Tag Archives: Dennis Potter

Dennis Potter, present tense

Dennis Potter’s final interview, given only two months before his death from pancreatic cancer in June 1994, is indescribably moving to me, partly for the gallantry he displays but also for his sense of vocation. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer on Valentine’s Day of that year, but instead of maxing out his credit cards on travel and gourmet meals, Potter followed his muse to the very end. He had two plays to finish and he was going to finish them, dammit. Dennis Potter was a writer, so he wrote.

This interview, once chiefly available as an extra on the DVD version of Potter’s masterpiece The Singing Detective, deserves to be circulated far and wide across the Internet. The man’s spirit is incredible. Though visibly shrunken within his suit, Potter is beamingly happy, though from time to time he needed to drink from a flask of morphine to muffle the pain of his cancer.

We tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense. It is, and it is now only. . . . Things are both more trivial than they ever were and more important than they ever were — and the difference between the two doesn’t matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous. . . . The fact is that if you see the present tense, boy! can you see it, and boy! can you celebrate it.

It wasn’t until I saw Dreamchild in 1985 that I realized I’d been enjoying Potter’s works without linking them to their creator. Dreamchild, a lovely fantasy set in 1934, when Alice Hargreaves — who as young Alice Liddell inspired Charles Dodgson to write Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass under the name Lewis Carroll — traveled to America to receive an honorary degree from Columbia University and join in a celebration of Carroll’s centenary.

Potter shows Alice as a rather insufferable dowager, haunted by unspoken dreads. Several fantasy sequences show her reenacting scenes from Alice in Wonderland, only here the characters created for the young girl’s amusement have become vulpine and menacing, poisoned by the  old woman’s suspicion that Dodgson’s love for her was pedophile. It all builds to a moment of epiphany, couched in the memory of Liddell’s last meeting with Dodgson, in which a lifetime of fears melt away and she realizes the true helpless sweetness of Dodgson’s character. It is one of the most purely beautiful moments in film.

I’ve never really warmed to Pennies From Heaven, the mini-series that made Potter’s reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. I value it mainly for the early glimpse of Bob Hoskins, who would go on to play endless variations on his basic canny Cockney roughneck persona.

On the other had, The Singing Detective is every bit the masterpiece you’ve heard. I’m just sorry so little of Potter’s output is available in this country.

He named the largest of his tumors after Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers regularly denounced Potter as a blight on civilization.

May we all face the end with Potter’s gallantry.

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You can leave your Hatter on

Depp HatterTim Burton’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, due out in March, should be a visual feast, if nothing else. That said, I don’t much like this image of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, which brings to mind a background player in the Cirque du Soleil, or the result of some genetic experiment involving the DNA of Bozo the Clown and Quentin Crisp. It’s fine that Burton is amping up the menace that always coiled beneath the surface of the book, but the Mad Hatter is one of the dark stars of the Lewis Carroll universe, and I’m afraid this concept doesn’t do him justice.

To me, the most perfectly monstrous realization of the Mad Hatter is in the 1985 film Dreamchild, based on Dennis Potter’s script about the Mad Hatterrelationship between Rev. Charles Dodgson, who would become known to the world as Lewis Carroll, and Alice Lidell, whom the world remembers as the Alice who inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Potter’s story uses the older Alice’s visit to the United States in 1932 as the springboard for a blend of fantasy and fact, in which the aged woman’s memories of Dodgson and his characters are tainted by the suspicion that Dodgson’s love for her was pedophile. There are several memorable sequences involving the Wonderland characters (realized by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) only now the critters created for a young girl’s Tenniel hatterdelight have become vulpine and threatening — embodiments of the older woman’s darkest fears. The scariest of the bunch is the Mad Hatter, crafted to resemble someone afflicted with mercury poisoning. Many readers assume the behavior of Lewis Carroll’s Hatter reflects the fact that mercury poisoning was an occupational hazard for hat-makers in the Victorian era — hot mercuric nitrate was the key to shaping animal pelts into felt, and workmen couldn’t help inhaling the toxic fumes — but the Hatter as described by Carroll (and drawn by John Tenniel) exhibits none of the classic symptoms. It’s pretty well accepted that Carroll’s creation was based on Theophilus Carter, a furniture dealer and inventor who lived near Oxford and was known to locals as the mad hatter for his eccentric behavior and favorite headgear. Still, the Henson version of the Hatter is the only one that can stand alongside the Tenniel original for boldness and artistic daring.

I recently watched an old VHS copy of Dreamchild and it’s still a wonderful film: the closing scenes, in which the elderly Alice comes to terms with the past and realizes the depth of Dodgson’s love for her, is guaranteed to put a lump in your throat. For reasons I’m still not clear on, Dreamchild was destined for oblivion — apparently the production studio collapsed, leaving several orphaned properties of which Dreamchild was one — when it caught the attention of  New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, whose praise led to a  limited theatrical release at the Public Theater, which is where I first saw it. Here’s hoping the hoopla around Burton’s vision of Wonderland leads some enterprising firm to issue a proper DVD and Blu-Ray edition of Dreamchild, a film that deserves to be far better known.

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