Dennis Potter Arena


Dennis Potter

Alan Yentob interviews TV dramatist Dennis Potter about his work through the years, touching on subjects such as why and how he started writing and his attempt to enter politics.


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Transcript


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With The Singing Detective, Dennis Potter confirmed once again

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that he's our leading television playwright.

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From his debut in 1965 with Stand Up, Nigel Barton,

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he's never been afraid to break the rules,

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challenging both the technical conventions of television

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and the moral assumptions of the time.

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Since he began to write, Potter has suffered from severe psoriasis,

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a condition which affects the joints and the skin.

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At times he's been so crippled, he couldn't even hold a pen.

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But despite this chronic handicap, he's produced over 30 original

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television plays, frequently returning to the same themes -

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religious faith, illness, infidelity,

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politics and popular culture,

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and the methods and morality of television itself.

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Perhaps his most familiar landmark is the Forest of Dean,

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where he was born in 1935 and grew up the son of a miner.

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When I grow up, I'm going to be the first man to live forever and ever.

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In my opinion, you don't have to die. Not unless you want to.

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I be in't never going to want to. Not me.

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When I grow up, I'm going to leave the light on. All night, I be.

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No matter bloody what.

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I'm going to have books - on shelves, mind. Shelves just for books.

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When I grow up, I'm going to have a whole tin of evaporated milk.

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A whole tin of peaches, I be. I bloody be, mind.

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I bloody damn buggering well be.

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Oi, and I shall curse.

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Do you know - tell thou what. When...

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When I grow up, everything - everything will be all right.

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Won't it? Won't it, God, eh? Thou's like me a bit, doesn't God?

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# Roll along, Prairie Moon, roll along while I croon

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# Shine above, lamp of love, Prairie Moon

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# Way up there in the blue, maybe you're lonely too

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-# Swinging by in the sky, Prairie Moon.

-#

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I have peculiar delusions.

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What sort of delusions?

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That I'm a sort of puppet-master.

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Occupational hazard.

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What?

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You're a writer. You push people about on a nice, clean white page.

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Do this, do that, you say. Speak. Be quiet. Cry.

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-When I look up from the page...

-You see real people.

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Real people.

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And we don't always do what you want or what you expect.

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-No?

-No.

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Well, we'll see, won't we?

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-Who's this, your understudy?

-Understudy's a good word.

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-This is Dr Bilson. You were an actor. That is so, isn't it?

-Yes.

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-On the television?

-Yes. Commercials, mostly.

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I knew I'd seen you somewhere before.

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-You do this one where the man is creeping on tiptoes...

-Yes, yes.

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No doubt you do get sick of being... That's not why you're here, is it?

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Commercials are all right.

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-I quite like the commercials. There's nothing wrong with the commercials.

-Not very satisfying for an actor.

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-They're better than the plays.

-Really, I would have...

-You don't know anything about it,

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-do you?

-No, I suppose not.

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-And commercials are clean.

-Clean?

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They have happy families in the commercials. Husbands and wives who love each other.

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Not real husbands and real wives, surely?

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-They have sunshine and laughter.

-You can't expect...

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-Kids playing in the meadows.

-You don't think love is so simple or...

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Nobody mocks the finest human aspirations,

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there's no deliberate wallowing in vice and evil.

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There's nothing wrong with the commercials, nothing at all!

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Love your enemy.

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GROANS OF DISAGREEMENT AND DISMAY

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-Love your enemy.

-Stupid!

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Love your enemy!

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Love those who hate you, love those who would destroy you.

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Love the man who would kick you and spit at you,

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love the soldier who drives his sword in your belly. Love the brigand

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who robs and tortures you. Love your enemy!

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Somebody in this room is a thief.

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Somebody, some wicked, wicked child, has stolen our lovely daffodil.

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-Aww.

-Yes.

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Our lovely daffodil, the one we've all watered and tended

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since the middle of March.

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Sit absolutely still, every single one of you.

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Quite, quite still.

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I've my own ways of finding nasty little sneak thieves.

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Stand up, Nigel Barton. Nigel, do you know anything about this?

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-I can't believe it was you.

-No, Miss.

-Then what do you know about it?

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I think... I think I might have had the daffodil, Miss.

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-You might have had it, what do you mean, boy? Speak up!

-I...

-Well!

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The stem was all broke, Miss. Somebody gave it to me, Miss.

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-Who gave it to you?

-I don't like to say, Miss.

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-You'd better, Nigel, and quick!

-Georgie Pringle, Miss.

-I never did!

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Quiet, Pringle! All right, Nigel. Thank you.

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-Mark Binnie, Miss. It was Mark Binnie.

-Mark Binnie.

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-No, Miss.

-It wasn't! Come out to the front.

-No, Miss, no!

-Come here, boy!

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-Philip, you may go back to your desk for the while.

-Miss.

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Thank you, Philip.

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Miss, wasn't me, Miss. Honest, Miss, honest.

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We'll see about that, won't we, my boy.

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We're going to find out, aren't we?

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Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

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Right, the next song.

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This is one of our old favourites, The Old Apple Tree.

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Here in Berry Hill Working Men's Club,

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there's nothing to suggest a lumpen, apathetic and manipulated society.

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Here, thank God, is that sense of community, of doing,

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and of vitality that still resists.

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# There's an old, old apple tree

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# Out in the orchard

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# That will live forever in my memory

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# It reminds me of my pappy

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# Who was handsome, young and happy

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# When he planted this old, old apple tree. #

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# I'm as busy as a spider spinning daydreams

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# I'm as giddy as a baby on a swing

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# I haven't seen a crocus or a rosebud

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# Or a robin on the wing

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# But I feel so gay in a melancholy way

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# That it might as well be spring

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# Oh, it might as well be spring. #

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APPLAUSE

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Looking back at your work over the past 20 years or so,

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there are a startling number of themes which are

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either revisited or redrawn throughout that period.

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How far do you think you're fuelled today by the same obsessions as then

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and do you still feel about them as you did when you first began to write?

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I think any writer who keeps going over

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a couple of decades or so

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is going to be ploughing the same stretch of land

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whether he knows it or not.

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In fact, you don't know it until much later on and then

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you not only know it, you welcome it

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because you don't ever plough the land properly.

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There's always the possibility that some coin

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or richness that you didn't know that you knew is there,

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waiting to be turned up the next farrow round.

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I don't see that I'm ever going to get off that plough or wheel

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or whatever it is, because that is the thing that makes me

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and makes me a writer and stops me not being a writer.

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In other words, I wouldn't rest if I thought that there was still

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another turn to make in the same field.

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How did you come to write at all? Why did you decide to write?

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I don't know, I don't know. I don't think anyone decides to write.

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I think you just find that you are writing. I had...

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I had thought that I was going to be a politician.

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I had thought that the instinct that I knew I had

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and didn't understand what that instinct was,

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was going to lead me into politics,

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because that seemed to be the access to what it was I wanted to say.

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In fact, it isn't and wasn't.

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But I was, as a working-class child, I had a high IQ.

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I learnt to read before I went to school in the chapel,

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for example, on the Sundays which used to be Salem Chapel up the hill.

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Clean shoes, clean hankie in two,

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and all those dreadful - mustn't use four-letter words -

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hymns come rolling out over you in which one of the things I remember

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was a pencil writing a hymn and again my mother taking it

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from worry because it was a wet day, thinking what sort of boy

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you're going to turn into, as it were,

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because you're writing bloody hymns.

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Fair enough. I'd do the same.

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Actually, I'd whop my child if I found it!

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But it's er...

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It was that I knew that the words were chariots, in some way.

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I didn't know where it was going

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or what release and/or torment it might lead to, but it was

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so inevitable that it's why I have difficulty in answering questions

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about why and what and when did you become a writer, because

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I cannot think of a time, really, when I wasn't in one way or another.

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So you were attracted by the language that you heard in the church,

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and the sentiments as well?

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No, I wasn't attracted by the language.

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I just thought that that initially

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was the language of imaginative discourse.

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The stories...

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I don't know if you ever remember Hazlitt's description

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of his father reading the Bible.

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When I read that, I recognised the same feeling,

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the strength of it, the images of the Bible.

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The sand and the valley of the shadow of death

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or Jacob wrestling with the Angel.

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I knew exactly where that was.

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I knew where the valley of the shadow of death was,

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which was a lane overhung with trees behind the village,

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where I used to whistle as you went down it.

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Say on a winter's dusk,

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which would be the time you would be coming home from school.

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I always associated the chapel language with that terrible

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withdrawal of light at about three or four o'clock in the afternoon

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on a November-December school day.

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When my father died in 1975 on a November day, exactly the same,

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I felt then, that's what I felt as a child.

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I felt that feeling, that terrible emptying out.

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That you were wriggling on a pin and there was nothing

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and no-one was going to lift you off it and the light was being sucked

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out of the sky and there were these terrible words rolling around you.

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# Amen. #

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There's wickedness in the air. There's evil, in this here village.

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Satan himself is stalking our steep green hill.

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Tha's all know what I mean.

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You'd know. You'd know!

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Up there on the tump lies a young girl under a white sheet.

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Up there where we've all been a-blackberrying

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and a-bird's nesting and a-playing tag.

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Up there where the birds sing lies a young girl with her head

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broken down to the bone, and the fat flies feeding on her empty eyes.

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The Beast With Two Backs is a play which seems to be

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very much about the people and the spirit of the Forest of Dean.

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It has a historical setting, in the 19th century, but it

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did appear almost feudal in its atmosphere.

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It's where you've come from, of course, and you've drawn on it

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a great deal throughout your work,

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but what is it that is so particular about it, about the Forest of Dean?

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The villages had their origins entirely in coal-mining

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and the pits were like great black sows buried in the trees.

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All the villages were mining villages

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and therefore are not English country villages.

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There are no squires. You said feudal - the Forest of Dean isn't like that.

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It isn't like, say, a Sussex village.

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It's both more democratic and more powerful in its emotions

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within the villages than the word "feudal" might suggest.

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I suppose using The Beast With Two Backs

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was a way of nodding at some of that or submitting to some of that.

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If home is, where someone said, where you start from,

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then clearly that sort of culture is going to continually send up

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tremors through me no matter what I do or where I go.

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But how much did you feel part of it? You were

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an extremely clever child. You were set apart from the other children.

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You've said this yourself,

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you've even talked of being humiliated at school.

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Did you feel different from the other children?

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Did you have a sense of being different?

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Probably, yes. I don't...

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But say I'd been better at football, it wouldn't have mattered so much.

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Or if I'd been less physically cowardly,

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it wouldn't have mattered so much,

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but the two things reinforced each other so that I then became...

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When they were filming The Singing Detective, for example,

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in the Forest of Dean, they went there.

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They found... I wasn't there on that recce and I vowed,

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"Save me, Jesus Christ, I will not do that."

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Went on that recce and they met some of the people I was brought up with

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and they said, "You were at school with Dennis, were you?"

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This to a girl whom I well remember, whose name I won't mention,

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and she said, "Well, Dennis would never have climbed a tree

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"because he was too timid."

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But of course I did, but only when I was alone.

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So there was that sense in which I could do anything and say anything

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and dare anything as long as there was no witness.

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The witness would have immediately translated it into their terms,

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terms which I was already uncomfortable about.

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So that all that worn, suffocating in one sense,

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inturned, insular,

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Forest of Dean, working class, chapel, brass band,

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rugby football, male voice choirs, all that - on one level,

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I wanted to be part of it and longed for acceptance in it.

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On another level, I was already beginning to judge it

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and be the cocky scholarship boy, if you like

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who was at the very moment of embracing it, compromising it.

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CAR HORN SOUNDS

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ENGINE REVS

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In 1959, after leaving Oxford University, Potter joined

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the BBC and worked as a trainee in the Television Talks department.

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Rather surprisingly, he was invited to write

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and narrate this documentary film about his own life

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and background even though he was only 24.

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BABY WHIMPERS AND BEGINS TO CRY

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Jane, I baptise thee in the name of the Father,

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and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

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Jane is my daughter, and in a way this film is about her

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and about myself, for I brought her down from London where she was born

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to be christened in the Forest of Dean where I grew up.

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It's a story of my discovery of things here to respect and of

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my anxiety about the kind of Forest of Dean

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she will see as she grows older.

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That's Margaret, my wife, born here like myself.

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And my mother, proud of her first grandchild.

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And my father, who has spent most of his working life

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in the pits of the Forest of Dean.

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For the green forest has a deep, black heart

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beneath its sudden hills, pushing up into slag heaps

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and grey little villages clustering around the coal.

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Perhaps it even shapes the character of the people who live in this

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fortress which rises so dramatically from the valleys of the Severn and Wye.

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Two rivers dividing it from Wales to the west and England to the east.

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I'd started work at the BBC in September-October 1959.

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I worked briefly on Panorama and then with Denis Mitchell.

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Then I had the chance, because of the way I was a spouter then,

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in best BBC sense, always talking about what I wanted to do.

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Grace Wyndham Goldie had this slot

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and said, "See what you can do."

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That was my first meeting with film cameras

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and with the BBC at work, as it were.

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As opposed to television cameras in the studio,

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in the discussion programmes and what have you.

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And it...it fascinated me.

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The process fascinated me and the lies fascinated me,

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and the way in which it failed to deal with what I knew to be there.

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Everything I saw began to take on depressing and drab colours.

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The forest came to narrow and constrict itself around me.

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The fortress became a prison.

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Even at home with my own parents, I felt a shame-faced irritation

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with the tempo of a pickle-jar style of living.

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SOUNDS OF A WESTERN ACTION SCENE ON THE RADIO

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Doing homework like this boy in a crowded and noisy room helped

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fling up a growing but confused exasperation with those around me.

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I began to read at a gluttonous desperation, eager to discover

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new ideas and revel in insights and feelings I'd never dreamt of before.

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I loathed the thought of lives and minds warped by the dirt,

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clay and mud of such filthy working conditions.

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I could see no virtues in grubbing in the earth for a living.

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I thought then that this miserable pile of dull villages could

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not possibly be reconciled with great art, great thought,

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vital emotions and classical music.

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I wanted to escape. I yearned to get away.

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Well, I was lucky. I did get away.

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By a process of examination and accident,

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I got to Oxford and I was able to relax and spread myself in what

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seemed to be a far more fertile and richer world than the Forest of Dean.

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Now, after a number of years, I find myself back with a shiny new

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degree and looking at these drab, untidy old houses which once seemed

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to me to be the very expression of all my dislike and frustration.

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I find myself wondering.

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I know that you regretted very much the way that that film turned out.

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How much of it do you think was your responsibility?

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A great deal of it. I was 24... I don't know. 23-4, a year.

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It was also about my own background and it trapped me into...

0:24:060:24:12

I trapped myself into making premature judgements

0:24:120:24:15

about things that actually were terribly dear and tender to me

0:24:150:24:19

which in that way that is characteristic of the callow,

0:24:190:24:27

I was embarrassed by the tenderness of them.

0:24:270:24:33

Therefore, the embarrassment had to be expressed in rhetoric.

0:24:330:24:39

The rhetoric was phony because rhetoric usually is, but it was...

0:24:400:24:47

..seeing... It's again that out there and what it is you're observing process.

0:24:510:24:58

Seeing how those scenes with the clapperboard in front of them

0:24:580:25:03

got turned into that,

0:25:030:25:05

and seeing what was on either side of the camera and wasn't on the film.

0:25:070:25:12

The way that my own voiceover had diminished what this person

0:25:120:25:17

was saying, or what this person was about to say, which was worse.

0:25:170:25:23

It taught me how easy betrayal is compared to,

0:25:230:25:30

again, using the word in quotes if you like, art,

0:25:300:25:35

which is not concerned with betrayal.

0:25:350:25:38

Art cannot betray, in that sense.

0:25:400:25:44

This concern with betrayal,

0:25:440:25:46

which is also betrayal of values, betrayal of ideas,

0:25:460:25:50

is very much there in the beginning in the writing, isn't it?

0:25:500:25:54

Again, going back to that experience of that particular film,

0:25:540:25:58

which is one thing, in terms of betraying, to some extent,

0:25:580:26:01

didn't you feel that you had betrayed your parents, your father?

0:26:010:26:05

Yes. Yes, I did.

0:26:050:26:08

Did Nigel Barton come out of that at all?

0:26:110:26:15

There was a scene in Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton

0:26:150:26:20

where he appeared on television

0:26:200:26:23

and had to watch it with his parents.

0:26:230:26:26

That... they didn't mind.

0:26:260:26:29

They were proud of him but he knew that he'd been a shit.

0:26:290:26:33

Mea culpa, yes.

0:26:340:26:36

I feel I don't belong here. That's my trouble.

0:26:360:26:39

Where do you belong? At home?

0:26:390:26:41

-Of course.

-No. I'm afraid I don't.

0:26:410:26:44

It hurts to say this, of course, but it's the truth.

0:26:440:26:49

Back at home, in the village, in the working men's club,

0:26:490:26:53

with people I went to school with,

0:26:530:26:55

I'm so much on the defensive, you see.

0:26:550:26:58

They suspect me of making qualitative judgements

0:26:580:27:02

about their environment, you understand, but it's not my wish

0:27:020:27:05

to do so. I even find my own father looking at me oddly sometimes,

0:27:050:27:09

waiting to pounce on some remark, some expression in my face.

0:27:090:27:13

Watching me like a hawk.

0:27:130:27:15

I don't feel at home in either place. I don't belong.

0:27:180:27:23

It's a tightrope between two different worlds.

0:27:230:27:26

-I'm walking it.

-You're a bloody liar, Nigel!

0:27:260:27:29

-Can you see any way out of this dilemma?

-No. None whatsoever.

0:27:290:27:34

Unless by becoming utterly insensitive and dead inside.

0:27:350:27:39

By pretending, like so many people do,

0:27:390:27:41

that these things do not matter, but they do.

0:27:410:27:45

Well, thank you. Thank you very much.

0:27:450:27:48

-Thank you for nothing.

-They've cut it, Dad! They've cut it to bits.

0:27:480:27:53

-They cut me, Nigel. They cut me to the quick.

-I'm sorry!

0:27:530:27:56

-I'm bitterly sorry.

-Watch you like a hawk, do I?

-You do, Harry.

-There!

0:27:560:28:01

There, you see.

0:28:010:28:03

Watch you like a hawk, do I? What are they going to say at work?

0:28:030:28:06

Here comes the bloody hawk, they'll say, with his son on a tightrope.

0:28:060:28:09

It's just an expression, Dad. It's just a way of putting it.

0:28:090:28:13

Well, put it somewhere else, son. I don't want any bloody tightrope walkers in my house.

0:28:130:28:17

What about the betrayal of when you went into politics yourself,

0:28:170:28:22

and Nigel Barton also had a departure into politics,

0:28:220:28:25

did you feel... did you go into it with the notion

0:28:250:28:29

that this was something that you could be effective in?

0:28:290:28:33

That you could support your class,

0:28:330:28:35

that you could be effective in politics?

0:28:350:28:38

I thought I could be effective in politics, yes.

0:28:380:28:42

I was a good speaker and a good party representative

0:28:430:28:50

for a safe Conservative seat so it didn't matter too much.

0:28:500:28:54

But when I went canvassing with my political agent at the time and

0:28:560:29:01

various doors would open and they'd say, "Can we rely upon your vote?"

0:29:010:29:06

Which, essentially, canvassing is only about

0:29:060:29:09

making sure that those you know support you come out.

0:29:090:29:13

Then they would start discussing things like

0:29:130:29:15

"What are you going to do about all the blacks?"

0:29:150:29:18

Well, I would attempt to engage and get a sharp kick on the ankle,

0:29:180:29:22

which is fair enough because his job was to get the vote out

0:29:220:29:26

and mine was to realise that I was in the wrong trade.

0:29:260:29:30

No matter how effective I was as a speaker, believe me,

0:29:320:29:35

I felt that very strong streak of charlatanry in me which made me...

0:29:350:29:40

I would probably be leader of the Labour Party by now

0:29:400:29:43

if I hadn't been ill!

0:29:430:29:45

In other words, I could have been that kind of sub-criminal.

0:29:450:29:48

Much of the drama in your plays is centred around the dilemmas faced by individuals.

0:29:480:29:53

The dilemma of self, if you like.

0:29:530:29:55

They are about paradox and contradictions, about anxieties.

0:29:550:30:00

One of the ways in which you explore these themes is through

0:30:000:30:04

this idea of betrayal.

0:30:040:30:06

One child betrays another child in school. The betrayal of infidelity.

0:30:060:30:12

Your preoccupation with Burgess and Maclean. Patriotism and treason.

0:30:120:30:17

It's as if the shape of your characters' lives is defined

0:30:170:30:20

by their failure to live up to their own aspirations, and also

0:30:200:30:24

it seems to be the failure of the world to live up to their expectations.

0:30:240:30:29

I don't think it's going too far to say that might actually be

0:30:300:30:34

the shape of anyone's life,

0:30:340:30:38

in that to be at the high tide of belief in anything,

0:30:380:30:44

if you're capable of believing,

0:30:440:30:46

and most people are at some point in their lives capable

0:30:460:30:50

of believing in something bigger and more demanding

0:30:500:30:56

than they think it is, and when it's at high tide

0:30:560:31:01

and the sun's on the sea and there's a mimosa-clad beach, it appears

0:31:010:31:05

to be the answer to everything, whether it's a political belief,

0:31:050:31:09

religious belief, or a personal commitment - falling in love, say.

0:31:090:31:15

It would appear to be both the high moment and "the answer," in quotes.

0:31:150:31:23

But inevitably, and humanly,

0:31:250:31:28

as your own body betrays you as you age,

0:31:280:31:34

so the purity, for example, of a political belief,

0:31:340:31:40

can be fortunately temporised

0:31:400:31:45

by your own commitments, your own laziness,

0:31:450:31:51

your own dealing with the rough and tumble of life.

0:31:510:31:56

Which saves people from becoming ideologues, if you like.

0:31:560:32:00

The passionate priest/politician is dangerous

0:32:000:32:05

because the high tide is still drumming in his head and ears.

0:32:050:32:09

But the falling away of belief and the falling away of commitment,

0:32:120:32:20

while partly inevitable, still tears where those beliefs stuck to you,

0:32:200:32:28

still tears away the flesh from the bone, metaphorically speaking.

0:32:280:32:32

You cannot betray and be comfortable with the betrayal,

0:32:330:32:36

and it's pointing out,

0:32:380:32:40

or observing or charting, not with any didactic sense,

0:32:400:32:43

but merely observing it,

0:32:430:32:46

that can give some of the

0:32:460:32:49

spring and tension in drama.

0:32:490:32:53

What about your country?

0:32:530:32:55

What about it?

0:32:570:32:58

Have you no patriotism?

0:32:590:33:01

Don't you love England?

0:33:030:33:05

What's so funny?

0:33:050:33:07

I was born into a class that loves only what it owns.

0:33:070:33:13

We don't own quite enough of it any more.

0:33:140:33:18

That is why all,

0:33:180:33:21

all, mind you,

0:33:210:33:24

not just some, but all

0:33:240:33:27

of the renowned traitors working for Nazi Germany,

0:33:270:33:32

or for Stalin's Russia,

0:33:320:33:35

all came from my class.

0:33:350:33:38

Silver spoons tarnish easily, you know.

0:33:400:33:43

I suppose, we were all riddled with disappointment

0:33:440:33:47

and futility is the sine qua non

0:33:490:33:53

of a classical education.

0:33:530:33:55

It is as simple as that?

0:33:550:33:58

Almost.

0:33:580:34:00

You'll find in that manuscript the names of several Tory MPs

0:34:000:34:05

and the odd denizen of the Upper House.

0:34:050:34:08

The English have lost more battles

0:34:090:34:12

on the playing fields of Eton,

0:34:120:34:16

than on any other acre of land this side of Vladivostok.

0:34:160:34:20

We, none of us, liked team sports, you know.

0:34:210:34:25

You, of course, abandoned your own political ambitions

0:34:270:34:31

after the '64 election,

0:34:310:34:33

and decided to write.

0:34:330:34:35

You could've written for the theatre, you could have

0:34:350:34:38

written novels, but you didn't, you chose to write for television.

0:34:380:34:42

Why did you decide that?

0:34:420:34:43

I did have the...I had...

0:34:430:34:46

the... yearning maybe, I don't know,

0:34:460:34:51

what is the right word to use,

0:34:510:34:54

for there to be the possibility, at least, of a common culture.

0:34:540:34:59

I don't think that way in quite the same way, now.

0:34:590:35:03

But then it was much more plausible to think in those terms,

0:35:030:35:07

with just the two channels, and the...

0:35:070:35:10

I'd chosen television,

0:35:120:35:15

partly to assuage some guilt,

0:35:160:35:21

if you like, or anxieties you've expressed,

0:35:210:35:25

but also because the same instinct that wanted me...

0:35:270:35:31

..that made me want to be a Labour politician,

0:35:330:35:36

was not in order that the party should prosper

0:35:370:35:41

or that I should get elected to Parliament, or...

0:35:410:35:44

Of course that was part and parcel of it,

0:35:440:35:46

but it was really something else, which was

0:35:460:35:50

like being in the primary school again, making everything all right,

0:35:500:35:54

which was that all sorts and conditions of human being

0:35:540:35:59

could share the same experience,

0:35:590:36:03

do share the same experiences,

0:36:030:36:06

and that because of the tyranny and treachery of words, which...

0:36:060:36:11

..are dependent upon education,

0:36:120:36:14

which, in itself, is dependent

0:36:140:36:17

upon class, in England,

0:36:170:36:19

that one of the ways of jumping over the hierarchies of print culture,

0:36:190:36:24

was television.

0:36:240:36:26

Because anyone, and everyone, could see it.

0:36:260:36:31

So, obviously, the democracy of television appealed to you,

0:36:310:36:35

but you broke the rules, right from the word go.

0:36:350:36:37

You started to confound the formal conventions of television.

0:36:370:36:42

In Nigel Barton, for instance, you first started to use children

0:36:420:36:46

as adults, something that you did later on in Blue Remembered Hills.

0:36:460:36:49

What did you learn from that process of writing Nigel Barton?

0:36:490:36:54

I learnt from it how, how far I had to go.

0:36:540:36:59

But I also learnt that you could do it,

0:37:000:37:04

erm, and that, that by making what appeared to be a...

0:37:040:37:09

Because they didn't appear to me to be innovations, that was the point,

0:37:090:37:13

I thought, "How am I going to express it?" How is it, for example,

0:37:130:37:17

if you're describing the behaviour of children, how are you going

0:37:170:37:20

to communicate both the excitement, the zest, the terror,

0:37:200:37:24

the anxiety, the whatever of the relationship between those children,

0:37:240:37:28

to an adult audience?

0:37:280:37:31

The only way, it seemed to me to make it really possible,

0:37:310:37:35

was not to allow the audience, adult, to distance himself or herself

0:37:350:37:41

by saying, "Oh, children!", a twee distancing.

0:37:410:37:46

The wrong sort of alienating effect, if you like - but was to show

0:37:460:37:51

how awful, or how marvellous or whatever,

0:37:510:37:55

how whatever it was, by making them adult.

0:37:550:37:59

But, at the same time, using the adult body

0:37:590:38:02

as a magnifying glass for childhood,

0:38:020:38:05

the physicality of childhood emotion, childhood restlessness,

0:38:050:38:09

but using that as the reverse of a magnifying glass as well,

0:38:090:38:14

to make you see how much of it was still in adult life.

0:38:140:38:17

The apple's gone in the dirt. You knocked it in the dirt, you loony!

0:38:170:38:22

-Who's the loony?

-You be, you be. Oh!

0:38:220:38:25

-Oh!

-Who is? Who is?

-I be, I be!

0:38:250:38:28

-Who is?

-I be!

0:38:280:38:31

-Who's a loony?

-I be!

0:38:310:38:33

WRACKING SOBS

0:38:330:38:35

Take that anyway, you great babby! Don't you forget it!

0:38:380:38:42

There's dirt on that apple!

0:39:020:39:06

Don't make no odds.

0:39:060:39:08

-Germs!

-What?

0:39:110:39:13

Germs and things.

0:39:170:39:19

You'll get stomach-ache, Peter.

0:39:190:39:22

Dirt around here's real bad for ya, honest.

0:39:220:39:26

-Little dirt never hurt nobody.

-You'll be rolling about in terrible agony.

0:39:260:39:29

Boy died through eatin' a dirty apple.

0:39:290:39:32

It was on the wireless, honest.

0:39:320:39:35

-One bite, that's all and him were dead.

-Don't talk so soft.

0:39:350:39:40

-That's why the RAF drop 'em over Germany, dirty apples.

-What for?

0:39:400:39:44

-What are you on about?

-They do.

0:39:440:39:46

So the Germans'll pick 'em up and rub 'em on their German sleeves,

0:39:460:39:50

and take 'em home and eat them, and die in agony.

0:39:500:39:53

-It's good, isn't it?

-Who told you that?

0:39:530:39:57

If you're havin' me on, mind...

0:39:570:39:59

It's true, honest, cross my heart and hope to die.

0:39:590:40:01

There is a sense in which

0:40:040:40:07

nostalgia and a belief in certain values, which...

0:40:070:40:11

you wish to believe are still there, is very much a part of what you write about.

0:40:110:40:16

I don't know, nostalgia... I dislike nostalgia.

0:40:160:40:19

It is a very second-order emotion. It's not a real emotion.

0:40:190:40:23

What nostalgia does is what the realist, in a sense, does

0:40:250:40:28

with what is in front of him. A "nostalgiac"

0:40:280:40:32

looks at the past and keeps it there, which is what is dangerous

0:40:320:40:37

about nostalgia, which is why it's a very English disease, in a way.

0:40:370:40:42

Inevitable, given our imperial decline, if you like,

0:40:420:40:46

so there are cricks in the neck from looking backwards,

0:40:460:40:49

which is part and parcel of our political language,

0:40:490:40:52

but I'm not dealing in nostalgia.

0:40:520:40:55

I don't believe I'm dealing in nostalgia.

0:40:550:40:58

I think that, if you didn't have an alert awareness

0:40:580:41:02

of the immediate past, then what you're actually doing

0:41:020:41:06

is being complicit with the orthodoxy of the present, totally.

0:41:060:41:11

I'm sometimes amused to be berated, to see myself berated,

0:41:110:41:15

as one who uses nostalgia. It is not the case.

0:41:150:41:20

I've used the immediate past

0:41:200:41:23

to intrude upon the present,

0:41:230:41:27

so that it isn't a thing out there, the past, which is done with,

0:41:270:41:32

it is actually running along beside us, now,

0:41:320:41:37

and its misconceptions and values

0:41:370:41:41

and its correct conceptions, can be seen, just that degree more clearly.

0:41:410:41:46

Using the 1940s and the war and the immediate post-war,

0:41:460:41:52

or in Pennies From Heaven, the mid-'30s, was a way, of...

0:41:520:41:57

without being didactic, or preachy,

0:41:570:42:00

or trying to draw political, social, you know, that sort of writing,

0:42:000:42:05

just simply letting that time be,

0:42:050:42:08

in order to show what THIS time is like.

0:42:080:42:13

So that's the opposite of nostalgia.

0:42:130:42:15

Nostalgia says, it's safely back there and oh, those dear dead days,

0:42:150:42:20

and all that.

0:42:200:42:21

And wring a tear from your eye,

0:42:210:42:23

because they're unreclaimable. I say they're reclaimable.

0:42:230:42:27

That they're there, and here.

0:42:270:42:30

What about...specifically with Pennies from Heaven, what were the aspirations

0:42:300:42:34

would you say, of the Hoskins character?

0:42:340:42:37

The aspirations were that oldest one, that the songs that he was peddling

0:42:370:42:44

were... in a direct line of descent from the Psalms.

0:42:440:42:49

And they were saying, no matter how cheap or banal or syrupy,

0:42:490:42:52

syncopated they were, they were saying the world is other than it is,

0:42:520:42:56

the world is better than this.

0:42:560:42:58

And that what you... you, the salesman,

0:42:580:43:02

the Hoskins character, Arthur Parker, what you are...

0:43:020:43:07

..feeling oppressed by or suffocated by,

0:43:070:43:11

or what your yearnings are, are these.

0:43:110:43:13

And he... he believed in them. And that was his tragedy.

0:43:130:43:17

I mean, in that... believing in such a simple belief

0:43:170:43:21

is the same as believing in a very complex belief,

0:43:210:43:24

and can lead you to the same dilemmas, the same traps,

0:43:240:43:29

if you like.

0:43:290:43:30

But the... the way that popular culture

0:43:300:43:37

can, in its very generality... what distinguishes it,

0:43:370:43:43

what separates it rather from considerable art, is its generality.

0:43:430:43:49

It doesn't ask anything specific or say anything specific.

0:43:490:43:53

But what it does is draw out of you a specific.

0:43:530:43:57

There are people who look in birthday cards for the right verse.

0:43:570:44:02

And it does not matter how cheap, or that someone wrote 24 of them in the hour for his pay.

0:44:020:44:11

What matters is the emotion that that verse

0:44:110:44:16

is supposed to be hinting at, which in its generality

0:44:160:44:21

allows the consumer, whether it's the popular song

0:44:210:44:26

or the tabloid journalism,

0:44:260:44:31

or the...

0:44:310:44:34

..any one of those outlets of popular art, so-called,

0:44:350:44:40

mingles in a way with its day and its time

0:44:400:44:46

much more immediately sometimes than difficult art can do.

0:44:460:44:51

-A cup of char then is it, old girl?

-Arthur!

-Ooh, common am I?

0:44:520:44:56

I knew that from the start. Mummy warned me about that.

0:44:560:45:00

Yeah, common as muck.

0:45:000:45:04

-You make a nice cup of tea though.

-She said hopefully.

0:45:040:45:07

-Oh, but you will, won't you?

-I will if you will.

0:45:070:45:10

-Make the tea? Oh, but...!

-No, the other.

0:45:100:45:15

-What?

-The other! A bit of the other!

0:45:150:45:18

You filthy beast.

0:45:210:45:23

-LIP-SYNCED:

-# Somewhere the sun is shining

0:45:360:45:39

# So honey, don't you cry

0:45:390:45:44

# We'll find a silver lining

0:45:440:45:48

# The clouds will soon roll by

0:45:480:45:51

# I hear a robin singing

0:45:510:45:56

# Upon a treetop high

0:45:560:45:59

# To you and me he's singing

0:45:590:46:04

# The clouds will soon roll by. #

0:46:040:46:08

Was there a separation in the thirties and forties

0:46:080:46:12

between popular culture and the selling of ideas and products?

0:46:120:46:17

I think popular culture was more constrained,

0:46:170:46:20

because there was another culture which was more dominant,

0:46:200:46:23

there... there was...

0:46:230:46:26

there were other sets of values going on at the same time,

0:46:260:46:30

like the class thing, like the monarchy, that whole...

0:46:300:46:35

I'm using that as shorthand, obviously.

0:46:350:46:37

There were other values which didn't appear to be in the marketplace.

0:46:370:46:44

Now if you were talking about, for example, the monarchy,

0:46:440:46:49

you would have to say, that it is an invention of the British Tourist Board.

0:46:490:46:55

It appears to be that. It has become that.

0:46:550:47:00

It hasn't become democratised. It has become commercialised.

0:47:000:47:05

They're becoming more effective not in selling products,

0:47:050:47:09

but in selling the whole culture in which they are embodied

0:47:090:47:12

like little bits of fruit in a cake.

0:47:120:47:14

The whole cake becomes a fruitcake.

0:47:140:47:16

The whole television looks as though it's selling something, even the BBC.

0:47:160:47:22

Before that degree of commerciality,

0:47:220:47:25

the public were always in the street.

0:47:250:47:27

And you could shut your door on it. And now it's here. It's in there.

0:47:270:47:34

And as... I'm not using it in a Marxist...

0:47:340:47:39

I'm not using it... I'm not trying to be tendentious, but...

0:47:390:47:42

Capitalism now is actually about selling all of you

0:47:420:47:49

to all of you. But they don't know what it is they're selling.

0:47:490:47:53

The only object is to keep in the game, to keep selling something.

0:47:530:47:58

And one day we're going to find out what it is.

0:47:580:48:01

Well, if you have this cynicism really, which it is,

0:48:010:48:04

or fear of what the mass media also can do,

0:48:040:48:07

how do you try to express true values,

0:48:070:48:12

ideas which at least have some conviction,

0:48:120:48:15

which won't be misunderstood because they're presented in the same form?

0:48:150:48:19

Principally by showing, or, or, or...by attempting to assert

0:48:190:48:26

how sovereign you are as an individual being if you knew it.

0:48:260:48:33

And that means contending with all the...

0:48:330:48:39

shapes, all the sort of half shapes, all the memories,

0:48:390:48:43

all the aspirations of your life, and what...

0:48:430:48:47

how they coalesce, how they contradict each other.

0:48:470:48:52

How they have to be disentangled as a human act by you yourself,

0:48:520:48:57

this sovereign self beyond,

0:48:570:49:00

behind all those selves that are being sold things,

0:49:000:49:04

remains the other unique sovereign individual.

0:49:040:49:10

Do you feel that in order to find this self, this sovereign self,

0:49:100:49:14

that you have to retreat from the material world?

0:49:140:49:17

I'm wondering here if your illness is a factor in this,

0:49:170:49:21

because you've used the analogy of retreat, a monastic analogy,

0:49:210:49:25

to describe life in a ward, in a hospital ward.

0:49:250:49:30

That was only using the hospital in a sense of the...

0:49:300:49:33

you know, in the proper use of the word "retreat". Um...

0:49:330:49:37

That is a withdrawal from, not in order to disavow,

0:49:370:49:42

but in order to understand, in order to return to the world,

0:49:420:49:47

with a more... with better equipment.

0:49:470:49:50

And it is undeniable if you're in hospital for a long time,

0:49:500:49:56

and you see it with the other patients, you see that, um,

0:49:560:50:00

odd... slightly menacing, um,

0:50:000:50:06

weird process beginning to grow in them,

0:50:060:50:12

where the outside world is seen as something else for the first time.

0:50:120:50:17

And having to deal with the crisis or illness or whatever.

0:50:180:50:23

And having most of them say...

0:50:240:50:27

Having had to go to work every day to meet certain commitments all through life.

0:50:270:50:34

No time to sit and think, or lie and think.

0:50:340:50:40

And that lying and thinking and dealing with crisis at the same time

0:50:400:50:43

means you've been separated from the normal, churning process of life,

0:50:430:50:51

into this monk-like, semi-seclusion.

0:50:510:50:56

Laugh? It hurts my jaw.

0:50:590:51:02

God, talk about the Book of Job.

0:51:040:51:08

I'm a prisoner inside my own skin and bones.

0:51:080:51:12

-Librium.

-Valium.

-Antidepressants.

0:51:190:51:22

-And the barbiturate?

-Barbiturate.

0:51:220:51:25

-Antidepressants.

-Valium.

-And Librium.

0:51:250:51:28

# Ezekiel cried

0:51:280:51:30

# Dem dry bones

0:51:300:51:31

# Ezekiel cried

0:51:310:51:33

# Dem dry bones

0:51:330:51:34

# Ezekiel cried

0:51:340:51:35

# Dem dry bones

0:51:350:51:36

# Now hear the word of the Lord

0:51:360:51:40

# Ezekiel connected dem dry bones

0:51:400:51:42

# Ezekiel connected dem dry bones

0:51:420:51:45

# Ezekiel connected dem dry bones

0:51:450:51:47

# Now hear the word of the Lord

0:51:470:51:50

# When your toe bone connected to your foot bone

0:51:500:51:53

# Your foot bone connected to your heel bone

0:51:530:51:56

# Your heel bone connected to your ankle bone

0:51:560:51:59

# Your ankle bone connected to your leg bone

0:51:590:52:01

# Your leg bone connected to your knee bone

0:52:010:52:04

# Your knee bone connected to your thighbone

0:52:040:52:07

# Your thigh bone connected to your hipbone

0:52:070:52:09

# Your hipbone connected to your backbone

0:52:090:52:12

# Your backbone connected to your shoulder bone

0:52:120:52:15

# Your shoulder bone connected to your neck bone

0:52:150:52:18

# Your neck bone connected to your head bone

0:52:180:52:20

# Now hear the word of the Lord

0:52:200:52:23

# Dem bones dem bones gonna walk around

0:52:230:52:25

# Dem bones dem bones gonna

0:52:250:52:29

# Dem bones dem bones gonna walk around

0:52:290:52:31

# Now hear the word of the Lord

0:52:310:52:33

# Disconnect dem bones

0:52:330:52:35

# Dem dry bones

0:52:350:52:36

# Disconnect dem bones

0:52:360:52:38

# Dem dry bones

0:52:380:52:39

# Disconnect dem bones

0:52:390:52:40

# Dem dry bones

0:52:400:52:42

# Now hear the word of the Lord

0:52:420:52:45

# When your head bone connected from your neck bone

0:52:450:52:47

# Your neck bone connected from your shoulder bone

0:52:470:52:50

# Your shoulder bone connected from your backbone

0:52:500:52:53

# Your backbone connected from your hipbone

0:52:530:52:55

# Your hipbone connected from your thighbone

0:52:550:52:58

# Your thigh bone connected from your knee bone

0:52:580:53:01

# Your knee bone connected from your leg bone

0:53:010:53:03

# Your leg bone connected from your ankle bone

0:53:030:53:06

# Your ankle bone connected from your heel bone

0:53:060:53:08

# Your heel bone...

0:53:080:53:10

Philip! Come back, Philip!

0:53:100:53:14

# Now hear the word of the Lord

0:53:140:53:16

People say to me, that must be autobiographical.

0:53:160:53:19

I feel greatly offended when they do

0:53:190:53:21

because it's one of the least autobiographical pieces of work

0:53:210:53:25

that I've ever attempted.

0:53:250:53:26

-The Singing Detective?

-Yes.

0:53:260:53:28

-You can't be surprised that people say it's autobiographical.

-No, I'm not saying that.

0:53:280:53:32

Because maybe out of laziness I'd use the fact that the hero, so-called...

0:53:320:53:36

Is it possible to have a hero? Examine and discuss.

0:53:360:53:42

The fact that he has arthritis and psoriasis, psoriatic arthropathy.

0:53:420:53:47

And was... Had a...

0:53:470:53:50

I never at any stage in the script, incidentally, say the Forest of Dean.

0:53:500:53:55

But that the childhood area was the same as mine.

0:53:550:54:02

And the disease is the same as mine. It does not make it autobiographical.

0:54:020:54:06

I could have given him some other interesting and cruel disease.

0:54:060:54:09

Maybe I should have played around with a few diseases!

0:54:090:54:12

But you said somewhere, I think, that what is going on in your plays

0:54:120:54:15

is what goes on inside people's heads.

0:54:150:54:17

And to an extent, aren't you drawing on that, even if you have to mask that sense of your own experience?

0:54:170:54:25

What I was trying to do with The Singing Detective was to make

0:54:250:54:28

the whole thing a detective story.

0:54:280:54:30

But a detective story about how you find out about yourself.

0:54:300:54:35

So that you've got this superfluity of clues,

0:54:350:54:39

which is what we all have, and very few solutions, maybe no solution.

0:54:390:54:44

But the very act of garnering the clues,

0:54:440:54:48

and the very act of remembering not merely an event

0:54:480:54:53

but how that event has lodged in you,

0:54:530:54:57

and how that event has affected the way you see things.

0:54:570:55:02

It begins to assemble a system of values.

0:55:030:55:07

And only when that system, no matter how tenuous it might be,

0:55:070:55:13

is assembled,

0:55:130:55:15

was Marlow able to get up out of his bed.

0:55:150:55:19

Which is why it isn't about psoriasis or psoriatic arthropathy

0:55:190:55:24

or detectives or that particular childhood,

0:55:240:55:28

but about the way that we can protect that sovereignty

0:55:280:55:34

that we have, and that is all that we have,

0:55:340:55:37

and it is the most precious of all the human capacities.

0:55:370:55:43

Even beyond language. Even...

0:55:430:55:46

It is almost impossible to talk about it

0:55:460:55:49

because you're bumping against the very rim of communication

0:55:490:55:54

when you try to talk about it.

0:55:540:55:58

But by being able to use, say, the musical convention

0:55:580:56:01

and the detective story convention

0:56:010:56:03

and the autobiographical, in quotes, conventions

0:56:030:56:07

and making them... co-exist at the same time

0:56:070:56:11

so that... the past and the present

0:56:110:56:14

weren't in strict sequence...

0:56:140:56:17

Because they aren't. They are in one sense, obviously,

0:56:170:56:20

in the calendar sense. But they're not in your head in that sequence

0:56:200:56:24

and neither are they in the terms

0:56:240:56:27

of the way you discover things about yourself.

0:56:270:56:30

Where an event 20 years ago can become more, erm...

0:56:300:56:35

It can follow yesterday instead of precede it,

0:56:350:56:39

and that out of this...

0:56:390:56:43

morass, if you like, of evidence, of clues,

0:56:430:56:47

and searchings and strivings,

0:56:470:56:49

which is the metaphor for the way we live,

0:56:490:56:53

we can...start to put up

0:56:530:56:56

the structure called self

0:56:560:57:00

out of... Out of which, in that structure,

0:57:000:57:04

we can walk out of that structure saying,

0:57:040:57:08

"At least I know and you know...

0:57:080:57:12

"better than before what it is we are."

0:57:120:57:15

It was the illness though that is the catalyst which allows Marlow...

0:57:150:57:19

It's the illness that is the crisis.

0:57:190:57:22

It is the illness which has stripped him.

0:57:220:57:24

It's the Job part, if you like.

0:57:240:57:27

Without the cry, in dramatic terms, it needed exactly that.

0:57:270:57:31

That starting point of extreme crisis,

0:57:310:57:35

and no belief, nothing,

0:57:350:57:37

except pain and the cry

0:57:370:57:41

and a hate out of which

0:57:410:57:44

were assembled the, the, er... the fantasies,

0:57:440:57:48

and the fantasies became facts

0:57:480:57:51

and the facts were memories and the memories became fantasies

0:57:510:57:55

and the fantasies became realities

0:57:550:57:58

and all of them became him,

0:57:580:58:00

and all of them allowed him to walk.

0:58:000:58:04

Now, your work appears within the context that you've described

0:58:050:58:09

this rather dangerous context.

0:58:090:58:12

How do you find that television...

0:58:120:58:14

You've said how you think that television has changed,

0:58:140:58:17

but do you feel it has changed beyond help

0:58:170:58:20

and that the world as we, that we live in at the moment

0:58:200:58:24

and that we... are experiencing is one which is not moving

0:58:240:58:28

in the right direction, or in a direction which is...

0:58:280:58:32

not exactly a popular...

0:58:320:58:34

I don't know what direction the world is moving in,

0:58:340:58:37

and in that sense... I'm a quietist in that sense in that I,

0:58:370:58:42

I do care, but I don't care in the way

0:58:420:58:45

that I want to scream in the street about it.

0:58:450:58:48

All I know is that you have to attend to that which you can attend to

0:58:480:58:53

and...in my case, obviously it's, I do have a very...

0:58:530:58:59

I have to use another, I mean, I've been spilling out antique words,

0:58:590:59:03

but I have, I do feel that I have a sense of vocation,

0:59:030:59:06

and I didn't know that I had this,

0:59:060:59:08

and I've discovered it with gratitude and relief late in the day.

0:59:080:59:13

But having got it so that I can almost hold it,

0:59:130:59:17

I'm not going to let it go, and therefore attending,

0:59:170:59:21

or showing in that Quaker sense of the word "concern" means...

0:59:210:59:26

it doesn't mean that if you issue a diatribe

0:59:260:59:29

about where you think society's going to,

0:59:290:59:32

or, um...

0:59:320:59:35

it doesn't mean that I'm feeling any the less passionately involved

0:59:350:59:39

in what I think is wrong,

0:59:390:59:42

but that if I do what I...

0:59:420:59:44

I CAN do myself, with the pen on the page,

0:59:440:59:49

within the very medium that seems the most,

0:59:490:59:53

seems to be the voice of the occupying power,

0:59:530:59:57

then the resistance ought to take place within the barracks

0:59:571:00:01

as well as outside.

1:00:011:00:03

1987 edition in which Alan Yentob interviews TV dramatist Dennis Potter about his work through the years, touching on subjects such as why and how he started writing, his sense of being different as a child, the insularity of his past in Forest of Dean, starting at the BBC in 1959 and a failed attempt at going into politics.


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