Tag Archives: Dennis Potter

DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

Dennis Potter is a writer whose name is often spoken with awe; his early death (from pancreatic cancer) was a significant loss to television. Potter’s critically acclaimed “Wednesday Play” ran from 1964-1970 on the BBC, with his “Alice”1 (on the life of ), “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Singing Detective” all seen as cult masterpieces.

Yet, his most provocative hour was “Son of Man,” directed by Gareth Davies. When people today speak of controversial dramatizations of the life of Christ, very few remember this one, which may be the most radical dramatized portrayal of the Nazarene prophet to date: more so even than ‘s Gospel According to St. Matthew, ‘s Last Temptation of Christ, or ‘s The Passion of the Christ (which is only controversial in being pornographic). Unlike Scorsese’s film, Potter’s hidden gem2 ups the revolutionary ante, not because it veers from the Gospel text (it’s actually fairly orthodox in its narrative bullet points), but in how it is presented. Potter eschews any show of divinity. He doesn’t deny it, it’s merely not his concern. He focuses on Christ as a human and a prophet. As played by Colin Blakely, this desert Christ is visceral, beefy, dirty (eschewing that “cleanliness is next to godliness” verbiage), struggles with his faith, and is God-obsessed. That’s contrary to Christ’s usual stoic portrayals, and may partially be the reason for this film’s neglect. It’s easier to put a man who is emotionally detached on a pedestal. Once we see his ragged emotions, he, uncomfortably, becomes too much like us. The Christ of Potter/Blakely napalms that comfort zone with a portrayal that unnerved 1969 audiences. Airing it in the Easter season was salt added to the wound.

Still from Son of Man (1969)Another disconcerting mirror “Son of Man” holds up is its very clear contrasting of ethics and morality. The Ten Commandments are ten versions of “NO,” brought to you in the shape of patriarchal morality, which doesn’t have to be equated with love; hence, Christ improves on them with the ethics (morality + love) of the Beatitudes. Author once mused that he had seen Christians, with tears in their eyes, bemoaning the loss of the Ten Commandments displayed in schools. When Vonnegut suggested posting the Beatitudes in their place, the reaction was: “Blessed are the poor? The meek shall inherit the earth? Blessed are the peacemakers? Oh, we can’t post that. People might take it wrong.” The Beatitudes are the centerpiece of Potter’s story, with Christ delivering them at the most inopportune moment; shortly after we see the corpse of a bloodied woman, brutally butchered by Roman Soldiers. “Love the man who would thrust his sword in your belly and torture you,” Christ ferociously shouts. It’s no wonder both his onscreen crowd Continue reading DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

DREAMCHILD (1985)

Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild (1985) received critical accolades upon its release. It was written by one of the most impressive of television writers, Dennis Potter, and features some of ‘s most impressive work in his renditions of ‘s Wonderland creatures. The film received scant distribution upon its release and, additionally, sat unreleased on DVD until 2011. Far from jettisoning of the darker, surreal elements of “Alice in Wonderland” (as happens in Tim Burton’s neutered version), Dreamchild does not flinch from the nightmarish qualities in this famous tale. Like its source inspiration, Dreamchild remarkably manages to evoke a darker milieu, while retaining warmth and wit.

That is not to say this is a perfect film. It dwells upon the contrast between English sophistication and American crassness a bit too much (even if it is spot on), and a romance between a reporter (Peter Gallagher) and Alice’s ward, Lucy (the quite good Nicola Cowper) is an intrusive misstep. Yet, along with Henson’s vividly designed vision of life below the rabbit hole are two stunning star performances. Most critics rightly singled out the performance of Coral Brown as Alice Hargreaves (formerly Alice Liddell). But, equally impressive is ‘s eye-of-the-hurricane performance as Lewis Carroll.

Carroll (whose real name was Charles Dodgson) was a latent pedophile. Although it seems likely that he never acted upon his desire for underage girls, he did photograph many of them in nude poses. Those photographs have come to light since Carroll’s passing. Alice Liddell, his inspiration for the Wonderland Alice, was not among Carroll’s models. Apparently, Alice’s mother quashed the relationship between Rev. Dodgson and her daughter, deeming it potentially improper.

Still from Dreamchild (1985)Potter’s depiction of that relationship stops short of lewdness, and that was a wise choice. The film opens with a view of a surreal and dark ocean. Atop a rock the aged Alice discourses with two spectral characters: a self-pitying Mock Turtle and the Gryphon. This is hardly the Muppets!

Later, in another world, the 80-year old Alice is sailing to America to receive an honorary doctorate on the centennial of Lewis Carrol’s birth. She is aghast at American commercialism and constantly berates her young ward. Initially, Alice is not altogether sympathetic. But, through flashbacks, we discover that her role as the inspirational source of Carrol’s famous tale has left her, in her advanced age, caught in a flood of nightmarish memories.

Caught in the recesses of her past, the characters of Wonderland imbue terror in her, and at the seedy center is the shy, awkward Lewis Carroll. For the young Alice, Carroll is a source of ridicule, curiosity, and devotion. Holm invests into Carroll such an introverted intensity that this performance calls to mind some of the great character acting from the likes of Montgomery Clift and James Mason.

Although Carroll’s attraction to the young Alice is outwardly platonic, his twitching giddiness from her mere embrace reveals a disheartening adoration. Yet in spite of  that salaciousness, Holm makes us care for this literary misfit.

Alice’s ominous visions of the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, and Dormouse prove to be minuscule compared to her memories of the man who made her famous. This is an instance in which a very brief exposure in life proved to have a long-lasting impact.

The aged celebrity treats her ward and the American paparazzi with the same Victorian contempt in which she once treated Lewis Carroll. Yet, she is better than her worst moments. In the eventual realization of her life’s arc, Alice again becomes the girl who inspired a great writer. Brown’s performance is admirably intelligent and touching. It borders on criminal that the late actress did not receive a single award for her role.

A small, but perhaps apt trivia note: Jane Asher here plays the mother of Alice Liddell. Although Asher has no scenes with the grown Alice of Coral Brown, she did previously act with Brown’s husband, Vincent Price, in Masque of the Red Death (1964).