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In Search of an Author:
Biography, Authorship and
The way in which authors are produced, or constructed, must be explicated. And the complexity of their works, which escapes any unifying formula, must be capable of recognition.
Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art (1981)
`The Author', he said eventually, spitting out the word. `He is the one. He — arranges things, plots, writes them down, pins me on the — the p ... page.'
Dennis Potter, Hide and Seek (1973), p.7.
Mrs Mary Whitehouse (President of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association) talked in 1989 about the reasons she had been offended by Potter's highly acclaimed six-part serial, The Singing Detective (1986). Expressing her concern to Dr Anthony Clare in an interview on BBC radio 4 In the Psychiatrist Chair, she complained about a scene in which a young boy secretly watches his mother make love with a stranger. From this piece of dramatic action she concluded that like his character the reason Potter had himself become ill was because, as a child, he had caught his mother in a similar compromising position. `The heart of the problem', she said, `was the fact that Dennis Potter, the reason for all his skin trouble ... was shock. You see, as a child he had seen his mother having sex with a strange man in the grass. The playwright's ownmother, Mrs Margaret Potter, was understandably upset by Whitehouse's comments. As a result, she sued the BBC for libel and won. In an apology, The Listener (which had published the interview) reported that `Mrs Potter remained faithful to her husband throughout their married life, and the scene in question was written entirely from Mr Potter's imagination'. Whitehouse responded by explaining that she had temporarily `blacked out' halfway through the interview and made her analysis after coming round. `I am quite certain', she said, `in more normal circumstances I would never have made such a remark'.
Extreme as this example may seem, this is precisely the sort of critical analysis which has all too frequently been applied to Potter's drama. Journalists, critics and academics have continued to look at his biography as a means of understanding and interpreting the work. Interviews, articles, television programmes and books have all focused on the events of his life, constructing around his work a collection of biographical `facts' and personal details which are almost as well known as the drama itself. His working-class childhood in the Forest of Dean, the difficulties surrounding his transition to Oxford, and the well-documented circumstances of his ill health (the playwright suffered from psoriatic arthropathy, a debilitating combination of psoriasis and arthritis) have become the stock and trade of journalistic profiles, as well as attracting serious critical attention. So why has Potter's life been allowed to play such a large role in the interpretation of his work and what are the consequences of discussing his fiction in such explicitly biographical terms? This opening chapter will explore the construction of Potter both as a `personality' and an `author' so that the reasons for my own critical methodology can be clearly outlined before attempting to offer a detailed analysis of the work itself. It is essential that these concerns are immediately addressed, as the critic's approach towards the issue of biography and authorship will ultimately determine the way the work itself will be conceived and interpreted as a whole.
ONLY MAKE BELIEVE?: THE QUESTION OF BIOGRAPHY
Potter himself cannot be regarded as entirely blameless for the media's obsession with the details of his personal life. His television drama, journalism, novels, screenplays, interviews and even the occasional lecture all drew heavily on seemingly biographical material. `Base Ingratitude?', his first published article in 1958 talked openly about his family, his background and his life as a working-class `scholarship boy'. As did his first book The Glittering Coffin (1960) and his earliest television programme Between Two Rivers (1960), a documentary in which he took the BBC cameras back to his place of birth in the Forest of Dean (see Chapter Two). In his debut year as a television dramatist both Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965) and its companion piece Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (1965) seemed to reflect his own experiences at Oxford and his unsuccessful attempt to run for parliament as a Labour candidate in 1964. Later plays such as Only Make Believe (1973) and Double Dare (1976) centred around writers who showed signs of illness and had a background surprisingly similar to Potter's own. His first novel, Hide and Seek, concerned a writer who was brought up in the Forest of Dean, had been educated at Oxford and was suffering from psoriatic arthropathy. The Singing Detective centred around a writer suffering from the same illness and tormented by childhood memories which had striking similarities with Potter's own, while the posthumous Karaoke (1996) portrayed a television playwright from the Forest of Nead (Dean spelt backwards) suffering from a similar form of incurable cancer from which Potter died.
Potter even seemed eager to discuss certain details of his own life in public. His journalistic writings were frequently autobiographical. Take for instance `Dennis Potter Exposed' (from the pre-Murdoch Sun) in which he spent his time furiously attacking his critics and celebrating a brief remission in his illness. `The alien world leapt up in a blaze of euphoria when I discovered that I had been given back my health and strength', he wrote. `Yes. It's true. I can open jars again. And hold a pen in a proper grip.... On Friday I ran again, Friday was also my thirty-third birthday — and I hadn't run since I was 27.' It is also surprising that a man who consistently referred to himself as `reclusive by nature' would feel the need to give so many interviews, often going over profoundly personal details and facing the same biographical questioning. In fact, Potter became something of a media celebrity in his later life, giving interviews not only to British `art programmes' like Omnibus, Arena and The Southbank Show, but chat shows like Whicker! and Wogan. He would frequently recall the same memories about learning to read at the age of three, the Biblical imagery in which he first saw the Forest of Dean, and the terrifying impact of his illness when it first descended on him as a young man.
Potter even revealed that he had been sexually abused as a young child in a preface to a collection of published plays in 1984. However, while prepared to make known this most intimate of facts he consistently refused to give any further details. His 1993 `MacTaggart Memorial Lecture' included, by his own admission, a great deal of `autobiographical' and `recycled material' (Potter, 1994, p.33) — even choosing the occasion to again refer to his childhood abuse. Indeed, the lecture itself seemed more like a personalised `sermon' than a public address to the British television industry. He even consented to one last televised appearance in 1994 when diagnosed as suffering from a form of terminal cancer. In a BAFTA award-winning interview with Melvyn Bragg for Channel 4 Without Walls, he talked openly about his life, his work and his imminent death, producing what one critic later described as one of television's `most extraordinary events'.
This interview with Bragg provided a curiously fitting platform for Potter's caustic personality. Complete with a flask of liquid morphine to ease the pain of cancer, he seemed to embody all the essential elements of the `Romantic artist' (see Chapter Three). Struggling to complete his last work of art before his untimely death, he spoke movingly of `seeing the blossom' outside his window with a renewed clarity and vision; and how the very nearness of death meant that he could finally experience life in `the present tense' (Potter, 1994, p.5). Let us not forget, however, that Potter must have been only too aware that he was ultimately engineering the way his death (and life) would later be perceived. As Jenny Diski has since put it, `[t]he death of Dennis Potter may have been authored by God, but it was adapted for television by Dennis Potter'. Part of its purpose, after all, was an attempt to convince Channel 4 and the BBC to collaborate on his final two pieces of work.
Yet how reliable were the playwright's accounts of his own life? W. Stephen Gilbert has already cast doubt on some aspects of the Potter mythology. He questions the early poverty which the playwright frequently described in some detail. `Potter'; he tells us, `perhaps selected the facts a little, building myths around himself.' Later he even reconsiders the reality of Potter's childhood abuse. While reserving my own judgement on such private details, I suggest that the critic needs to be more than a little careful when taking any biographical material purely at face value. As Potter himself put it, `I do not believe what writers say about themselves, except when they think they are not saying it about themselves. This is ... because the masking of the Self is an essential part of the trade. Even, or especially, when "using" the circumstances, pleasures and dilemmas of one's own life.' (Potter, 1984, p.13)
Despite his apparent willingness to talk about his own life, Potter held an almost neurotic dislike of any work purporting to tell a person's life-story. `Autobiography is the cheapest, nastiest, literary form', he told Graham Fuller, `I think only biography beats it.' (Fuller, 1993, p.10) In his last play Cold Lazarus (1996), he typically has the central male protagonist's last request to be simply `no biography' (Potter, 1996, p.213). Furthermore, he consistently denied that his own work was in any way autobiographical. `I've always deliberately, as a device, used the equivalent of a novelist's first-person narrative', he told Bragg in his last interview. `You know when the novelist says I, he doesn't mean I, and yet you want him to mean I, and I've used, for example, in The Singing Detective, I used the physical circumstances of psoriatic arthropathy ... and geographical realities, and it seemed so personal then, but I often do that. It isn't. I make it up, the story.' (Potter, 1994, p.12) In particular, he argued that he deliberately and consciously experimented with the notion of `autobiography' in his work, rather than attempting to produce a straightforward autobiographical account of his life. `I like in television playing around with the conventions of autobiography, as opposed to the reality of it', he told Paul Madden, `because it's got much more charge to it, a much more personal feel about it, but it is artifice as much as any other form — a convention which one wishes to use, and which is very usable on television.'
Predictably, then, the playwright himself consistently argued against any critical analysis which attempted to connect the life with the work. `I don't think that biographical criticism is such an easy way of assuming you get the key to a body of work', he told John Cook. `Nor am I interested in the sort of criticism that tries to make links between the work and the life. As a function of criticism I think it's invalid and impertinent. Biographical criticism doesn't really discover anything.' This part of the interview with Potter is, however, omitted from Cook's subsequent book which surprisingly gives prominent attention to biography. `[T]he importance of Potter's early life to the subsequent work cannot be overstated', he declares in his introduction, before going on to discuss the playwright's childhood and his early life in considerable detail.
Cook's critique, however, is no different from the great majority of the criticism which Potter's drama has attracted. It is believed that John Wyver's planned book on Potter was never published because he clashed with the playwright on the personal details which he had attempted to link with the work — especially in regard to sex. `Every writer is the product of his upbringing', Purser tells us, but here time and place and community conspired together with unusual attention to detail' (p.169). At least W. Stephen Gilbert's (1995) was honest enough to proclaim his approach in his title — mixing, as he does, a combination of both biography and critical analysis of the plays. `I am concerned with his biography only insofar as the circumstances of his life inform the work', Gilbert assures us. But, as he warns, `[t]his may prove uncomfortably far'. Only Rosalind Coward's article attempts to investigate the validity of a biographical analysis. As Coward puts it, critics `attempt to impose one meaning on Dennis Potter's work, either a meaning which can be explained by his life (themes) or by his character and distinctiveness (style)'.
Unfortunately Coward proves to be the exception rather than the rule. What the majority of critiques (including countless articles, profiles, television programmes and interviews) all have in common is the unstated assumption that one can uncover the `truth' about a work of art by discovering `facts' about its author's life. The obsession with the playwright's illness, for example, makes an implicit connection between the writer's biography and the themes in his work. All too frequently, however, the physical effects of the illness are graphically described only in an attempt to construct Potter as a `tortured genius' — suffering for his art and driven by `inner demons'. Even the physical problems of holding a pen (Potter's hands were crippled by arthritis) becomes a metaphor for a much greater struggle. According to Cook, the `fact of disease was literally the making of both him and his career'. In this way, Potter's illness becomes implicitly linked with the passion of his vocation and the `quality' of his writing. `Great pain' equals `Great Art'; biographical interpretation is disguised as critical analysis, and the connection between the life and the work simply taken for granted.
This approach to Potter's drama is all the more surprising when one considers that contemporary critical theory has tended to question the validity of analysing a `text' through the life and `personality' of its author. Roland Barthes's seminal essay `The Death of the Author' argued that the `text' (taken from the Latin texere, to weave) is a complex and intricate pattern of `signs' which can never be satisfactorily reduced to a single authorial intention. The invention of `the Author' as a personality only provides the critic with a mission to discover the `man' or `woman' beneath the work; `when the Author has been found, the text is "explained" — victory to the critic'. However, `to give a text an Author', Barthes argues, `is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing'.
Barthes suggests that such an approach does little to help the critic to explain or understand the highly complex and frequently ambiguous workings of a `text'. It should no longer be regarded as possessing a single `theological' meaning, but should, instead, be seen for what it is, `a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture'. Clearly Potter's biographical details provides a convenient, chronological and historical way of assembling and classifying, what is, ultimately, an unusually prolific, highly ambiguous, and frequently contradictory collection of `texts'. As Michel Foucault explains in his essay `What is an Author?', the `Author-Function' simply allows the critic to include references to an author's life and personal motives as a convenient way of collating and ultimately containing the sometimes disparate elements within his or her work:
The author explains the presence of certain events within a text, as well as their transformations, distortions, and their various modifications (and this through an author's biography or by reference to his particular point of view, in the analysis of his social preferences and his position within a class or by delineating his fundamental objectives). The author also constitutes a principle of unity in writing where any unevenness of production is ascribed to changes caused by evolution, maturation, or outside influence. In addition, the author serves to neutralize the contradictions that are found in a series of texts.
Critics of Potter who have taken a biographical approach to the work are also in danger of neglecting one of its central themes. Indeed, his drama seemed to be unusually aware of the ambiguous connection between a writer's life and their work. Rather than simply offering a straightforward (if dramatised) reflection of his life, his work deliberately calls into question the whole notion of `authorship'. Single plays, novels and serials such as Only Make Believe, Double Dare, The Singing Detective, Blackeyes (1989), Karaoke (1996) and Hide and Seek are self-consciously about the way personal identity is a mixture of both `real' and `imagined' experience. They focus, in particular, on a writer's relationship with a piece of work, and the narrow, blurred and often dangerous line which frequently divides `fact' from `fiction' and `fantasy' from `reality'. Personal `authorship' (or `sovereignty' as Potter preferred to call it) is consistently portrayed as a `fluid' combination of real, fantasised, repressed and memorised experience. Seen in this light, his own, well-known biographical similarities with many of his male protagonists simply adds a further and deliberately confusing dimension to the work, forcing the audience (and critic) to re-examine the means by which the interior landscape of his characters are constructed.
What my own approach to Potter's work will offer, then, is a long overdue attempt to study his television drama without allowing the almost mythological status of his life to dominate the critical agenda. Rather than simply accepting that the details of his biography are entitled to determine and organise the interpretation of the work, I shall examine the drama without explicitly referring to his personal life at all. While Potter's career in television is an important aspect of my analysis I shall not attempt to connect his life outside of television with themes in the work. Issues surrounding his illness or his own childhood abuse will be set to one side so that a critical examination of the plays can be conducted within a social and cultural context without reducing all analysis to a covert form of `biography'. Interviews with Potter will, of course, be referred to, but only when they shed light on some aspect of the work or production, rather than adding to another unofficial `biography'. Consequently, this critical appraisal will be the first extensive account to be consciously critical of the connections made between Potter's `life' and his `work'. It will allow his work to set the agenda, rather than insisting that the personal circumstances of his own life dictate how the work should be contextualised and examined. Not only is this what Potter himself would have wanted, it makes, as I will show, an enormous difference to the way the work is finally interpreted and understood.
SECRET FRIENDS?: THE PROBLEM OF AUTHORSHIP
If the question of biography was not problematic enough, television and film studies have both been troubled by the recurrent concern over authorship in general. Whereas in literary studies a text such as a novel or poem can be seen to be the product of one, identifiable writer, television and film are such highly collaborative media that it is not always clear which figure in the production team should be prioritised (if at all) as `the author'. In both television and film a script will be interpreted and transformed by directors, producers, editors, actors, production designers, costume designers, choreographers, cameramen, composers and so on. As Edward Buscombe puts it `[t]aking all those before, during and after the work in the (television) studio the number of people working on a single drama series must run well into three figures if one includes those employed in the company infra-structure: accountants, telephonists, secretaries and so forth'.
The collaborative nature of film and television has not been reflected, however, in the various discourses which surrounds these two media. On the contrary, both film and television have tended to prioritise one significant individual as the `author' of an entire production. David Self has argued that in our natural desire to see film and television as an art form `we try to make it fit in with our preconceptions that a work of art must be "pure", the unsullied product of genius, an individualist, working alone to express his or her vision'. According to Self, this critical assumption, however, has its roots grounded more in `Romanticism' than in `logic'.
Yet why is it that film and television have taken two separately creative individuals as the focus of their attention? As John Wyver explains in his article `The Great Authorship Mystery', `cinema is assumed to be a director's medium. From the time of D. W. Griffith on, certain commercial directors, such as Hitchcock, have been recognised as the "author" of each of their films.... Television drama, in contrast, has always been identified as a writer's medium'. As Wyver points out, the difference is deeply ingrained in both industries and is reflected in screen titles and the layout of magazines and journals like the Radio Times. For example, many television viewers will easily identify The Singing Detective with its writer Dennis Potter, but most will be unaware that it was directed by Jon Amiel. In the cinema, of course, the reverse is true. The majority of cinema goers will know that ET: the Extraterrestrial (1982) was directed by Steven Spielberg but will have little idea that the screenplay was actually written by Melissa Mathison. Such a significant difference in the approach to film and television authorship is also reflected in contemporary criticism.
So why has such a split been allowed to occur in the critical interpretation of the moving image? John Caughie's edited collection of articles entitled Theories of Authorship: A Reader (1981) certainly suggests the complexity of the debate within film studies. Put at its simplest, the `auteur theory' (which first gained significance within the pages of the French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s) has tended to prioritise the director as `the artist' who `created' the film. Despite its problematic history, the `theory' has proved a remarkably resilient one, influencing film studies to the present day. As the American film critic Andrew Sarris has put it, the `premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value. Over a group of films a director must exhibit certain recurring characteristics of style which serve as his signature'.
Television drama, in contrast, has continually preferred to focus its attention on the role of the writer. The reasons for this are partly historical and can be traced back to its early links with radio and its cultural identification with the theatre. The `live' nature of television during the 1950s promoted the view that it was a `window on the world' whose primary concern was with relaying live pictures directly into the home. Subsequently early television drama saw its role as simply transmitting live pictures from the West End theatres or else theatrical sets were reconstructed under stylised studio conditions, complete with intervals, prosceniums and curtains. Furthermore, the BBC's notion of `public service broadcasting' (under the directorship of John Reith) meant that television looked towards the classical theatre for its material and its artistic heritage. Indeed, what other name should proceed a transmission of Hamlet or Macbeth than that of its playwright William Shakespeare? It must have seemed a logical enough decision, especially to those who had been trained in radio and repertory theatre as so many of them had. As a result, early television drama developed few aesthetic properties of its own and the electronic studio became an extension of the theatrical stage as television gradually built its reputation as `the largest theatre in the world'.
This bias towards the writer continued when television began making its own specially written drama for the small screen in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The television producer Sydney Newman sent his team to scour the provincial repertory theatres in search of new writers. Directors like Ken Loach and producers like Tony Garnett also became significant individuals on the scene of British television drama during the 1960s, but the majority of the critical attention was still focused almost exclusively on the writer. Unlike the cinema, where a director's apparent use of film could be repeatedly analysed, the ephemerality of early television (recording techniques were primitive and expensive) meant that the task of the director was seen more in terms of providing technical rather than creative authority to a production. The early studio restrictions also meant that the television director was seen as `directing' the flow of events around him or her (in the tradition of a theatre director) rather than actively constructing the mise en scéne. Furthermore, the relatively small dimensions of the television screen ensured that the spoken word was usually prioritised over the visual spectacle. While the writer of a television script is revered for his `creative imagination', the `technical' skills' of the production team are generally regarded as a means of simply relaying that original creative act to the screen.
The move away from studio drama in the early 1980s and the widespread use of film has meant, however, that there has been a shift in the way both television drama is made and conceived. The BBC's Drama Department is now called the Film Department, while the success of Britain's Channel Four Films (productions made with both cinematic release and a television broadcast in mind) has meant that the line which had previously divided television drama from film has become increasingly blurred. Yet the writer is still generally prioritised as the single creative will in television drama today. The answer for this may rest, however, with economic considerations rather than artistic ones. Identifying a drama series with a single, celebrated `author' is often crucial for its economic survival. As Bob Millington puts it, authorship `affords a neat mechanism around which programmes can be marketed'. In Britain well-known writers such as Alan Bleasdale, Alan Bennett and Lynda La Plante can guarantee a relatively large audience to a new drama series on the strength of their past reputations alone; thus securing their authorial dominance.
A named `author' also produces connotations of `quality' onto a particular programme. Whereas the apparently formulaic conventions of the police or hospital series will not usually be associated with a particular writer or director, a named `author' suggests a programme is the product of a single creative will, the result of an `artist's' individual talent and sensibility. By foregrounding a single `author' television is able to signal to the viewer that this is quality drama; the work of a creative individual rather than simply a formulaic television series. Thus the `author' becomes the central figure by which `quality drama' is both marketed and discussed. As Jon Cook (no connection with the former) has put it:
a new series or play by Dennis Potter is both anticipated and received as a significant cultural event. It is discussed in terms of the evolution of the writer's vision and style, seen as the result of a single creative will, assessed in terms of an oeuvre, decoded in terms of its author's recurrent obsessions. When a television narrative is in this way identified with a named or known writer, it confers quality on the programme. The contrasting fate of the writers of soap operas makes the point.
Many individuals working in television drama, however, have been less than happy with the amount of attention heaped upon a television playwright like Dennis Potter. Some have pointed out that the script is only one creative act, important as it is, in the overall production. Piers Haggard, the director of Pennies from Heaven (1978) argued that in `a good director's hands other things develop — silences, moments.... Drama does not live by words alone.' Indeed, Potter was perhaps unusual in the fact that his illness meant that for the majority of his career he actually had very little involvement in the production of his own scripts. Often the director was given a surprising amount of artistic freedom. No doubt Potter himself discovered just how important the director's role was when he finally turned to directing his own screenplays in the late 1980s with disastrous results. Indeed, the disappointing reception of Blackeyes and Secret Friends (1992) left the writer feeling personally demoralised.
Just how influential a director could be in the production of a Potter script recently came to light with Jon Amiel's discussion of The Singing Detective. As Amiel later explained in various interviews, his influence on the production came even before the first day's shooting. He persuaded Potter, in a series of early meetings, to alter crucial aspects of the script which included changes to the detective story, the role of Marlow's wife and even its ending. His significance became even more pronounced during the actual shooting. In an article by Joost Hunningher, Amiel and members of his production team have even explained how the famous `Dry-Bones' sequence was originally conceived without its playwright's involvement. Perhaps one of Potter's most memorable scenes (broadcast as an example of `vintage Potter' by BBC's One O'clock News on the announcement of his death) it was, in fact, a product of intense collaboration. While Potter's script had originally set the scene in a black void with skeleton costumes, it was Amiel, the designer Jim Clay and the choreographer Quinny Sacks who eventually came up with the idea of turning the hospital into a `night-club' — complete with high-kicking nurses and the now famous Busby Berkeley dance routine.
Yet such influences, however, were hardly acknowledged at the time of its first broadcast in the midst of the critics' obsession with the serial's writer. `Very few of the reviews even mentioned me', Amiel later told Derek Malcolm, `they called it Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective'. This was in stark contrast to the critical acclaim Amiel later received for his direction of the Hollywood movie Sommersby (1992). `That's the difference between television and film,' he argued, I did the same job on both. I made significant contribution to the script and to the way it looked. But I got no credit for one and a lot for the other. It doesn't make sense.'
|List of Plates||viii|
|Introduction `Switch on, tune in and grow'||1|
|1. In Search of an Author: Biography, Authorship and|
|2. Between Two Worlds: Class, Nostalgia and the `Democratic|
|3. Between Good and Evil: Religion and the Romantic Vision||70|
|4. `Banality with a Beat': The Paradox of Popular Culture||110|
|5. Mothers and Mistresses: Women, Sexuality and the Male|
|Conclusion `A Fitting Memorial?'||190|