Until Potter's Estate commissioned Humphrey Carpenter to write the authorised biography recently, no complete and official biography of Dennis Potter had ever been written. Potter's own view appears to have been that none ever should. The quote above, from Potter's last works, indicates this, as does the admission Potter made to John Cook, in a personal interview: "I despise biographies. They're hidden novels" (Cook 1998: 312).
All that is offered on these pages is a skeletal account, organised chronologically, decade by decade of the main events in Dennis Potter's life.
The sources for the majority of the material are Cook 1995/1998 and Gilbert 1995 and, of course, Carpenter 1998. No doubt this page is rendered redundant by the publication of Humphrey Carpenter's official biography of Dennis Potter, but the brevity of the following account may continue to provide some readers with an accessible source.
If any readers have additional information which is not already available in the public domain, either from unpublished accounts or even from personal experience of knowing Dennis Potter, I would naturally be very interested to hear from them by traditional or electronic means.
I made a trip to the Forest of Dean in 2000 and, amongst other things, shot a range of photos related to aspects of Dennis Potter's life there throughout his life. I have interspersed these, where appropriate, through the following biographical sketch. They are also collected in a new Gallery page elsewhere on this site.
I have also obtained one or two photographs from Potter's school days which I have included in both locations. The use of these was kindly authorised by Roger Brunskill and Bob Hunt, contemporaries of Potter at St Clement Danes School, to whom I express my gratitude here.
Brick House, Berry Hill, 2000.
[Compare this with the photo in Carpenter's biography, opposite p. 244]
[Baby Dennis with Margaret Potter outside Brick House 1935]
He was the eldest son of a coalminer, Walter Edward Potter, and Margaret Potter nee Wale (whose mother had been a Forester but who had moved away to work in service in London, where Margaret had spent her early life)."George" had been Dennis Potter's paternal grandfather's name and "Christopher" that of his maternal grandfather. The Potters had another child, June (now June Thomas).
1943 Christchurch Junior School in Berry Hill
Christchurch Primary School, Berry Hill, 2000
The first ten years of Potter's life coincided with the run up to and the period of the Second World War. Potter's classic representation of childhood in Blue Remembered Hills presumably evokes some of the sensations and excitements of the child's notion of war. The play opens with a seven year old boy, Willie, (the same age as Potter would have been until May 1943) imitating a "swooping, zooming Spitfire" and later in the play Peter and Donald hear the klaxon from the nearby prisoner-of-war camp sound.
During this time in London, between VE Day and VJ Day and at the age of ten, Potter has described the "foul and terrible" event of being "caught by an adult 's appetite and abused out of innocence" (Potter 1984: 33)
takes up scholarship to Bell's Grammar School, Coleford
[Potter is centre frame]
This photo is a cropped extract from a full school photo, reproduced here by permission of Geoff Davis and John Jones. The full photo, in two halves, is available at: http://www.sungreen.co.uk/Coleford/xBells1947_Left.htm and http://www.sungreen.co.uk/Coleford/xBells1947_Right.htm
[Potter at Bell's Grammar School, Coleford, aged 12]
1949 Back to London: School in Fulham / Hammersmith - St Clement Danes
St Clement Danes School Prefect 1952-3
[Potter is second from the left in the centre row]
These photographs were used with the permission of Bob Hunt and Roger Brunskill
Trip to Snowden in 1953
[Potter is second from the right in the back row]
1952 Potters move back to Berry Hill "down the lane" from Brick House to a house called Spion Kop. Dennis stays on in London with family. (See Gilbert: 1995: 35-8)
Spion Kop House, Berry Hill, 2000
1953 DP wins a private scholarship to University of London but National Service intervenes
National Service (Intelligence Corps, Maresfield, Sussex (with Kenith Trodd) then both to Bodmin, Cornwall (Russian Course) then War Office, Whitehall. Much of the contexts of the War Office scenes in Lipstick On Your Collar are presumably drawn from these National service experiences (also represented in Lay Down Your Arms).
1955 State scholarship to New College Oxford, where Potter reads Philosophy, Politics and Economics and takes an active role in the Oxford Union, the magazine The Isis (becoming first features editor and then editor), the Oxford University and New College Drama Societies and in the Oxford Labour Club.
New College, Oxford
1958 Publishes "Base Ingratitude" in New Statesman, 3 May
As Editor of Isis (Oxford student magazine) writes A View of Oxford
Potter is asked to contribute to "Does Class Matter?" 2: Class in Private Life, BBC 25 Aug
1959 Down from Oxford with a second class degree in PPE, Potter marries Margaret Morgan on 10th January 1959 at Christchurch, Berry Hill
1959-60 Works at the BBC Television Talks Dept., Lime Grove and for Panorama
1960 Publishes first book, "The Glittering Coffin", Gollancz, based on his ideas in Base Ingratitude and Does Class Matter? and a searing invective and polemic on the state of British nationhood and culture.
Writes, narrates and appears in "Between Two Rivers" BBC 3 June on the changing nature of the post-war Forest of Dean
1961-64 Contributed a wide range of material to the pages of The Daily Herald, eventually becoming a regular TV reviewer and having regular columns entitled "As I See It", "In My Opinion", "In My View" and "Dennis Potter About:"
1961 First onset of psoriatic arthropathy
1962-63 Scripts for innovative satirical series "That Was The Week That Was" (TW3) (with David Nathan)
1962 Publishes "The Changing Forest" Secker & Warburg
The Changing Forest, in its 1996, Minerva, livery
1964 Briefly works on the successor to the Daily Herald, The Sun, as leader writer
Stood as Labour candidate for the Hertfordshire East constituency in the 1964 General Election. Although Labour won nationally and Harold Wilson formed the new Labour Government, in Hertfordshire East the Conservatives won the seat. But DP had grown so disenchanted and disillusioned by the experience of party politics that he claims not even to have voted for himself in the election.
After the 1964 election DP cuts his links with party politics and journalism and returns with Margaret to Ross-on-Wye.
Fuller 1993: 12 my underlining; original emphases)
Again, in his James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1993, he talked of the combination of political disilluisonment and, in particular, the crippling effects of psoraitic arthropathy: " ... in what I now see as a mysterious act of grace, I had what must be a version of the middle course chosen for me, and very soon after coming down from New College, I finished up in hospital scarcely able to move. An entropy of the spirit, I suppose, manifest in the swollen rigidities of each limb and the fiercely scalding mockery of their outer casing. And so it was that more than thirty years ago, apparently stripped of much more than my skin, I had the opportunity of reassembling myself from what I hesitate to call scratch. I had the chance of making myself up all over again." (Potter 1994: 49-50 my underlining).
For the next three decades Potter committed himself to writing - initially for his specifically preferred medium - television - but later branching out into film and novels. His output was prodigious. During that period he successfully created almost 40 television productions including 28 single original plays and 11 serials, 6 of which were adaptations of others' original works. In addition he provided the screenplays for 9 movies and wrote a stage play, a short story and 3 novels on top of the two works of non-fiction which had already appeared in the early sixties. Many other drafts and manuscripts exist for works for both television and film which have not yet seen the light of day. (Many of these are referred to and some are discussed at length in Carpenter's biography.)
period 1965 - 1974 he wrote the following plays which appeared on British
television, though some have now been lost.
1976 Double Dare and Where Adam Stood were broadcast. Brimstone and Treacle banned by BBC. Potter becomes television critic for The Sunday Times but after a few months stands down due to ill-health.
1977 Admitted to Guy's Hospital to begin treatment with Razoxane, an experimental cytotoxic drug, which has a dramatic effect in easing the symptoms of his psoriatic arthropathy. Begins work on and completes Pennies from Heaven. Returns to The Sunday Times as TV critic.
1978 Seven-part serial The Mayor of Casterbridge was broadcast. Potter, Trodd and Daish set up Pennies From Heaven Ltd., a production company designed to wrest some control for writers away from the BBC and allow the realisation of "a writer's dream of being in total control of his work" (Carpenter 1998: 372) Trodd says that PFH Ltd. "came out of a combination of the banning of Brimstone and the success of Pennies, and a sense that the way the business was organised was even then beginning to change." At this point Potter resigned from his Sunday Times job.
1979- 1980 Travels to Chicago with Judy Daish in preparation for transferring the Pennies script to an American location. Transmission of Blue Remembered Hills. Contract agreed between PFH Ltd and London Weekend Television for six new plays. Rain on the Roof, Blade on the Feather and Cream in My Coffee were produced but after these the contract ended.
National Film Theatre/National Film Archive host a comprehensive retrospective of Potter's work.
1980 - 1983 Potter continues to work on a variety of film projects, including Pennies from Heaven, Brimstone and Treacle and Gorky Park. Writes first stage play, Sufficient Carbohydrate.
1986 Potter's second novel Ticket to Ride is published. The Singing Detective is transmittred by BBC as a six-part serial.
1987 Film adaptations of Sufficient Carbohydrate (Visitors) and Schmoedipus (Track 29) are made. BBC eventually broadcasts the original, banned Brimstone and Treacle as the culmination to a nine-week season of Potter plays. The novel Blackeyes is published.
1988 Adapts The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg as Christabel which is broadcast as a four-part serial. The text of the serial is published as Christabel.
1989 A four-part serial, Blackeyes, adapted from the novel, is broadcast, with Potter himself as Director.
1991 A film, Secret Friends, "suggested" by his novel Ticket to Ride, is made.
1992 A major retrospective of Potter's extant work, up to Secret Friends, is hosted by The Museum of Television & Radio, in New York.
1993 The text of the forthcoming serial Lipstick On Your Collar, is published simultaneously with the transmission of the four-part serial on Channel 4.
Potter gives the 1993 James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh, under the title Occupying Powers.
1994 Potter interviewed by Melvin Bragg for Channel 4's Without Walls Special, in which Potter announces his wish for the BBC and Channel 4 to co-produce his final works, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus.
The Daily Telegraph commissions and publishes Potter's only short story, Last Pearls.
Margaret Potter dies of cancer, 27 May.
Dennis Potter dies on Tuesday 7th June 1994 of cancer of the pancreas, a growth which he "affectionately" referred to as "Rupert", in honour of the great media tycoon of the late twentieth century, Rupert Murdoch.