given to BBC1*. But doesn’t the BBC have to make large cuts, apparently? And isn’t that why BBC3 being sent to the televisual glue factory? How can this be so when it will continue to make programmes (to be shown online)** and when money (thirty million quid, no less) will be given to BBC1? We are back, it appears, to the sort of magical thinking that, in a different context of course, Dennis Potter deplored. This is not encouraging.

Ubiquitous (but often not wrong) media pundit Steve Hewlett has suggested) that the whole thing may well be a ploy by BBC management to convince a not unhostile government to understand that cuts will mean a loss of services. But, as he points out, considering the sheer amount of money wasted in other parts of the BBC (including management!), this ploy (if a ploy it is) could easily backfire hideously. This is not terribly encouraging either.

It is also presumably possible that BBC brass had been looking for an excuse to get rid of a channel that many obviously regarded as an embarrassment, and decided to use the great financial pressure that the BBC is under*** to kill it and kill it dead. Though, again, this would be a pretty stupid way of going about that for obvious reasons.

Anyway, it is clear to anyone with eyes to see that if the BBC must make cuts then small-and-cheap channels are not the right places to hit. In the grand scheme of things, they barely cost the corporation anything. If there must be cuts, then it is pretty obvious where they ought to be made (so obvious that I’m not going to bother typing it out), yet this is not happening.

There is, I think, a very simple reasons for this. Other than the self-interest of self-interested members of the managerial class (but that goes without saying). Because lying behind it (probably, anyway) and many other questionable decisions made by BBC management in recent years (certainly) are two assumptions that are dear to the hearts of those that run the BBC:

1. The idea that cultural output can be neatly divided into ‘mainstream’ and ‘minority interest’.

2. The idea that people watch television channels, and not individual television programmes.

In the digital age, both of these assumptions reflect cultural reality about as well as military theory c.1914 did the reality of war in the machine age.

*Which, as it happens, takes the lions share of the BBC television budget:

BBC1 – £1,051 million, BBC2 – £415 million, BBC3 – £85 million, CBBC – £79 million, BBC News Channel – £53 million, BBC4 – £49 million, CBeebies – £29 million, BBC Parliament – £2 million.

**Worth noting that BBC management is completely clueless as to how people under thirty actually watch television, but in the unlikely event that someone from said bad-suited mass is reading this, here’s a helpful clue: ‘traditional’ and online content are not necessarily ‘rivals’, as such. Different forms of television may even be said to be used by many people in a broadly complementary manner. I understand.

***And yet the corporation can still – it would appear – afford to blow millions on the Doctor Who Anniversary Spectacular,*** on expensive press junkets, on expensive foreign specials for certain progammes on BBC1, on the employment of approximately thirty thousand identikit ‘political correspondents’, and on massive payouts for sacked senior managers.

****I have nothing against Doctor Who, but an egregious waste of money  is an egregious waste of money.

“I know trees that are shaped like diamonds.”

The following is an extract from the script of Dennis Potter’s 1978 television drama Pennies from Heaven:

Headmaster: These children. Look – there’s a tree one of them has drawn, and it’s like a diamond. With different sorts of fruit on the same branch.

Eileen: A greengrocer’s tree. (Her laugh is tight and forced.)

Headmaster: No. no. A tree out of The Garden. And that’s how they see things, you know. I think they really do see things in a way that – in a way that they eventually lose. Not only lose, but forget they ever had.

Eileen: Yes, so why – (Again, she stops abruptly.)

Headmaster: No – do go on. Please say it.

Eileen: This is really not the time or the place, and it sounds  unkind – but – oh, excuse me – but if you understand all that about a child’s mind – why – (Again, she stops.)

Headmaster: (Dully) Why do I hit them so often?

(Fractional pause.)

Eileen: (Quietly) Yes.

Headmaster: So that they can learn enough to keep a job in the pits, Miss Everson. What do they want with visions, or trees shaped like diamonds? Or any memory at all of the Garden of Eden? Cheap music will do, cheap music. And beer. And skittles.

Eileen: Oh but that’s – that’s –

Headmaster: (Bleakly) Dreadful. Yes.