Dennis Potter, the caustic and controversial writer of the innovative television British television dramas "The Singing Detective" and `Pennies from Heaven," died Tuesday at his home near Ross-on-Wye, Hereford and Worcester, England. He was 59.
The cause was cancer. In an interview earlier this year, for a segment of the British television program "Without Walls" that was broadcast on April 5, Potter revealed that on Valentine's Day he had been told he was suffering from cancer of the pancreas, and that it had spread to his liver.Last week, Potter's wife, Margaret, whom he described as "my rock, my center," for having nursed him through many periods of illness, died of breast cancer. He is survived by a son, Robert, and two daughters, Sarah and Jane.
Potter wrote novels and screenplays, but it was in television, which he referred to as "the greatest of all media" because of its accessibility, that he preferred to work. He took audacious liberties with television drama, infusing it with new life by turning its conventions upside down.
This year, he was at work on two television projects. In "Karaoke," he explored the pastime of singing in karaoke clubs as a metaphor for the social constraints that force most people into assuming roles, and leading lives, that have been written for them.
"Cold Lazarus" presents a character preserved through cryogenic freezing; after he is revived four centuries after his death, his memories are used to feed a giant entertainment industry.
"I feel I can write anything at the moment," Potter said in his last interview. "I can fly. My only regret is if I die four pages too soon. If I can finish, I'm quite happy to go."
He finished both projects before dying.
Potter struggled for the last 30 years of his life with psoriatic arthropathy, a debilitating skin disease.
He was best known for "The Singing Detective," about a writer of crime novels who, while lying in a hospital bed and being treated for a skin disease, sees his life, his fictional characters and the contents of his unconscious parade before him.
"The Singing Detective," which ran more than six hours, was first shown in Britain in 1986 and in the United States in 1988.
"For me, writing is partly a cry of the soul," Potter told an interviewer in 1989. "But at the same time I'm bringing back the results of a journey that many people don't get the chance to make, to whatever hinterland it is where all those dark figures jubber and jeer and fly at you."
Potter was born in Joyford Hill, Gloucestershire, the son of a coal miner. When Dennis was 14, the family moved to London, where he excelled in school, eventually winning a scholarship to New College, Oxford.
At Oxford, he was active in the Labor Club, appeared in student productions, edited a student magazine and wrote "The Glittering Coffin," an indictment of England's social ills.
After receiving a degree with honors in 1959, he wrote and produced documentaries at the British Broadcasting Corp. as member of the current-affairs staff. He also contributed articles on politics to The New Statesman.
He first made his mark in 1965 with a television play, "Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton," a tragicomedy about a young Labor candidate's campaign for Parliament. It was followed by "Stand Up, Nigel Barton." The two works were later combined in a successful stage play.
Potter repeatedly found himself at the center of controversy. The Nigel Barton plays were broadcast by BBC only after changes were made to avoid offending the Labor Party's leadership.
"Son of Man" was attacked for its presentation of Jesus as a man tormented by doubts about his own divinity. In 1966, BBC asked him to rewrite "Almost Cinderella," an updated fairy tale in which Prince Charming strangles Cinderella at midnight.
"Brimstone and Treacle," about a brain-damaged teen-age girl who is cured after being raped by the Devil, was made in 1976 but not broadcast until 1987.
"They get hopping mad sometimes," Potter said of the public reaction to his work. "But so be it. That's what television is for, too."
In "Blue Remembered Hills" he cast adults as children, he once explained, because only adult actors could deliver the lengthy speeches in the script, and they made the use of flashbacks more efficient.
Potter first began to make a reputation in the United States in the late 1970s when "Pennies from Heaven" was televised. The series, about a Depression-era sheet-music salesman (played by Bob Hoskins), was shown on public television.
As in "The Singing Detective," the characters sang popular songs from the period in lip sync. The series was later made into a film, with Steve Martin in the lead role. Potter wrote the screenplay.
In 1984, his "Blade on the Feather," an indictment of the upper classes, was broadcast on public television in the United States. John J. O'Connor, writing in a review in The New York Times, said the series "takes on the proportions of a John le Carre thriller as arranged by Harold Pinter."
"Christabel," televised in America in 1989, told the true story of Christabel Bielenberg, an Anglo-Irish woman in Germany who rescued her husband from the Gestapo after he was arrested for plotting to assassinate Hitler.
Although Potter did his best-known work for television, he ventured into fiction and film as well. He wrote the scripts for "Gorky Park" (1983), "Dreamchild" (1985) and "Track 29" (1989).
He was both screenwriter and director of "Secret Friends" (1992), which was loosely based on his 1986 novel, "Ticket to Ride."
His other novels are "Hide and Seek" (1973), "Pennies from Heaven" (1982) and "Blackeyes" (1987). He also wrote a book of nonfiction, "The Changing Forest: Life in the Forest of Dean Today" (1962).
Potter's most recent work to be broadcast in America was "Cream in My Coffee" (1990), the story of an old couple at a seaside resort and the evolution of their unhappy marriage, told through flashbacks and songs.