Essays: Potter's wheels within wheels |
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Potter’s wheels within wheels

THE LATEST play from Dennis Potter was called Only Make Believe (Play for Today, BBC-1) and had wheels within wheels. Keith Barron. who once played Potter’s Nigel Barton, was now playing Potter’s Christopher Hudson — who happens in real life to be the literary editor of the Spectator, but I don’t think the reference was intended.

Christopher Hudson bore certain important biographical resemblances to Dennis Potter: this we had already learned from Elkan Allan. who was not in the play, but perhaps will be in the next one. Hudson/Potter spent most of this play dictating a previous Potter Play to a temp, portrayed by Georgina Hale — who in an earlier incarnation was Adam Faith’s girlfriend in ‘Budgie,’ a different line of egocentricity entirely. To wrap up the Pirandellian parcel, the playwright had informed the world (per media Elkan Allan, Radio Times having long ago been dismissed as a sink of triviality — see Potter’s New Statesman TV column passim) that his critics would be foolish to regard a play bearing resemblances at all points to the life of Dennis Potter as having much to do with the life of Dennis Potter. Hence the title.

It was gratifying, on the night, to see how quickly all this showing-off on the DEW-line tom-toms ceased to matter. ‘Only Make Believe’ started being enjoyable practically from the jump, although one never became quite as committed to the action as the playwright would have liked. Hudson’s self-obsession was only too believable, but Barron didn’t find it so easy to convey the character’s attributes as a sensitive master of language. As Sandra, Georgina Hale sat still as a mouse, or a Flemish madonna transfixed by the Annunciation, or the beauty Kasugano inscribing a fan in Utamaro’s ‘Snow, Moon and Flowers of the Green Houses,’ or your dopey sister painting her nails. Around her statuesque placidity capered Barron, supposedly bombarding her limitless resources of indifference with overwhelming supplies of raging eloquence. ‘Do we have to?’ queried Sandra, parrying an early pass: ‘I’m not interested.’

As the riven playwright plunged on from day to day in the frenzied inspiration of composing a piece which (we could not help remembering) had already been produced and transmitted, it obviously became more and more important to him to break down the girl’s complacency, involve her in his anger, touch her with the majesty of the language which he dangerously commanded and which she was content pacifically to record. Or perhaps he just wanted to get her knickers off. It was on this last point that the playwright and the viewer tended to part company, since the playwright apparently didn’t feel bound to explore the possibility that his hero might have been faking a certain amount of the suffering in order to get the girl. Men do things like that, but it takes a comic vision to see it.

Hudson composed as fast as he could think and dictated as fast as he composed, whereupon Sandra typed it all down as fast as he dictated — a feat accomplished, as far as one could tell, by representing each word with one letter. Reading it back, though, she tended to flatness, whereas Hudson erupted into spasms of grief. ‘Doesn’t it mean anything to you?’ he cried, but as far as we could tell she remained untouched. What we couldn’t tell, at that stage, was whether or not the playwright regarded her detachment as legitimate. There was a sneaking suspicion that he looked upon failure to react to a play by Dennis Potter as prima facie evidence of death.

Keith Barron’s performance was not nearly as unsettling as it was unsettled: he seemed able to detect the selfishness at the centre of the tormented creativity he had been asked to embody, but hadn’t been given the words to cope with it. In the circumstances, he did a good job with the long speech which led up to his getting the girl. Previous attempts at tenderness had bounced off. ‘I like to hear you laugh: I like the way you laugh,’ he had vouchsafed, practically guaranteeing that she’d never laugh for him again. But a virtuoso two-page stretch of self-flagellating rant finally did the trick, and he sank to the floor with the delectable Sandra on top of him.

It must have been nice for Barron to get his face out of vision at long last, and in such a comfy way. For Georgina Hale, however, it was the low pinnacle of a shallow climb from one end to the other of a nothing role. She hadn’t been allowed to exist. Apart from going to the hairdresser every 20 minutes, what happened in her life? How long had she been wearing platforms? Which agency did she work for — the one that got big by bothering? Trust a television playwright not to poke his nose into such matters. Sandra was a cipher. When Hudson finally got his end away, it concerned nobody but him. Since the girl didn’t exist, the question of whether she was being conned or not never arose.

Dennis Potter makes a great parade of feeling, but his plays divide into two classes: those in which the feeling actually takes place and those in which it is merely claimed. In the first class, his undoubted eloquence can work to disturbing effect. In the second class, it works like the wind which proves the mountain hollow. ‘Only Make Believe’ fell full-length into the second class. But you could quarrel with it on the level of its making: it was a thoroughly craftsmanlike piece of construction, and the director (Robert Knights) had no trouble providing it with a camera-script of great delicacy. A superior job all round — and yet somehow hardly there at all. Selfhood, I think, is not a good subject for Potter, whose questioning is all directed outwards.

On Come Dancing (BBC-1) Northern Ireland couldn’t muster a formation team and had to import one. The circumstances which drove them to this expediency didn’t bear thinking about, and I offer you the information with a noncommittal shrug. What is there to say? Over to you, Terry Wogan.

The Observer, 18th February 1973