…would have been 80 last Sunday.
His plays and films for television were transformative and innovative in the methods of their telling.
In Pennies from Heaven actors mime the words to popular songs.
In The Singing Detective the action spins into multiple layers from the mind of the central character lying in a bed suffering from psoriatic arthritis–a condition that plagued Dennis Potter himself.
In 1978 I was cast as John in Blue Remembered Hills, a film about group of children in the West Country during the Second World War, whose fathers are off at war and who terrorise first a squirrel—then one of their own, whom they christen Donald Duck.
The trick here was that we ADULT actors were to play the seven-year-olds.
Potter’s view of the children’s interaction was dark and the ending is cataclysmic.
Our gang consisted of Colin Welland, John Bird, Michael Elphick, Helen Mirren and Janine Duvitski (whose daughter, Ruby Bentall, touched hearts recently as Verity in Poldark).
Poor persecuted Donald Duck was played by Colin Jeavons.
Before filming started, we spent time observing children–mostly outside school playgrounds–trying to remember ourselves as seven-year-olds.
I learned how quickly children can change mood–be distracted–shift focus.
It was valuable.
Nobody questioned what we were doing, peering through the mesh fence of a school playground—but they might have felt it odd to see a group of grown-ups showing such an unusual interest in children at play.
We couldn’t do it now without going through hoops.
After a week’s research and rehearsal, we assembled for the read through with Dennis Potter in attendance.
We were nervous about this first essay at being seven-year-olds–especially doing it in front of THE AUTHOR.
In rehearsal, we thought our research was paying off—and at least vocally we were finding our “inner” seven-year-olds.
The physical stuff we HOPED would follow from finding the voices.
As the reading ended, seven eager, animated faces turned towards Potter’s end of the table.
“Well, you’ve got it all to do!” was his only comment.
He was right–though a little on the nose–brutal even!
As developing seven-year-olds we got over it quickly and moved down to Mere in Somerset, standing in the Forest of Dean–where Potter grew up and still lived.
On location we looked a strange crew in our boy’s shorts and girl’s dresses.
Michael Elphick and I would saunter down to the local pub after the unit lunch to have a half pint of Guinness, perhaps subconsciously stocking up with a bit of Dutch courage for the no-holds-barred fight we were scripted to have.
Helen and Janine played at being mums wheeling an old pram around taunting the boys.
In a retrospective review for The Guardian in 2008, critic Peter Bradshaw enthused about the film and singled out Colin Jeavons performance.
Ten years after it was first shown, Meredith and I were getting married and our bridesmaid was to be seven-year-old Cait–Meredith’s niece.
Poor Cait wasn’t keen to wear the bridesmaid’s get-up and she had no playmates to keep her entertained.
So to distract her we put on the video of Blue Remembered Hills–all those seven-year-olds, just her age, albeit no Disney film!
It worked–in fact on the morning of the wedding we came downstairs at seven to start making breakfast for visiting family from the States and there was Cait sitting quietly on the floor in front of the television rewatching the film.,
We clearly convinced Cait–but did we ever convince Mr Potter?