An argument celebrates Dennis Potter as a true author (auteur) of his television dramas.

Dennis Potter

Dennis Potter was amongst the many screenwriters that took cinema and television to a higher level of acknowledgement, creating a pivotal moment in the artistic side of television. Initially, the notion of the true author was in the cinematic medium and later considered in television. Through this theory, critics have analyzed the work of skilled directors and writers, benefiting from their styles throughout the development of media. The television dramatist Dennis Potter’s unique style of narrating was clearly distinguished in his work, especially in The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986). He attracted audiences, critics, and journalists who mentioned him as a great writer and identified him through his work as a true auteur. 

The pursuit for the establishment of individual authors marked the beginning of critical studies in film during the late 1950s. The French film journal, Cahiers du Cinéma, produced a manifesto arguing politique des auteurs (auteur theory). It had originated to differentiate art from mass entertainment and challenge the hostility toward American cinema (Coward, 1987: 80). The journal argued that auteurs in cinema stamped their personality, vision, and aesthetic style in their work (oeuvre). The theory is a perspective in which the director is seen as the cinematic author looking for evidence of similar concerns, themes, iconography, Mise-en-scène, or other stylistic choices to understand the text (Chandler and Munday, 2011: 26). The idea of the true auteur in television developed with television drama. It was differentiated and influenced by other media platforms such as cinema, radio, and theatre. Firstly, as opposed to cinema, television recognizes scriptwriters as true authors rather than directors because television was following specific standards which were carried from radio, such as the writer’s privileges and are above the technical tasks of production or direction. Secondly, many television drama outputs were based on theatre dramatization of authors or literary models such as Dickens, Shakespeare, Brontes, or modern writers such as Malcolm Bradbury, reinforcing the idea of text as the release of one individual mind (Coward, 1987: 81-83). However, the theory has been criticized for its romantic individualism and authorial determinism in terms of social forces in film production (Chandler and Munday, 2011: 26).

Sarris’s auteur criteria

The English dramatist Dennis Potter is a relevant example. He is a writer who worked mainly as a television dramatist and worked on almost 40 television plays. He was preoccupied with his inner-self and had concerns with spirituality and philosophical matters leading him to show a surrealistic and non-naturalistic style using various techniques (Cook, 2014). For example, Moonlight on the Highway (ITV, 1969) is revolved around a journalist who shares Potter’s initials. It also shows a fascination with the popular music of the 1930s and 1940s (Cook, 1998: 64). Similarly, in Pennies from Heaven (BBC, 1978), a musical play of six parts, Potter used more than sixty songs from the Bowlly Era. Non-naturalistically, the characters in the story weave out of the play into musical numbers, miming the original voices. Moreover, Potter also used to set his plays in Forest of Dean, his birthplace. For example, A Beast with Two Backs (BBC, 1968) tells a story set in the Forest of Dean. It is about miners stoning a bear to death after hearing that one of them attacked a child (Cook, 1998: 47). Also, later in Blue Remembered Hills (BBC, 1979), the activities of seven children were performed by adult actors during the Second World War in the Forest of Dean as well. Brilliantly, the play shows the distinction in the nature of childhood behaviour, focusing on the lightning shifts of mood, loyalty, fantasies, and cruelty (Brandt, 1981: 185-189). 

The Singing Detective established Potter as a great writer. In his work, he was moving between fantasy and reality and referring to the styles of television and film (Coward, 1987: 84). The play can only be explained by reference to the true author Dennis Potter. It was formed by juxtaposing television and film genres with each other without a clear hierarchy of discourse, marking oppositions between reality, fantasy, art and life. Similarly, the serial narrative did not develop familiarly. The scenes are juxtaposed rather than connected in a linear sequence of cause and effect, and its meaning only clarified through the culmination of juxtaposed scenes (Mulvey and Sexton, 2007: 127). It shows intense realist scenes set in a hospital that suddenly replaced by film noir or musical numbers. For example, in the first episode, a consultant’s ward round is shown in its medical state. Then suddenly, the reality of the hospital is transformed into a musical number performed by hospital staff and returns to the painful reality of the patient Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon). The cognitions in Marlow’s head are the central point that dramatizes his fragments of memory, fantasy, and experience. He is a writer of detective fiction with a horrific skin condition similar to Potter’s real-life (Brandt, 1993: 235-238). Continually, Potter is trying to keep his audiences’ minds running. For example, there is a purposeful sense of repetition in the serial. Some scenes, in the beginning, appear in shorthand, such as the woman’s body taken out of the river or the mother making love to an unknown soldier. At first, it seems in relation to Marlow’s fantasies, then gradually the scene reappears more and more in relation to personal memories by recognizing the built-up pattern of repetition to the moment where fantasies and memories are linked together (Coward, 1987: 85-87). 

The Singing Detective trailer

The serial drama The Singing Detective was a cultural event that revealed and explored the obsessions and themes of Potter’s previous works. When it was premiered, it was watched by eight million people. However, the serial contained complex and radical ideas criticized, such as his usage of explicit sexuality and fantasy. It was described as a source of offence to the sizable minority (Crompton, 2012). Still, it was necessary for a true author to block out the negative criticism of some radical aspects. Likewise, Brimstone and Treacle (BBC, 1987), a play was written in 1976 and was banned by BBC because of a rape scene that allegedly portrayed Potter as a sexist writer. However, it was broadcasted later in 1987 under the new management at BBC (Grodal, Larsen and Laursen, 2005: 197). In the same year, Alan Yentob, Head of Arts Programmes on BBC2, responded to the critical success of The Singing Detective and interviewed Potter on Arena (BBC, 1975-present) programme. Several subjects were touched in the interview about his work from 1959, his life, his childhood in the Forest of Dean, and his political experience (BBC, 2018). Yentob emphasized the correlation of Potter’s life to understand his work by connecting the themes and settings to his autobiography. The interview was an attempt by the BBC to establish television’s true authorship by showing Potter’s style in relation to The Singing Detective in retrospective to his previous plays (Coward, 1987: 83-84).

In conclusion, the Auteur theory started in the cinematic medium to identify artistic directors through their unique styles. Subsequently, the television field started integrating the idea of the theory that stemmed from cinema, but it identified the screenwriter as the auteur rather than the director. Television Dramatist Dennis Potter is a good example. He had his own style, which can be certainly recognized through his conglomeration of mixing various techniques in his work. He was able to combine reality and fantasy and simultaneously interweaves the styles of television and film. The characters and their performances are also treated differently, such as using adults playing the role of children or miming musical numbers. His masterpiece, the serial drama The Singing Detective, reflected his experience in his life and showed great ability in narrating the story. It smartly grasped the audience’s attention by keeping their interest akin to the last episode to understand the meanings of the scenes. Accordingly, the press and BBC realized Potter’s individuality. He was a great writer who expressed unconventional patterns in his work and defined himself as a true auteur. 

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Bibliography:

BBC. (2018). BBC Four – Arena, Dennis Potter. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01bpccn [Accessed 18 Oct. 2018].

Brandt, G. (1981). British Television Drama. Bath: The Pitman Press.

Brandt, G. (1993). British television drama in the 1980s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chandler, D. and Munday, R. (2011). A Dictionary of Media and Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cook, J. (1998). Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Cook, J. (2014). BFI Screenonline: Potter, Dennis (1935-1994) Biography. Available at: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/451441/ [Accessed 18 Oct. 2018].

Coward, R. (1987). Dennis Potter and the Question of the Television Author. Critical Quarterly29(4), 79-87.

Crompton, S. (2012). Dennis Potter: Has TV drama lost its nerve?. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/sarah-crompton/9698742/Dennis-Potter-Has-TV-drama-lost-its-nerve.html [Accessed 18 Oct. 2018].

Grodal, T., Larsen, B., and Laursen, I. (2005). Visual Authorship: Creativity and Intentionality in Media. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Mulvey, L. and Sexton, J. (2007). Experimental British Television. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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