About eight years ago I persuaded myself that I’d only improve as a poet if I restricted my reading exclusively to a wide range of poetry and, despite the odd fond gaze at novels glimpsed on buses, trains and my shelves, I just about stuck to that for a good few years. I believe that doing so enormously helped me, as much by osmosis as by systematic study, to gain a better understanding of how ‘good’ poems work and of what they omit as much as what they include. Having achieved a seemingly reasonable level of poetic competence a couple of years ago, I relaxed that exclusivity. Now my choices of reading matter – whether poetry, fiction, memoir or what have you – are squarely based upon how they can help me to develop further as a poet. Belatedly, I’ve fully realised that time is short and I have to use it wisely, or at least more wisely than I used to.
In that spirit, this week I’ve been reading the six scripts, published by Faber, for Dennis Potter’s 1986 classic BBC serial The Singing Detective, mainly to immerse myself in the highest-quality dialogue and monologue. In some of my narrative / anecdotal poems, I do occasionally include some dialogue and, even though most of us all have regular conversations with others as well as ourselves, it’s hard to write well in poems without it sounding unnatural, and/or wholly out of step with the narrative voice in which the poem is written. Who better to learn from than Potter, I figured, given what a genius he was, and a revolutionary one at that. But, unsurprisingly, I’ve been sucked into the beauty of the narrative, or narratives, which loop round with Potter’s trademark use of flashback, many interwoven layers and lip-synching to old songs, in this case from the mid-’40s. I’ve also been struck by the Beckettian care with which Potter specified the directions. Amongst all that are his sardonic, at times riotous (tragi)comic lines, most notably through the quips, asides and thoughts of the hospitalised pulp-novelist protagonist Philip Marlow (as played by the Great Gambon in the BBC serial). In one famous scene, Marlow is being greased all over for his psoriasis by the glamorous Nurse Mills (played by Joanne Whalley) and is doing all he can to avoid an erection by thinking of the most banal subjects including:
Gardeners’ Question Time, chaired by Peter Hall. Plastic pitch at Queens Park Rangers. Fog Phillips on a horse. [. . .] The Fifth Beatle. David Owen and Shirley Williams, [. . .] Ludovic Kennedy!
The full list indicates how, despite his highly ambivalent nostalgia for an England that’s long gone, Potter was always contemporary and culturally aware.
The mention of QPR’s ‘Omniturf’ pitch takes me right back to the 1st September 1981 when, as a season-ticket holder in the just-redeveloped Loft, I was there to see the first professional football match in Britain to be played on an artificial surface. Rangers being Rangers, they lost that game, 2–1 to Luton, but otherwise they flourished in those years, under the visionary management of Terry Venables, who some while before had co-authored a strangely prophetic pulp novel entitled They Used to Play on Grass. Having moved from Palace to become Rangers’ boss, Venables built on foundations laid by Tommy Docherty by poaching half of Palace’s would-be ‘Team of the Eighties’ and got them to the 1982 Cup Final, in which, against (then) First Division Spurs, they played poorly yet scraped a 1–1 draw; then totally out-played Spurs in the replay and were unlucky to lose to an early penalty, pretty much Spurs’ only shot of the game.
The momentum that Cup-run gave them took that Rangers side – which included great players like goal-poacher extraordinaire Clive Allen, Simon Stainrod and all his tricks, elegant Glenn Roeder, Terry Fenwick (who later was one of the England defenders whom Maradona left in his wake in the goal he scored with his foot in the Mexico ’86 World Cup Quarter Final), midfield schemer John Gregory, Tony Currie (by then playing as a libero because he hadn’t the legs to run about much) and buccaneering old-school centre-half Bob Hazell – on to the Second Division title in 1982/83. The following year, they were fifth in the top flight, and then, out of the blue, Venables was lured to Barcelona to become ‘El Tel’. Consequently, Rangers flirted with relegation for a few years before establishing themselves as the top team in London under Gerry Francis. In all, they spent 13 consecutive seasons in the top flight from ’83/’84, were founder-members of the Premier League and could, and did, beat any and every other team home and away (except Forest at the City Ground, where they’ve still never won); most famously a 6–0 stuffing of Chelsea in 1986 and the New Year’s Day massacre of 1992 when they won 4–1 at Old Trafford, live on ITV. Happy days, but I digress . . .
Incidentally, Potter’s inclusion of football extended to Marlow confessing to being a Fulham fan, in those pre-Al-Fayed times when Fulham were floundering about and generally going nowhere. Potter was steeped in the culture of his times, and I would contend that no other writer, or artist per se, of his period got close to matching Potter’s ability to make great art out of the historical reality of Britain from the ’30s to the downfall of Thatcher. My dad, who sometimes had execrable though always catholic tastes, loved Potter’s plays and serials, and none more so than The Singing Detective. All the performances were superb, chief of which, of course, was that of Michael Gambon, for whom the role of world-weary Marlow, in all his guises – psoriatic patient, private ’tec and crooner – was tailor-made. Gambon’s ability to shift from menace to (black) humour in a nano-second was, and is, a rare gift. He was also very funny in a late ’70s ITV sitcom called The Other One, in which, alongside Richard Briers, he played a rather misanthropic character who could almost have been a precursor of Marlow, with the catchphrase “I’m a lone wolf, Ralph”. You probably had to have seen it . . .
What I sense from Potter’s dialogue was that the more he tried to make it sound unnatural, the better it was, given that the converse of that is paradoxically true. Maybe!