Dennis Potter's Sunday Times reviews

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Dennis Potter's Sunday Times reviews

Post by RobinCarmody »

I have eight in total; here are two.

The sceptre at the harvest feast

19th June 1977

When you are sprawled at your ease at a flickering hearth the regular swing of a pendulum or the throaty tick-h, tock-h of an old clock can be almost hypnotically lulling in the gentle insistence. Time is ebbing, for sure, but with a placid melancholy that scarce disturbs the indolent soul. One day will follow another in an ordered rhythm. As things are, so they will be. Tick-h, tock-h. Shadows lengthen, and shadows diminish. The teeth of time are not yet ravening at our throats.

How clever, and (I hope), how misguided, of Denis Mitchell to use as polemic the most reassuring images of Time, that old physician, in his deeply absorbing, often very beautiful, plangently nostalgic and yet disturbingly troubled film of Norfolk, 1976-77, Never and Always (Granada). He began with the pendulum, the clock, and the tolling church bells across luscious meadows for all the world as though these familiar measures of our mortality were part of the same harmonious dapple of leaf and shadow which glowed upon a lens almost too replete with fecund images of growth, stability and harvest home.

Denis Mitchell is one of television's great innovators. When others thought that "documentary" meant pointing a camera at a commentator pointing his finger at what we were supposed to see, or that simple juxtaposition of opposing events was the natural rhythm of both wit and irony, his films brought the densities of thought, the nuances of ambiguity and the stretch of tension between sound and picture which made so much else seem so ploddingly literal and predictable. He has always been an author, not a bystander. A dramatist, and not a snoop. Crucial distinctions that are currently in danger of being lost in what might best be called the mud and flotsam of the Thames school of documentaries.

"Never and Always" paced out the seasons of the year with all the traditional lyricism of country portraiture. Ripe fruit and young brides, howling babies and gambolling lambs, falling leaves and tender shoots, the christening and the grave-digging. Nothing exceptional, indeed, except for the skill of its flow and the sweet ease of its shape. But slowly, then stridently, the film warped in upn itself. The rich images became a hymn for what has been or is about to be lost. The throaty tick joined in conspiracy with an ominous tock, and the pit was added to the pendulum.

Instead of looking at what he could see, Mithcell dragged in the headlines, the voices and the rhetoric of the media mongers. He bounced this diseased blather out of the dalek-like robots of a seaside funfair, so that from a mechanical larynx the claims of politicians, the black warnings of tabloid newspapers and the panic of currency speculators and other such cheapjacks punctured the soundtrack.

The images of time were now the drama of warning. The steady pendulum and the sonorous church bell were not simply measuring out the minutes of the normal day but carrying us towards bitterness, frustration, doom and chaos. The film was distilling threat out of the meadows, anxiety from the rustling tree tops. And, yes, this perhaps has been, or still is, the mood of contemporary England. There are people among us who look at a sunset and see blood.

"I wouldn't want to be born now", said an old woman in the film. I'm glad I was born when I was." When I remember the poverty of my own childhood, or the indignities of my father's life, the total illiteracy of my grandfather, who coughed his silicotic lungs up into the grate, the cap-touching, fawning, Philistine ache of other days, the waste and humiliation of lives used up in stunting toil, my heart and mind cry out in anger at those who mistake an income tax demand for the disintegration of civilisation. As soon as the middle classes feel the slightest pinch, they rise up like a Paul Johnson and quake out their bile through every pore.

I am sorry to say that Denis Mitchell - by far the most talented and humane documentary maker television has yet produced - was not here observing a mood, but participating in it. An angry or frightened man abdicates the disciplines of his art when he clouds the lens with his own painting.

This was an important film because it showed how far the gangrene of pessimism and foreboding has eaten into the limb. It was at one, in a diagnosis from the Right, with the temper and posture of three of the four left-wing "Playwrights of the Seventies" examined by the metallic voice of Albert Hunt in last week's Arena (BBC2).

It is well known that writers hate each other. A BBC drama producer has sniffily cautioned me about the schizoid tendencies inherent in being both a playwright and a critic, and I would be a fool to pretend that I am two different people when tackling these often opposing tasks. But (and I boast, of course) my long struggle against the pain and degradation of illness - now so much easier, thank God - and the reclusiveness thrust upon me during the past decade or so have left me either armed against or indifferent to certain established proprieties. Thus, the loathing I felt when listening to Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths and Barrie Keeffe may well have more to do with my actual reason than my too easily presumed rivalry.

These New Reactionaries cannot see change unless everything changes. They glimpse fascism around the corner because they refuse to look at what is capable of repair in the road directly in front of them. Violence and corruption take the centre of the stage, and there is nothing else in the wings. Their wilful pessimism and occasionally overblown rant is shameful to contemplate when placed alongside the Czech writers shown in last week's Panorama (BBC1) struggling so bravely against real tyranny.

John McGrath, by contrast, demonstrated how it is possible to break out of the circle (or the stalls) in which comfortable theatre audiences are harangued about the catastrophe ahead. He has taken his considerable talents out to the people with the 7:84 Company and dipped back into narrative techniques that enable his audiences to make connections rather than just bang their palms together in idle assent. He does not renege on hope itself. I wish, though, that he could accept that there is an even more potent location than the village halls and scattered buildings which house his remarkable company. It is called a television set, and there is one in almost every home, licensed like the dog that also barks in the night.

Holocaust: a Book of the Dead in the style of Best-Seller Yuk

10th September 1978

"Welcome to 1940", said evergreen Max Bygraves as he bounded open-armed on to a bright and sunny set for the first of his immensely enjoyable series Lingalongamax (Thames) on Wednesday evening. Ah, those good old days way-back-when ... He turned to the large monitor built in above the grand piano and with a wondrously ogling smirk introduced a delighted audience to grainy old film of gas-masks, ARP wardens, the blackout, embarking troops and other monochrome memories from those hip-hip-happy, song-filled times. It brought a lump of something or other to the throat. And helped me place in perspective at least some of the unease and even boredom I had felt in sitting through the long hours of Holocaust (BBC1) on four nights of the week.

In between vigorous renderings of "You Are My Sunshine" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", Bygraves held up a shrivelled rissole on a fork to remind us of the horrors of our rationed diets. If he had shown us a lampshade made out of a murdered Jew's skin the grins would have turned into other kinds of facial convulsion, and the whole show would have been hissed off the radiant stage. His joke about the wife wearing a gas-mask (and hubby didn't notice) might have been replaced by an equally funny one about how many Jews you can get in a Volkswagen. The trick is to count the huge number in the ashtray.

"You'll never know dear
How much I love you,
So please don't take
My sunshine away"

All a matter of which convention is considered the most suitable, I suppose There are forms of entertainment that only appear to be less brazen because they have a style and a shape which is so ordinary, so expected, so safe. "Holocaust" could follow a scene of naked Jews being executed over an open trench with a close-shot of a young couple clasped in each other's arms, the boy saying "Do you remember the first time we made love? It was beautiful!"

"Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds crap ..."

A hoofer with gleaming toecaps, a boogie-woogie bounce on the ivories, or the Andrews Sisters close harmonising their way through "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but ME" offer up much more authentic period detail than most of the dialogue murmured betwen massacres in "Holocaust". Nor can I see how such musical interludes are any more tasteless or irrelevant than a script which could easily have carried the alternative title "Eichmann Meets the Waltons".

Indeed, I recall a Polish short made for the cinema many years ago in which Bing Crosby's smoothly crooned "You Are My Sunshine" was laid over Nazi film of concentration camp inmates staring with blank, hollowed-out faces through a lattice of barbed wire. Oddly enough, the silly little song was not diminished, Crosby was not traduced, and instead of the shocking juxtaposition creating the most wildly bitter mockery, the scene managed to make a comment as well as evoke the strongest possible feelings of grief, pity and anger.

A comment? The German crimes against the Jews and other alleged sub-humans must not be made so unspeakable that we cannot search out meanings that go beyond the necessary revulsion. A troubled Rabbi on Wednesday's Tonight (BBC1) felt that he had to give qualified approval to "Holocaust" because at least "it has blown the lid off the subject". Millions of people in many countries have or will have seen some semblance of the worst and most fully documented crime in human history. The 20th Century Book of the Dead.

But a Book of the Dead written in the style of the Bestseller Yuk which now and intermittently fills spaces on the TV screens like soft plaster pressed into a badly cracked wall. The case against "Holocaust" is not that it is bad soap opera, but worse - much worse - that it is very good soap opera. It was well made, often well acted, skilfully mounted, beautifully shot, and the scores of naked extras quivering above the already open graves were sufficiently accomplished not to show their genitals to the cameras. Prime-time codes of behaviour, praise be, are still strong enough to over-ride Nazi edicts. It also meant - and pardon me if I splash you with my vomit - that not all the extras needed to be circumcised.

I have already heard some people talking warmly about the production. One of them said, and the others agreed, that it was "moving". Dear God in Heaven. Moving! You could say the same thing about a dog being run over in the road. And, yes, of course, it was moving - like "The Waltons" is moving", or "Gone With the Wind", or "The Bells of St Mary's". If you can't drum up a bit of pathos out of a pile of naked corpses you might as well bury your snout in a pot of crunchy peanut butter and write dialogue for Yogi Bear.

We have become so lobotomised by the effects of American prime-time "drama" that many people (especially TV executives) can no longer distinguish it from the real thing. The old story of bad coinage driving out the good. The BBC forked out a quarter of a million pounds for "Holocaust", and its new schedules are stuffed with similar imports. Last week, for instance, I watched Starsky and Hutch, and then the first of the new series about a feuding oil-family, Dallas, and finally the second of the lazy would-be slam-bang cops show, Most Wanted. And what they all have in common - including "Holocaust" - is much more to the point than what separates them. I wish, though, that the ratings were not quite so aptly termed "the body-count".

A criminal fell to his death from the top of iron-girdered stanchions in both "Starsky and Hutch" and "Most Wanted". In each case the chasing policeman exchanged looks of pity and regret from his colleagues. In each case, the death was the "solution" to the story. Very neat. A climax every four or five minutes to fit the American commercials, some stereotyped goodies and baddies, plenty of action ... competent escapist entertainment and there's nothing badly wrong with that. There were signs, to, of sharper observations and gutsier exchanges in "Dallas" to balance those familiar old long-shots of big automobiles gliding along the expressway.

Entertainments like these are designed, first and foremost, to shift tons of toothpaste and acres of beans. They work fairly well because their conversions seldom bump into real feelings, genuine anxieties, private terrors, and social diseases. They glance, not collide. They pass the time. But to carry the same bag of techniques, the same church of assumptions, the same set of conventions across the frontiers into "Real life" and absolute horror is not supportable. Unless they really did sell oven-fresh cookies in Auschwitz, and armpit deodorants at the very gates of Hell.

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Re: Dennis Potter's Sunday Times reviews

Post by brigham »

Oh, don't they ramble on, these playwrights?
I'll bet there's a scramble to take Potter's order down at the chippie.

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Re: Dennis Potter's Sunday Times reviews

Post by stearn »

The Sunday Times is a subscription archive. Whilst snippets and quotes can be fairly used, reproducing whole articles/features without any comments around them, whilst nice for those who are interested and don't have access, is a flagrant breach of copyright and should be avoided in future.