The BFI Presents The Complete Dennis Potter: Messages For Posterity

The highlight of the season is a screening of The Singing Detective, screened in its entirety alongside a distinguished panel of those involved in the production, including actors Alison Steadman and Janet Suzman, and director Jon Amiel.

Dennis Potter, BFI

BFI Southbank’s definitive complete canon of Dennis Potter concludes in June and July following two months of screenings in 2014.

With onstage appearances from: actors Brian Blessed, Alison Steadman, Janet Suzman, Kika Markham, directors Gareth Davies, Renny Rye, Jon Amiel and Robert Knights, producers Kenith Trodd, Jonathan Powell and Betty Willingale, Reverend Giles Fraser, critic Philip Purser, writer Ian Greaves.

Following two months of screenings in 2014, the BFI’s definitive complete canon of Dennis Potter commemorating 20 years since the writer’s death, concludes at BFI Southbank with screenings on the theme of Faith & Redemption’ in June and ‘Sex & Death’ in July, featuring screenings of some of his most famous works including Blackeyes (BBC, 1989), Son of Man (BBC, 1969) and his masterpiece The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986), which will be screened in its entirety.

Dennis Potter (17 May 1935 – 7 June 1994) is generally acknowledged as Britain’s greatest and most innovative TV writer. He produced a body of work specifically for television that redefined TV drama, daring to challenge both commissioners’ and viewers’ perceptions of the format. Ken Trodd, who was Potter’s producer for most of his career and who is co-curator of the Messages for Posterity season – says “what Dennis left is an enormous, daunting, inviting and revealing feast of brilliance. I’m still astonished by the freshness and originality of it all. Tune in, watch, and feel yourself grow!”

These screenings build a picture of a complex man of great conviction, a man who passionately believed in the power of TV drama.


The plays chosen for Part 3 of the season in June – on the theme of faith and redemption – indicate Potter’s very personal and particular faith, something which he addresses in the candid Anno Domini Interview (BBC, 1977). Potter’s Son of Man (BBC, 1969) humanises the figure of Jesus and provides dialogue that is direct and modern; this screening will be followed by a discussion on the wider issue of faith within Potter’s writing with actor Brian Blessed (Peter in Son of Man) director Gareth Davies, producer Ken Trodd, critic Philip Purser, writer Ian Greaves and Reverend Giles Fraser. Potter also displayed an affinity with the stories of Thomas Hardy and F Scott Fitzgerald and we will explore his often neglected skill as an adaptor. Following a screening of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (BBC, Showtime Entertainment, Seven Network Australia, 1985) Exec Producer Jonathan Powell and producer Betty Willingale, director Robert Knights will discuss Potter’s skill as an adaptor. Further adaptations being screened include Hardy’s Wessex Tales: A Tragedy of Two Ambitions (BBC, 1973) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (BBC, 1978) and Christabel (BBC, 1988), based on The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg, and depicting the marriage of a privileged Englishwoman to a German in 1934 amid disapproval from her family and the rise of Nazism.

Film adaptations of Potter’s work will include Gorky Park (1983) starring William Hurt and Lee Marvin, Alain Renais’ Same Old Song (1997) and biography Mesmer (1993) starring Alan Rickman as the 18th-century Viennese physician Franz Anton Mesmer. The season will also screen a number of illuminating documentaries including The Southbank Show: Dennis Potter: Man of Television (ITV, 1978), Dennis Potter: A Life in Television (BBC, 1994) and Between Two Rivers (BBC, 1960), a fascinating documentary which sees Potter return to his home town – Berry Hill in the Forest of Dean – voicing his fears for the loss of individuality and community spirit in the face of bland commercialism.


The final part of the complete canon of Dennis Potter will examine his complex attitudes towards sex and women, and his relationship with death. Work screening in July includes plays which occasionally courted controversy – such as the sensational ending in Double Dare (BBC, 1976) or the depiction of women in Blackeyes (BBC, 1989) – but they were always dazzling in their originality and execution. Screening in full will be Potter’s masterpiece The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986): elements of psychological thriller and film noir are brought together with familiar themes of sexual guilt and writer’s block in this incredible journey into the inner psyche of Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon) as he lies stricken by extreme psoriasis, a debilitating condition that Potter himself suffered. In entering Marlow’s feverish mind, Potter creates some of the most memorable images and routines ever realised in TV drama. The screening will be followed by a panel with actors Alison Steadman, Janet Suzman and Jon Amiel (via Skype) and producer Ken Trodd. Also screening will be the Hollywood remake of The Singing Detective (2003) starring Robert Downey Jr, in which the British setting is replaced by 50s LA. Also in the programme is Midnight Movie (Screen Two BBC, 1993), starring Jim Carter as a provincial lawyer obsessed with an old B-movie sex symbol, and Casanova (BBC, 1971), starring Frank Finlay – Potters finely nuanced Casanova is a complex mix of sexual philanderer and philosopher, searching for salvation as he grows old.

Death is understandably ever-present in a number of Potter’s works – by the time of writing Karaoke (BBC-Channel 4, 1996) and Cold Lazarus (Channel 4-BBC, 1996) Potter knew he had just months to live. He was also remarkably frank in his last ever interview Without Walls Special: An Interview with Dennis Potter (Channel 4, 1994). In the interview he revealed much about his life and fears, and pleaded for the protection of something he believed in so passionately: the power of the television play. It’s a testament to his stature as a writer that the BBC and Channel Four made an agreement with Potter to work together to produce Karaoke and Cold Lazarus after his death, and recognition that Potter had changed TV drama (a form that mattered to him so deeply) irrevocably.

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