DENNIS POTTER: A Biography

By Humphrey Carpenter

St. Martin's. 672 pp. $40

Reviewed by Ben Downing

Surely one of the more memorable lines in television history is, "I shall have to lift your penis now to grease around it," spoken by Nurse Mills to Philip Marlow, her psoriasis-ravaged patient, in the celebrated series "The Singing Detective." Excruciating pain, sexual humiliation and the blackest, bitterest of humors rolled into one: This must be Dennis Potter.

Potter (1935-1994) was born to a coal miner's family in the Forest of Dean, near the Welsh border. While at Oxford he became a socialist firebrand and edited the Isis. Afterward he seemed to be headed toward a career in journalism and politics. He stood as a Labour candidate in 1964, when illness struck in the form of psoriatic arthropathy, a ghastly, downright Biblical disease that blistered his skin and crippled his hands. (He scoffed at John Updike's own cutaneous woes as "mere rashes.")

With a career as public man ruled out, Potter found his true metier as, of all things, a television dramatist. Gradually he developed his rollicking hallmark style, elements of which include lip-synched pop songs from the '30s and '50s; loads of whoring molestation and all-around lechery; and elaborate plot structures -- "Chinese-boxes," Carpenter terms them -- that would make Quentin Tarantino's head spin. His greatest successes were "Pennies from Heaven" in 1978 and "The Singing Detective," widely regarded as his masterpiece, in 1986.

Soon, inevitably, Hollywood came wooing. That almost everything Potter wrote for the big studios flopped upset him little; ever quick to abuse the Yanks, he took perverse pride in having lost them millions. His dismal failure as a director (of "Secret Friends" and "Blackeyes") rankled far more, however, as did executive pusillanimity over such hot potatoes as "Brimstone and Treacle," which was banned from the BBC.

These setbacks notwithstanding, Potter became in Britain a writer and curmudgeon of note, his series routinely reviewed by the likes of Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and A.S. Byatt. He has been hailed as "the Jonathan Swift of his time" and "the Chekhov of television writers" -- hyperboles both, but they indicate the high regard in which he's held.

The end of Potter's story is one of the most poignant known to me. Stricken with pancreatic cancer (the main growth of which he dubbed Rupert, in homage to his bete noire Murdoch -- "I would shoot the bugger if I could") and given only weeks to live, Potter hurls himself into his work like never before, finishing two long series, "Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus." Even more incredibly, he grants a TV interview during which, sipping champagne and liquid morphine, a perpetual cigarette clenched in his maimed paw, he speaks serenely of his own imminent demise; the whole country was much affected. Then, unexpectedly, his wife dies, also of cancer, and a devastated Potter follows her to the grave only days later.

Potter was, to be sure, a complex, fascinating character, at once tender and (in several senses) scabrous, rebarbative and admirable; from certain angles he reminds me of the great Philip Larkin. Whatever else one thinks of him, his courage cannot be denied. He belongs to that humbling fellowship of writers -- Heinrich Heine, R.L. Stevenson and Francis Parkman count among his unfortunate confreres -- who, far from being cowed by sickness, are spurred by it into defiantly prodigious accomplishment.

And yet, for all this, Potter's life does not make for terribly interesting reading. A reclusive family man, he had few friends; a semi-xenophobe, he rarely travelled. (After his first trip aboard, Potter wonderfully commented of Britain that "I had not realized how like a convalescent hospital the dear old place really is.") Those expecting rampant smut and naughtiness will be disappointed: As did another sex-crazed, valetudinarian collier's son -- D.H. Lawrence -- Potter got his rocks off mostly on the page. Likewise, there are fewer literary sidelights than one might hope for. That Potter's favorite author was the equally irascible William Hazlitt and that he adapted, among other classics, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tender Is The Night and Gosse's Father and Son are facts worth knowing. But a cosmopolitan man of letters Potter wasn't.

For the above reasons alone, I cannot recommend Dennis Potter to general readers. There are, moreover, problems inherent to the biography itself. Carpenter has devoted too many pages to plot summary and network squabbling, too few to Potter's inner and family life. As a result, his book feels, despite its considerable heft, oddly perfunctory; the brisk style that served Carpenter so well in his fine biography of W.H. Auden here comes across as impatient and unreflective. Similarly, his prose is blameless but never inspired. A labor of love? Manifestly not. If only Carpenter had brought to bear on Potter's life more of the wit, verve and boisterous imagination with which Potter divulged his own.

Ben Downing is the managing editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review.