Remembering Dennis Potter

The unexpected and untimely death of Lynsey de Paul last October reminded me of a very special time in the early 1980s when I produced the movie Brimstone and Treacle.

I first got to know Dennis Potter when Quartet published his novel version of his award-winning BBC television series, Pennies from Heaven. He and I hit it off straight away, though he was a famously complex and cantankerous character. This was largely the result of the terrible chronic illness he suffered from most of his adult life. Known as psoriatic arthropothy, it affected his skin and his joints. He had to endure constant physical pain and was incapacitated in many ways, which gave him a focus for his anger.

Despite these handicaps, he was a man of the most remarkable achievements whose delving into the seedy depths of human motivation riveted his audience. He had a feeling for the drama and its need to defy convention which gave his work a rare quality seldom equalled by any of his contemporaries.

He had an obsessive nature that in some ways was not dissimilar to my own. Artistically he was driven and inflexible. He loved a quarrel and his relationships with close associates were always tempestuous. This was especially true with Kenith Trodd, who worked with Potter over many years on his television projects. Theirs was a relationship that oscillated between love and hate and caused consternation within their circle.

Dennis’s perception of women was strange as well as intriguing. He was attracted to the dissolute type of woman whose sexual vibes stir man’s most basic instincts. He certainly preferred the image of woman as sinful to the idea of her as pure.

The seething underbelly of nightlife with all its sexual connotations was a theme he was drawn to explore time and time again. The association between disgust and guilt was very real for him. Somehow he felt at home in an environment where prostitutes lurked or had a dominant presence. But his was a unique talent and his output was prodigious, given the health constraints under which he worked.

Of my own involvement I said in an interview with Screen International in early 1982 that ‘investing in films is a logical progression to my publishing activities’, that ‘I’ve always been interested in the media and I’ve always wanted to take risks. I do not see the point in investing in things that you know are going to work. For me the gamble of doing something you believe in is vitally important’.

Dennis told the Daily Mirror that in his ambition for the play to be turned into a film he was prepared to work for nothing to see the project through.

The subject matter of Brimstone and Treacle was guaranteed to attract controversy. In the mixed reception given to the movie by the critics after its London première in September 1982, discussion undoubtedly centred more on its theme than its artistic merit. There was a general consensus that Sting’s performance was a triumph, and most commentators agreed he was not its only revelation and Brimstone and Treacle was definitely a film to watch out for. It was remarked that it represented ‘a most impressive move into film production for the publishing impresario Naim Attallah’.

The party following the première was a lavish affair at a mansion in Regent’s Park. Billy Connolly and Pamela Stephenson were there, deep in conversation with Captain Sensible (wearing a skirt), while Lynsey de Paul giggled with her new man, designer Carl Dawson. Sting arrived alone but was soon surrounded by a cluster of beautiful women, including Selina Scott and the singer Marsha Hunt. Everyone at the gathering heaped praise on Sting for his acting ability. ‘He was so good, he made me sick,’ joked Bob Geldof.

Sting was in his element as he gasped, ‘It’s all so amazing.’ His sudden transition from rock star to film star left him quite bemused. Even the great photographer, Helmut Newton, who took the publicity photos for the film and had seen plenty of sights in his time, was dazzled by the event.

When Quartet gave Dennis Potter a commission to write a novel treatment for Brimstone and Treacle, he passed the task over to his daughter Sarah, whom he was encouraging to do some writing. His utter devotion to Sarah suggested she was the closest to him of all the women in his life.

Remembering people and events such as these are simply a tonic to keep us going in old age which, by and large, has its own limitations.

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