During the week 21st - 27th June 2004, the people of the Forest of Dean held a festival to celebrate Dennis Potter and wider aspects of Forest Culture.
This page serves as a resource centre for the events of that week and, in particular, the "Big Day", Sunday 27th June, at Beechenhurst, in the centre of the Forest, where a whole day of cultural events took place.
Amongst these events, The Potter Auditorium "People on Potter", drew together a wide range of talks, films and discussions on Dennis Potter, his relationship with the Forest of Dean and his impact on British media.
I hope to collect and make available here an archive, photographic, textual and audio, of the events of the Festival. This may take a few weeks to build up but ultimately will become, I hope, a testament both to the massive amount of hard work and determination on the part of many Foresters (but especially of Jason Griffiths [Forest of Dean Radio] and of Rich Daniels (Festival Chairman and Freeminer in the Forest]), and also to the rich and vibrant culture of the Foresters of which Dennis Potter was both a beneficiary and a significant proponent.
VOICES IN THE FOREST : A CELEBRATION OF DENNIS POTTER AND THE FOREST OF DEAN by Dr. John Cook
It may be exactly ten years since his death but the spirit of Dennis Potter is definitely alive, well and flourishing in the Forest of Dean.
In June, to mark the tenth anniversary of Potter’s death, his own Forest of Dean community fittingly decided to celebrate his achievements with a week long festival dedicated to the life and work of what the Festival programme called ‘one of the most famous Foresters of recent times and yet locally one of the least celebrated’. ‘Voices in the Forest’ was organised principally by Forest of Dean Community Radio and the event culminated on Sunday June 27 with a ‘Big Day’ of special events and talks dedicated to both Potter and the Forest which inspired him as a writer. For Dave Evans and myself, it felt like a really great honour to be invited as the only ‘non-Foresters’ to take part in that day and to pay our own respects on the 10 th anniversary of his death. Intellectually, we knew all about the Forest of course and had visited it many times through the writings and interview statements of Dennis Potter but actually to be invited to experience it for a couple of days through the eyes of the Foresters themselves - meeting them, hearing their stories and being able to see how their experiences had been refracted through the prism of Potter’s writing - was a special opportunity. As Dave quipped at one point during proceedings, ‘it was a bit like a couple of JRR Tolkien scholars being invited to the Shire’ and this just about sums it up.
The Forest is still quite a remote place. You are aware as you drive in from neighbouring Ross-on-Wye (where Potter lived most of his adult life with his wife and children) that you are entering somewhere which remains quite separate from the rest of England and that has its own distinct character and rhythms of life. As one is encircled by the trees, the outside world gradually recedes and the Forest envelops with its presence. It is not difficult to see how for a child growing up, the world of the Forest easily became ‘the’ world, as Potter used to talk about in interviews and allude to in his writings.
For the contemporary Foresters, the challenge is to retain some of the vestiges of the unique way of life, the decline of which Potter lamented in The Changing Forest (1962). In a fascinating talk during the ‘Big Day’, our host, Jason Griffiths, presented an update on The Changing Forest, examining how the Forest community has altered in its turn since Potter wrote his monograph in 1962 and the problems it faces for the future. One of the key challenges is to preserve the proud tradition of free-mining whereby if a man is born in the Forest of Dean and labours underground for a year and a day, he is granted the right to work his own seam. The trouble is this is not an easy tradition to maintain when the nearest maternity hospital is in the city of Gloucester , well outside the Dean to qualify! Even if Forester parents opt for a home birth, this also presupposes that any modern male child will wish to spend the rest of his life engaged in dirty, dangerous and sweaty labour underground. Free-mining therefore faces a major challenge to its future and it may be this proud tradition will have to adapt somewhat to survive in the contemporary age.
The other major problem facing the future of the indigenous Foresters, highlighted by Jason in his talk, is rising house prices occasioned by ‘incomers’: people from outside the Forest coming in to buy, for example, second homes and thereby pushing up the cost of property to prohibitively high levels for local first-time buyers. As a result, many young people are forced to leave the Forest to seek a life elsewhere or they simply leave through a desire to explore the world beyond the Forest . More positively, many of those who do leave often return a little later – having seen the world, they realise with new eyes the benefits of the Forest and become very interested in preserving its traditions. The Voices in the Forest Festival in many ways can be seen as part of this attempt to preserve – a desire with which Dennis Potter, the local boy who himself left the Forest only fully to realise the true value of what he had left behind later on, would readily have identified.
But to this outside observer, while the Forest may be changing, it remains a unique place separate and distinctive from the rest of the world outside it. Free-mining may be in decline but it is still there. As illustrated in one of the other talks on the day (‘Ow Bist Gwine On ?’ by Keith Morgan), the Forest dialect with its Old Testament ‘thees and thous’, so striking in Potter’s plays, also remains a defining characteristic and a number of its words such as ‘yud’ (‘head’) can be directly traced back to Druidic times. And yes, just as Potter told me when I interviewed him in London in 1990 (see this site for the interview transcripts) – sheep still wander about the roads, even in this age of speeding SUVs. Outside our hotel, Speech House (itself a most famous landmark having been Charles II’s hunting lodge and the seat of government of the Forest ), I would be woken up in the morning by the sound of baa-ing sheep wandering about immediately outside my window.
More specifically in terms of Dennis Potter’s writing, it is also striking to realise how many of the various aspects of the Forest mentioned in the work are still very much around. For example, there were many people present at the Festival who either remembered Potter and his family all the way right back to childhood or who knew people still living in the Forest who did. Meanwhile, a short drive from the Festival, many of the landmarks of Potter’s early life remain: Salem Chapel; The Globe pub; Brick House where Dennis Potter was born and not far from that, Spion Kop where his parents moved in the 1950s. Indeed this is a very important aspect to emphasise about the Forest as refracted through Dennis Potter’s work for unless you visit there, it is impossible to appreciate quite how small the distances are between many of these places and the little villages and towns that were so central to Potter’s early life such as Berry Hill and Coleford. The area that is immortalised in Dennis Potter’s writing and his interviews is actually a very small area indeed and its contexts extremely localised. The achievement of Potter’s writing about the Forest has therefore been to take this extremely local context and to universalise it in ways that people from all walks of life and indeed all parts of the world can readily identify with. In this way, while Potter’s Forest remains redolent of the actual Forest , at the same time it is lent, through the quality of his writing and re-imagining of it, general applicability for audiences everywhere.
Potter himself, I think, would have been very moved by the Voices festival in celebration of his achievements. He would probably have hidden his feelings about this in public – perhaps adopting the cantankerous or controversial persona he often employed in front of an audience to mask the very shy, reclusive individual that actually lurked underneath. But if my reading of his work is correct, there was always a great longing in Potter, very much expressed through the writing, to return to a sense of integration and harmony with the Forest and its people from which he had felt himself forcedly uprooted and estranged at an early age. In my own talk at the Festival, examining changing representations of the Forest in his dramatic works, I kept finding myself coming back to the figure of the outcast – often a crippled, abused child in the plays, who is persecuted and ridiculed by the Foresters but who deeply yearns to be accepted as part of them. The outcast always longed for reintegration and perhaps, with this Festival, the ‘most famous… yet locally least celebrated’ of Foresters has finally, belatedly achieved it.
Certainly, the presence at the Festival of a number of members of the Potter family seemed to reinforce this feeling. It was a very great pleasure as well as honour for both Dave and myself to meet Jane Potter, Potter’s eldest daughter and together with Melvyn Bragg, joint patron of the Festival. We were both, I think, taken aback to learn how much she valued our respective work on her father and how she had played a role in inviting us to talk at the Festival. It was also great to see her make telling contributions to the debate on her father’s work which took place at the end of the day in the main auditorium. Following the publication of a muck-raking commercial biography in 1998 which the Estate now deeply regret ‘authorising’, Potter’s public reputation took a real dip but now we seemed to have turned a corner and perhaps this is the real significance of the Voices of the Forest festival and the return to active involvement with his legacy of the Potter family and estate. With a long-overdue BBC DVD ‘Dennis Potter Collection’ now in the shops; an up-coming season of his plays on BBC Four in the autumn and a new BBC Arena documentary scheduled for the end of the year planned with the active liaison of the family, Dennis Potter, it seems, is at last getting his proper due. As Jane summed it up during the Festival debate, her dad may have been away ‘but now he’s coming back’.
My thanks to Jason Griffiths and his team at Forest of Dean Community radio for inviting me to the Festival and for their great hospitality during my visit.
John R. Cook
Senior Lecturer in Mass Media, Glasgow Caledonian University
John R. Cook is author of Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen (Manchester University Press 1995; 1998) and co-editor, with Vernon W. Gras, of The Passion of Dennis Potter: International Collected Essays (New York and London: St. Martin’s Press / Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)
The complete interview transcripts of John Cook’s interview with Dennis Potter in 1990, together with new introduction by JC, are available on this web-site