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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography


Dennis Potter

Humphrey Carpenter

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To purchase Dennis Potter

Title: Dennis Potter
Author: Humphrey Carpenter
Genre: Biography
Written: 1998
Length: 593 pages
Availability: Dennis Potter - US
Dennis Potter - UK
Dennis Potter - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : decent comprehensive overview of Potter and his work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Contemporary Review . 4/1999 John Knight
Daily Telegraph . 8/9/1998 Lynn Barber
The Guardian C+ 12/9/1998 Stephen Moss
Hist. J. of Film, Radio, and TV B- 6/2000 Sarah J. Smith
The Independent . 4/9/1998 Michael Arditti
The New Yorker . 13/9/1999 .
The NY Times Book Rev. A 4/7/1999 Caryn James
Sight and Sound . 11/1998 .
The Spectator C 19/9/1998 Julian Mitchell
The Sunday Times A 6/9/1998 John Dugdale
The Times C+ 12/9/1998 John Naughton
TLS . 25/9/1998 Sean O'Brien
The Washington Post D 11/7/1999 Ben Downing

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Most of the reviewers write far more about Potter than the book. Most agree that Carpenter does not capture the "true" Potter.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(W)hat is valuable about this book is that it reveals Potter’s real private life, which barely features in his plays: the happiness and stability of his marriage to Margaret, his childhood sweetheart. (...) But a biography presenting Potter as Mr Happy Family Man would add hardly an atom of understanding to the work. For the work we need to understand the illness, which in turn induced the sexual yearning, and Carpenter is good on that." - Lynn Barber, Daily Telegraph

  • "(Carpenter's) neutrality, his refusal to mediate, also becomes irritating: there is too little intelligence and insight, too much tape. There are so many many interviews, so many quotes from journalists and critics, that all narrative flow is lost, and with it any sense of Potter himself." - Stephen Moss, The Guardian

  • "Carpenter does present a vast amount of material, but he tends to do so indiscriminately and, apart from the obvious chronology of a life, the whole lacks shape and direction. (...) Essentially, then, this is an oversized lucky dip of a book, containing lots of sawdust and muck but with a few smart prizes for the persistent digger -- particularly at the end." - Sarah J. Smith, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television

  • "Carpenter's approach proves fully justified. (...) Carpenter paints a compelling portrait of a complex man with deep emotional and physical scars, whose religious faith failed to exorcise his inner demons. He shows how Potter's overwhelming sense of guilt at once drove him to write (not for nothing did be repeatedly refuse analysis) and furnished him with his lifelong subject." - Michael Arditti, The Independent

  • "Yet even those familiar with Potter's career might be astonished by Humphrey Carpenter's disturbing, engrossing, fair-minded biography. (...) He writes fluently and stays out of his subject's way, marshaling information and allowing readers to arrive at their own judgments." - Caryn James, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Humphrey Carpenter's 'authorised' biography is absurdly long. (...) Carpenter trudges through the life, enumerating the women with whom Potter did, or did not (almost certainly not) have affairs, and giving the plot of every play, film and novel, followed by a summary of critical comment. Media studies departments will find this useful, but Dennis would have slaughtered it. The book wholly fails to capture the spirit of a very difficult, tormented, hugely talented man who changed the way we look at ourselves through television." - Julian Mitchell, The Spectator

  • "Assured in combining analysis of the life and the work (in contrast to the many literary biographers who prefer to eschew the latter), Carpenter quotes superbly, whether from Potter himself or people writing about Potter (.....) (H)e is also an outstanding interviewer, extracting wonderfully vivid recollections." - John Dugdale, The Sunday Times

  • "(Carpenter's) door-stopping tome is largely a dutiful plod through the documentary record of Potter's life, right down to his voluminous medical records, interminable plot summaries and blow-by-blow accounts of his rows with producers, directors and editors. (...) But in the end we are brought back to Potter's reasons for not wanting anyone to write his biography. If people could so misinterpret him in life, they would surely do even worse in death. "Biography," he wrote, "is the most brutish of the arts". Carpenter has proved him right." - John Naughton, The Times

  • "Humphrey Carpenter's meticulous and grimly readable biography shows clearly not only how his upbringing as the son of a miner in the Forest of Dean was likely to make Potter a socialist of the awkward-sod variety, but also the fissure which his academic intelligence and aspirations drove between him and his background" - Sean O'Brien, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Potter was, to be sure, a complex, fascinating character, at once tender and (in several senses) scabrous, rebarbative and admirable (.....) And yet, for all this, Potter's life does not make for terribly interesting reading. (...) For the above reasons alone, I cannot recommend Dennis Potter to general readers. There are, moreover, problems inherent to the biography itself. Carpenter has devoted too many pages to plot summary and network squabbling, too few to Potter's inner and family life. As a result, his book feels, despite its considerable heft, oddly perfunctory" - Ben Downing, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

Autobiography is the cheapest, nastiest, literary form; I think only biography beats it.
                      - Dennis Potter, in Potter on Potter

       Dennis Potter was, undoubtedly, one of the most significant writers for British television. From his first efforts in the 1960s to the posthumously produced Karaoke (see our review) and Cold Lazarus (see our review) he was responsible for some of the finest television programming of these times. He was a master of the medium, best known for the classics Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. In addition, he was also a novelist and an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, responsible for the scripts to such movies as Dreamchild, Gorky Park, and Nicholas Roeg's Track 29
       Humphrey Carpenter presents the "only authorized biography" (so the American edition), a tome that offers a useful if not ideal overview of Potter's life. The prologue acknowledges Potter's alter ego Daniel Feeld's plaintive dying wish in Cold Lazarus: "No biography !" It is, of course, a demand no biographer can accept -- and Carpenter had long been beaten to the punch by W. Stephen Gilbert, whose Potter-biography Fight & Kick & Bite appeared in 1995. Part of the fun in writing Potter's biography of course also lies in the fact that, despite his protestations to the contrary, much of his work seems very autobiographical.
       Carpenter's biography relies a great deal on quotes. Potter's work and words are extensively quoted, as are friends, relatives, and co-workers who were either interviewed by Carpenter or wrote letters in reply to Carpenter's questions. It makes for a varied read, but is perhaps not ideal for a biography. In particular the interviews -- reminiscences generally dredged up long after the fact -- make for a muddle of disparate versions and opinions. Other quotes, in particular from Potter's work (much of it not readily available) and the reactions at the time (newspaper articles and reviews), are, however, very effective and informative. Some of Carpenter's choices are a bit untidy -- so the many early references to and quotes from The Changing Forest, uselessly described for those not familiar with it (most of us, we suggest) simply as "Potter's second book" (only much later does Carpenter get to the book itself, clearing up some of the mystery), or the excessive use of quotes from Potter's two Desert Island Discs appearances.
       The somewhat flat beginning still manages to convey Potter's humble beginnings in the Forest of Dean. Once Potter is at Oxford Carpenter does quite well, and it is this period that is of particular interest to those who know only the later Potter. The uneasy balance between Potter's personal life and his writing is perhaps most convincingly presented here, when much of Potter's writing was still straightforwardly political and social, as he stood as a candidate to be a Labour MP (member of parliament) and wrote for (and edited) Isis and other journals.
       Potter was a young success, making an impression -- and making the best of the opportunities that came his way. He managed to get a much sought after place as a BBC trainee, and wrote extensively: books, reviews, and, eventually, TV plays.
       Carpenter follows Potter's progress well enough, devoting some space to (and including some quotes from) what seems to be every major piece. He lingers longer over some works than others, but few are ignored entirely (though the ill-fated Mesmer certainly deserves a bit more coverage). His summaries of how the works came about (often based on previous work), the works themselves, and popular and critical reaction to them give a good overview of almost all of Potter's output. The summaries of the works are particularly useful for those who have no memory (or knowledge) of them and for whom they would otherwise be inaccessible (as most of Potter's writings are out of print and his TV plays -- with a few exceptions -- almost impossible to find).
       Carpenter makes a great deal of Potter's psychosexual inclinations -- as he perhaps inevitably must. There was a childhood violation of Potter, which surfaces in some form in many of his works. Potter's view of women -- as also reflected in his characters -- was also less than enlightened or completely healthy. Carpenter may seem to harp on this a bit much, but it is hard to get around it, and overall he does a good enough job of it.
       Carpenter seems a bit less certain about Potter's debilitating ailment, the psoriatic arthropathy that crippled his hands and left him constantly shedding his skin. Carpenter devotes significant space to it, but the coverage still seems somewhat inadequate -- though he mentions that Potter always wanted hotel rooms with light-coloured carpeting (so that the shed skin flakes weren't too noticeable) far too often.
       Most disappointing is Carpenter's coverage of Potter's domestic life, which comes into focus only once or twice in the entire book. Potter's wife, portrayed as an anchor for Potter, remains largely a cypher, and his home life (with three children) a mystery. Similarly, longtime associate Kenith Trodd moves in and out of Potter's life constantly but remains an awkward presence: Carpenter has to note his role and presence but doesn't seem to be able to make anything of it.
       Still, the personality of the man does come across. The cigarette addiction, the heavy drinking, the rude outbursts, than shy flirtations with his leading ladies: all are convincingly conveyed, mainly because so many episodes document them.
       Carpenter offers a fill of fact, carefully researched -- one imagines. But perhaps one only imagines it: most of the facts are too obscure for the casual reader (or reviewer) to check, but there are mistakes that are obvious to all. Writing about the Hollywood movie production of Pennies from Heaven (directed by Herbert Ross, starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters) Carpenter notes that Potter's screenplay "was nominated for an Academy Award" and he confidently (if parenthetically) adds that this was "the only nomination Pennies received". In fact, of course, in addition to being nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, "Pennies" was also nominated for Best Costume Design (Bob Mackie) and Best Sound. These may be second tier awards, but they are Academy Award nominations nonetheless. If Carpenter gets such facts wrong what can one make of his other facts ? (A pox on the editors too, by the way -- this is exactly the sort of mistake they are supposed to catch.)
       Some of reminiscences are particularly poignant and illuminating, and the book reads fairly fluidly. Much of the information one would want is here. There is little analysis of the works; what interpretation there is tends to be of the psychological variety: Carpenter treads warily here -- but not warily enough. The book is too immediate to make for a truly good biography: all the quotes and information read more like the notes for such an undertaking than the actual finished product. Potter's definitive biography will have to be written by someone with more distance from the subject. As an introduction and overview this book will, however, certainly do.

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Dennis Potter: Reviews: Dennis Potter: Books by Dennis Potter under review: Books about Dennis Potter under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Humphrey Carpenter is the author of numerous biographies.

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