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by Irving B. Harrison, M.D.

Chapter Five


1989. Producer Rick McCallum. Director Dennis Potter.
Based on the novel Blackeyes (1987) Faber and Faber, London.

Potter was eager to counter the accusation of misogyny to which his earlier works had given rise, and to demonstrate with this play his sensitivity to the dignity of women. He directed the play himself, without Trodd's participation. His off-camera verbal role as narrator, commentator, and preacher proved offensive to many critics. The play gained at best a mixed reception, but it offers an unparalleled opportunity to document earlier impressions and to advance thoughts about the sources of and limits to Potter's creativity. The play is most engaging as the expression of his sometimes deliberate, sometimes carefully camouflaged (by the use of a double), and sometimes almost certainly unconscious autobiographical revelations. These are conspicuously sexual as usual, but they disclose and illuminate the reciprocating relationship of sex and art, of fact and fabrication, of exposure, disclosure and cover up.

The play:

A highly stylized silent scene precedes the credits: very lightly clad, a black-haired model alternately struts on a raised course along the far walls of a large room, and shrinks, cowering, into a sort of niche. Meanwhile, Potter intones: "She cannot hide from herself." Between the viewer and the model, a number of naked and very life-like lucite female mannequins are carefully arranged.

Jessica is a beautiful fashion model, strikingly green-eyed. Subjected to coercive pressures and myriad temptations, she has followed a "Go along, get along" path of amorality. We are expected to know, perhaps from the introductory scene, that there exists a bruised soul hidden beneath a hard exterior. She is consumed by hatred of the men who have exploited her, and determined to exact revenge, although, as usual, we are in the dark as to the true origins of her hatred. In response to aged writer Uncle Maurice's request, Jessica has given him a factual account of her career, hoping that he would produce a shattering expose. Oddly, however, she also hopes that in attempting to make a book of her revelations, he will suffer an humiliation which he will find shattering. She detests him, and it never becomes clear why she has even maintained a relationship with him, which entailed considerable indulgence of his foibles. She regards him as a pompous old fart.

Jessica is totally mistaken in her expectations. In fact, that vengeful scheme back-fires with a vengeance of its own. Maurice Kingsley's book,"Sugar Bush," is a smash hit. Jessica cannot endure the conclusion that her long-sought revenge failed to have the thrust she intended. An added reason given for her current anger is that his narrative presented her as pathologically detached. She reads from her uncle's book: "The water came over her shining boots, swallowed up her knees and long thighs, and then made a line around the naked swell of her belly. In next to no time, there was nothing but her head to be seen, then a few thick strands of floating black hair, and soon she was completely submerged, with no sign of fuss or struggle. Whatever traces she may have left on the lives of others, this girl, she had gone now, without a ripple. The water smoothed itself flat, and reflected back the sky."

"Sugar Bush had ended in this way," Potter intoned. "These were the words Jessica had to make a start with, if she were to prevent a not especially hideous nightmare from leaking so much more nastily into the light of day. Although she looked so mild and demure, there was murder in her heart . . . She needed to slither and splash into the rotting swamp behind the bony walls of the old man's head." Jessica is, in other words, about to commence her own literary undertaking, to assert her identity, and to expose her uncle's mistakes.

She imagines a scene: Kingsley, asleep in his disgusting bed, is dreaming that he is on a deck chair near Round Pond in Kensington Garden. She is unable to concentrate, however. She ceases her effort and has a large vodka. Potter writes:

Jessica, trying to do the same thing [i.e., as Kingsley, namely, to write a best-seller] was not up to it . . . The point is, she couldn't do it. And, in my opinion, that realization was driving her, fast, toward the very rim of insanity. Perhaps she had crossed it already, but not so far that she could not be brought back. But by what means? . . .
Once I had asked the question, I knew that the answer had to be a matter of accident, or, if you want a more comforting word, coincidence . . . And how, not being God, and with other chickens to feed, how am I going to arrange that, since accident and design are mutually contradictory?

The scene continues to evolve independent of Jessica: "Unaware that Jessica had withdrawn or lost attention . . . Kingsley allowed his eyelids to gather weight, and droop . . ." He daydreams that a beautiful young woman, dressed only in the flimsiest underwear except for highly polished boots, approaches his deck chair - a wistful apparition. The daydreamer's fantasy gives way to a dream: the young woman becomes Blackeyes, his literary creation. Obscenely, Kingsley entreats her sexual favors. She draws his attention to her raw and bloody fingers and her torn nails. Having tonelessly told him that she had decided to "go," she walks away from him and into the pond, drowning herself (26). Others in the park continue their activities as before. Only he, he realizes, is shouting and gesticulating.

Potter never resolves the confusing tangle. Originally, Blackeyes had seemed stupid and insipid, as well as naive and possibly dangerous. He tells us that this is because "not once in the narrative had the elderly male creator allowed the young female subject to ask herself a single question about her identity or her purpose . . .", and: "Kingsley had not let her thoughts range back to any childhood experiences or any earlier aspirations, so that the final crisis in her life was made to seem an extension of the passivity that had characterized her working life."

Uncle Maurice Kingsley is 77, "a faded relic," with "bizarre habits, and dated, almost fin-de-siecle mannerisms." Pompous ass, heavily addicted smoker, pervert, and half-dead old literary lion, he is also a guilt-ridden sinner, frequently seized with terror that he will be apprehended for some unspecified crime. He breaks wind in the opening scene of the play, a loud and lengthy fart. Heard but unseen, Potter observes that that proves this to be a British play. He thus announces his intention to participate. Kingsley dwells in a shabby loft and sleeps with a Teddy bear, as filthy and smelly as he himself has become. He chides it for sleeping with its nose at his crotch. Kingsley is redeemed by talent and by occasional twinges of hopeless regret and remorse. One aspect of his talent is evident in his having glimpsed the possibility of a best-seller in the story of his niece's experiences as a model. He has now completed it. The novel, about a dark-eyed, black-haired beauty, incorporates Jessica's spicy life and times. A few other characters in Kingsley's novel play roles in Jessica's life, and, presumably, in the novel which Jessica is attempting to write. Business baron Jamieson has investments which require him to examine and evaluate proposed advertising skits - and which reward him with the sexual favors of the choice models who pose for them.

Jessica, working over material in Kingsley's book in order to refute and discredit it, "fretted about the identity of the callow young man who was the would-be hero, or at least just about the only approximation to a decent man, in the whole of `Sugar Bush.' . . . So far as she could remember, she had never described to Kingsley anyone in trousers who remotely resembled Jeff."

Jeff participates in the advertising world's self-styled creative efforts to think up scenarios which will sell products. Later, he becomes a cardboard facsimile of a fine fellow - something of a wimp. He longs for the love of a beautiful young girl; he seeks the purity which he knows must be concealed under Blackeyes's heavy callus. He comes to have an important and ambiguous role in the play (as does Blackeyes, who here is more probably Jessica.) At one point he is depicted over a computer keyboard, suggesting that he is writing the play.

Kingsley introduced Detective Inspector Blake on his own, Potter explains, thus marring Jessica's account and making it coarse. Potter calls him a "cunning, prurient freak (27)." Blake causes the lechers to squirm, and gives a vicious driving punch to the belly of a smart-ass yuppie who hands out narcotic drugs and who screws the girls he photographs. Later, Blake, who had stolen a photograph of Blackeyes nude, experiences a crise de nerfs: he has taken her underthings from their storage bin in the morgue, and apparently (he is seen only from the back) ejaculated into them. He then retches in an agony of shame and guilt-ridden self-loathing.

Repeatedly, oddly, we hear the words to the ballad, "Clementine." They haunt Kingsley. Clementine is the name he had insisted on for a doll which, long ago, he bought his little niece Jessica (28).

At first observation, Kingsley had seemed so much a grotesque composite of carnality, infantile behavior, and disgusting habits that he could scarcely be taken seriously. We become aware that this impression arose, in part at least, from images in Jessica's mind. Potter, in appraising Kingsley as a writer, bestows distinction on him. Kingsley is not merely a burnt-out old hulk who got lucky. Potter gives him moments to impart eloquence to Potter's own feelings. They find expression in the mouth of an actor with an even better television voice than Potter's own. Not too long after we saw Kingsley in his sordid quarters, he stands, well groomed and well dressed, speaking about his book before a large audience. He seems genuinely inspired at those moments, able to express movingly the tragedy of Blackeyes' (that is, Jessica's) life.

In marked contrast, according to Potter's pretended scrutiny, Kingsley's literary effort is often flawed. Kingsley wrote about Jeff: "Each door into his soul was shutting, one after the other, so that he was locked within his own tremulous anxieties . . . He could not unravel the journey, nor find the little rift within the lute." Potter comments that it "characteristically dropped in five words from Tennyson [little . . . lute] unacknowledged, and in context, meaningless . . . but no matter how many orifices were made to stream . . . the tale of the doomed young woman had steadily climbed the best-seller lists."

Now Potter again directs the attention of the reader (and audience) to himself explicitly: "It ill becomes the present writer to make snide remarks about his elderly colleague, for I have used the old fellow's narrative as the basis for my own account: and what an effort it has been, I can tell you, to remove the excesses of language, the glancing quotations plundered from better works, the sententious redundancy of such phrases as `each door into his soul was shutting'."

Jeff betrays an exaggerated bashfulness with Blackeyes. When he seeks to get acquainted with her, and implores her cooperation, she dismisses him with scorn: "Try fucking." Rosie, Blackeyes' sole professional friend, thought he was a male model. Later, by a far-fetched coincidence, he has a complete change of life style from the fast-track life of the advertising copy-writer and `creator' of scenarios, to become an assistant curator and caretaker of a great country house. A motherly housekeeper treats him like a son. He is, therefore, conveniently at the scene when Jessica makes a crash landing in a motorbike accident. She had been on location for the filming of an ad, and learned that it involved her driving a huge 'cycle. Her protest: "I don't know how to ride this thing!" was ignored, and finally, in a rage, she had raced straight at the bullying director, and then, having missed him, had roared at full throttle on down the road. The accident was the source of her (and/or Blackeyes') torn nails and bloody fingers.

Jeff becomes a principal story-teller, indistinguishable, finally, from Potter himself. The text's concluding comment, just after we learn the details of Jessica's apparent death, is: "As her lungs filled, she had the satisfaction of knowing that Blackeyes was free. Well, sort of free, anyway, for it is me that is waiting outside her door, ready to claim her."

When we first see Jessica, Carol Royle successfully portrays Potter's description, shifting between an often vacuous facade and the appearance of intense thoughtful concentration as she tries to construct her book. Her role is minor, and her part rather confused. We get soon to Jessica's thoughts about Blackeyes, as she attempts to create her own version. Blackeyes, played by Gina Bellman, takes center stage in the television production, completely overshadowing Royce. She is ravishing on the screen, with huge dark eyes and a marvelous figure. Perhaps because Potter sought to have Bellman portray Blackeyes as soul-destroyed, she behaves like a puppet. Only once does she emerge as an actress in a scene of artistic merit: When the host at an elegant Riviera estate reproaches her for spoiling everyone's good time (by noisily fighting off a macho guest who is trying to thrust sex on her) she protests: "I'm not a prostitute." As she screams this in the play, in disbelief and agonized outrage, she assimilates the grim reality that she is and should be regarded as such, and resigns herself to play her role. In the book, set in a Monte Carlo apartment, she does not scream. Her indignant protest causes a strained silence among the group of men and their playmates, until she laughs. Soon, in both book and play, she is participating in a bi-sexual romp.

Jessica reminisces about her first professional experience, but Potter intertwines her memories with Kingsley's transliteration into Blackeyes' career, which had been launched by a serendipitous conjunction of desperation and luck. On her first-run audition, she had arrived at an advertising agency for a try-out with no idea what product was to be promoted, or how. She had no idea, either, that it was open only to blonde models. Something special about her looks led the hard-boiled agency representative, a woman, to decide to send her in anyway, cold. Rich and influential businessmen are in the adjacent room to watch pretty models and select the one they think will best persuade the public to buy a new body lotion.

Jessica reconstructs for her book what she had imagined to be going on in that room while she waited with desperate anxiety for her first big chance: Andrew Stilk appears before the businessmen. A designer of scenarios for an advertising company, he is a technical expert. "With condescending arrogance, he sets the stage. He is supercilious but craven toward his high-powered audience:

"Carefully, perhaps even satirically, dusting down the table with a chamois leather," Stilk voices a barely suppressed `voilà' with a mocking lift of an eyebrow. He lectures them: " `Style', he said. `Structure', he said. `Improvisation. The basic idea here is that of a timeless space in a timeless nowhere and everywhere.'" A sigh warned him to come back from the woods where a French semiologist lay mouldering . . . `OK, O-Kay,' he said as though everything else had been a joke. `Let's get to the bottom line. Let's chew on the nitty-gritty. What we want here is a blonde with terrific tits who's got the sense to make love to the fucking bottle.'"

Stilk is deeply annoyed to see this black-haired girl, and moves to eject her. Jamieson extends his protection. He appreciates at first glance her possibilities as a mistress. Under pressure, Stilk grudgingly pushes her into the necessity of selling herself. Finally the message gets through to her, and she massages lotion from the bottle onto her skin, working up to a seductive removal of her bra:

'They [the `businessmen'] looked at the bottle again, and it glowed like a sacred object awaiting the sacrificial maidens', said the text of Kingsley's story, in what most readers took to be irony, but which Jessica knew to be a wet-mouthed excitement of the same order as that felt by Jamieson and his crew. `God rot their souls! And stuff their severed cocks in their screaming mouths'. . . Jessica let the storm pass through her, and then, at its last tremble, dragged her attention back to the page.

She (Jessica? Blackeyes?) goes out of her way to play up to Jamieson. She becomes his occasional daytime bed-partner, and he furthers her professional pursuits. Soon she drifts into a role as a social adornment and sexual plaything for other arrogant and unfeeling men. In the remaining remote reaches of her own conscience, she is guilt-ridden because she has been pandering to their lust. Both guilt and self-disgust have been repressed, and she is often detached from her surroundings.

Kingsley had taken the child Jessica for a marvelous day's outing, replete with hamburgers, sailing a little boat on Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, "Knickerbocker Glories", a merry-go-round ride, and, best of all, Jessica's heart's desire, a doll - the doll of her choice! - which she selected from a wondrous collection in a Regent Street shop. Night has fallen, and Kingsley is a long way from home He had been stuck in traffic when a truck broke down. He is a very poor driver, and detests driving. That is not, however, why he is tense:

There was a creeping tingle of pain in his chest, a dull ache at the back of his eyes, and a whiteness at his knuckles. He was holding the steering wheel too tightly, and he was holding his teeth together too tightly. Furthermore, he wanted a pee. `What is it?' said an older, deeper part of his head, at the same time. What dreadful thing is it that has happened? . . . Kingsley had not even the flimsiest of defenses when the realization flew in at him beak and claw out of the low sky. The calamitous truth which he had not been able to acknowledge until this moment of the deepest misery, hands on the wheel, was that he would never be able to fulfill the high promise he did not even know he had made to himself. Maurice James Kingsley, lying on the cropped grass on the far side of the cricket pavilion at school, had settled upon the vocation of literature . . . And if the talent fell short, then everything else about the calling, the commitment, was nothing but an empty and posturing impertinence . . . Kingsley experienced a cruel revelation: his books, despite the praise heaped on the last, were meretricious. `Oh, Woe; then woe: and then more woe.' And each inner cry without a trace of irony, that normal compensation for the defeated, the disappointed, and the self-deceiving.

The agonizing insights with which Potter here endows Kingsley lift that character far above the shabby creature depicted earlier in the play. Compare Marlow's wish to have "praised the loving God." I find this passage exquisite, an adroit maneuver, a plea for understanding of Potter's own feeling of anguish at being less than the Shakespeare of literature. He explains in the novel that "Kingsley did not know why this cruel revelation had settled upon him with such complete certainty at this particular moment . . . A lorry full of trapped animals could not explain the devastation, any more than the presence of the sleeping child and the china doll she clutched in her arms." Kingsley then suddenly found himself confronted with an irresistible perverse urge.

Potter's device is remarkable. He makes a would-be creative writer's misery at being unable to achieve all he intended a proximate cause of his abuse of the child - a clever reversal and almost an apology. Is Potter not pleading for forgiveness, already, for his exploitation of Gina Bellman? Had he realized that he could not, alone, create a work of outstanding merit? And most profound for this study, his reversal implies the guilt which he concealed from his own consciousness as well as from his critics, guilt arising from his willing participation in the rape he suffered.

Just before she murders Kingsley, Jessica remembers why she hates him. She remembers that he stopped his car in a secluded spot, and climbed in with her. The little girl sees that he has a snake which he makes her hold and stroke, and which makes her hand sticky. "She both knew and did not know what was happening."

In explaining what he was attempting in "Blackeyes", Potter offered to the public a direct illustration of his literary creation of a double along with an implicit appeal for sympathetic understanding. It is most unlikely, especially in view of Trodd's surprise when I suggested to him that Blackeyes was "Potter in drag", that Potter intended such an illustration at the inception of the play. It seems more likely that he could only advance it after the critics' attacks. He side-stepped the issue of early iniquity and attributed his suffering to his early sex experiences as the victim. The partial insight brought Potter no closer to resolution of the psychological crisis which impelled and fashioned "Blackeyes," and which contributed to his decision to rid himself of Trodd and to direct the play himself.

Richard Last began his review: "`OH, BOY. This man [Blake] is really unhinged,' gloated Dennis Potter in his role of narrator . . . Oh, Boy, indeed. I had the awful feeling that this might be Mr. Potter's subconscious speaking. About himself . . . 'Blackeyes,'" Last wrote, has "brought to crisis point Potter's obsession with sex, . . . and his rising paranoia . . . His great gift for language has either dried up, or been suppressed." Another aspect of what Last labeled as paranoia is Potter's grandiosity. "Next thing, he'll be writing the music and appearing in the male lead like Charlie Chaplin."

Everything in "Blackeyes" is reversed. The sexual abuse occurs as a result of, rather that being a cause of creative failure. It happens to a little girl and not to a boy, and the longing to be creative is brilliantly divorced from desire for submission to the sexual act. The Old Testament punishment for sexual sin is visited on old Maurice, who gets murdered a generation-span later by the woman he sexually molested when she was a child.

"Blackeyes" is a tour de force. Almost all the characters are Potter doubles. I noted in discussing "The Singing Detective" that doubles are not much admired in current literature, but that Potter had made delicate and elegant use of them there. In "Blackeyes," they are far from either. He evidently intended a thinly-disguised exposition of his multi-faceted personality - his guilt about male chauvinism, his lust, his rage, his shame, his wistful fantasies, his disgust with his lesser works, and the meaning to him of literature. He provided myriad clues to his identity, or rather to fragments of it, as he depicted the characters. When Potter attacked the artist's failure - in this instance, Kingsley's - to round out a character, Kingsley was a fragment of himself.

Some can be seen to be doubles whom Potter may never have intended as such. For example, by turning Jessica into a would-be writer as well as a model, Potter created a dual-role exhibitionist double of Marlow, a female analogue to the singing detective on display as a night-club singer. She is also Potter himself, and this breaks through as a confession. He told critic Rhoda Koenig (1989): ". . . it's very clear why [what happened to] little Jessica - why that strikes at my heart. I've never been able to speak directly about it . . . it sits there and makes me sweat even now." The memory which he revealed was one in which he was blameless. He thus side-stepped the issue of any current or early wrong-doing by an implicit appeal for sympathetic understanding.

Jessica's rage goes far beyond a lasting angry indignation. It smoulders and serves as a cover, and a not quite adequate cover, for a murderous potential. This would of necessity have stemmed from far earlier and deeper pathological sources than her lingering sense of outrage. No one even close to the far reaches of normality determines to kill because of memories of having been sexually abused decades before; no one who is not dangerously psychotic would actually do it. An ego-maniacal sense of self-importance, coupled with a contempt for the lives of others and for the world would be necessary. How heinous a crime it is, to bruise the narcissistic image of a writer! According to the logic of Jessica's paranoia, as stimulated by the success of Kingsley's book, the appropriate punishment is death! According to the logic of the play, the sexual abuse was more a rationalization than an cause!

Trodd said about "Blackeyes": "Dennis believes - and he came close to saying this publicly - `this is me, on behalf of all men apologizing to all women!' That's what he thought he was doing - but he missed the tone; and generalized on his own experience." Potter's effort failed because it was contrived. His real feelings derived from his reaction to his own feminine identification. His sanctimonious intonations, superimposed on the televised action, came close to toadying to the women to whom he tried to apologize!


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© Irving Harrison, M.D. 2001