Dennis Potter hates to leave home. ”Fifteen minutes out and I’m homesick. I really do yearn for the idea and the actuality of England,” says the television writer best known in this country for two PBS series: Pennies From Heaven, a six-part drama about a 1930s sheet-music salesman that aired in 1978, and The Singing Detective, a six-parter about the disintegration and healing of a writer of cheap detective novels, starring Michael Gambon, which aired in 1988. Both dramas — brilliant, disconcerting, gorgeously produced — used popular songs recorded in other eras bursting from the mouths of contemporary men and women. (Don’t be misled: The Pennies TV series, starring Bob Hoskins, was the original; Steve Martin starred in the weaker 1981 movie remake.)
Thus it was a reluctant Potter who left home recently for a brief trip to U.S. to attend the opening of ”The Television of Dennis Potter,” a retrospective of 33 of his television plays, running through May 31 at New York’s Museum of Television & Radio, as well as to promote the American premiere of a dark new feature film he directed and wrote, Secret Friends, starring Alan Bates. The retrospective is the first chance most Americans will have to see such Potter classics as Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965), Blue Remembered Hills (1979), and Brimstone and Treacle, his most controversial script (in which the devil rapes a brain-damaged girl), which was produced in 1976 but did not air on the BBC until 1987.
Although widely considered to be Brit-ain’s most treasured TV resource, the 56-year-old Potter might not have found his vocation — the word is his — had illness not changed his life. A coal miner’s son from the west of England, with an honors degree from Oxford, he thought he might become a politician. But then came the ”visitations”-episodes of psoriasis and arthritis that first appeared when he was 26, and that have afflicted him ever since, setting his skin on fire and leaving his hands permanently clenched.
Campaign promises abandoned, Potter stuck a pen between his locked thumb and the first knuckle of his crippled index finger and attended to his calling. Potter works now in silence in his home in Ross-on-Wye, 10 miles from where he was born. His wife, Margaret, is a local girl; his three children are grown now and his youngest daughter, Sarah, works as his transcriber.
Recently, says Potter, he has felt well enough to break out of his reclusiveness. So he directed his first feature film. So he sat in a Manhattan hotel room last month, receiving journalists, TV crews, and an admiration he claims surprises and moves him, especially since his own views about U.S. television are so despairing.
”American TV has been handed over to the hucksters,” he says. But he’s an equal-opportunity curmudgeon: He rails, too, against the class structure of the country he loves — in fact, against anything that stands in the way of his doing what he so urgently needs to do.
”All I want is my space,” he insists. And while Potter yearns for home, he prepares to direct his newest mini-series, a six-parter called Lipstick on Your Collar, which his longtime producer, Kenith Trodd, calls ”vintage Potter.”
”I’ve been writing the same play all my life,” says the playwright. It’s crucial to the soul of television that he continue to do so.