All entries for Friday 12 September 2014

September 12, 2014

Why Past Television Matters

Hyperlocal memories of Dennis Potter: Why remembering past television matters

This year has marked the 20th anniversary since the death of an important British television screenwriter, Dennis Potter. As the Potter Matters blog states:

One of a handful of British writers, producers and directors who from the early 1960's onwards pushed at the boundaries of what television drama could do, he remains an influence on many of today's most significant television writers. Dennis Potter most certainly still matters!
potter matters

bookIn our research for our most recent publication Remembering Dennis Potter through Fans, Extras and Archives (2014), we took the view that Potter matters to a different set of stakeholders in the cultural memory of television. Not directors, producers, the BBC, ITV, or the BFI, all of whom, to varying degrees have been interviewed, made commemorative programmes on TV and Radio, written editorials in The Guardian, produced exhibitions in London or screenings in selected regions, and have paid homage to Potter. Rather, the audience, the fan and the materiality of the evidence of paper and tape archives that accumulate in private and public collections, has been rather neglected. The desire to move Dennis Potter’s work into the schemata of high culture finds his television work publicly viewed in a cinematic theatre in London. This bears no resemblance whatsoever to the material living room conditions of the 1970s and 1980s where millions of people viewed Pennies from Heaven (1978) or The Singing Detective (1986) as not so much appointment television (there was much less competition for attention) but as a media event. What has Potter made for us now? How much will we be shocked? Viewed in a theatrical setting, Potter’s television is re-cast, not as popular culture (as it was), but as a form of quality television from the past, and as an origin of or precursor for more recent HBO experimentation in drama.

Memories and archives tell a different story and in their re-telling they keep those differences alive. As Carolyn Steedman eloquently puts it in Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, the archivist is in a ‘grubby trade’ for: ‘You know perfectly well that the infinite heaps of things they recorded, the notes and traces that these people left behind, constitute practically nothing at all’ (2001, 18). Only some of these traces and evidence end up in archives, such as BBC Written Archives at Caversham. Television has suffered this ‘nothing at all’ more than most. Early tape so expensive it had to be re-used alongside a perceived lack of cultural value has meant that only from the late 1970s was a secure policy and governance over retaining television broadcasts really practiced. Memories, on the other hand, of working in and with television provide alternative accounts, and the AHRC Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style project at the University of Reading is a really excellent example of this kind of work.

bbcIn our research, we have been interested in the communities that have supported, assisted in producing, watched and collected television, and a case study of the community of the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, described as Potterland, is an important example of what we would call hyperlocal memory. A very specific kind of cultural remembering through reference to the production of Potter’s works in the Forest that uses those works to shore up and ‘sure up’ certainties about regional identity and continua of cultural practices. We were not the only ones to spot this unique connection between Dennis Potter’s television production in the Forest and the continued legacy he has played out through the communicative memories of local residents. Not only is the Dennis Potter written archive now held at the Dean Heritage Centre, Soudley but one of our research team was production consultant for the recent BBC Radio 4 Open Country programme Dennis Potter and the Forest of Dean (Tx 11th Sept 2014). It is deeply heartening to hear the participants being interviewed having the opportunity to express their memories of Potter’s works being produced in the Forest. To hear them incorporate past television production not into a high culture aesthetic of cinematic value but into a hyperlocal community memory to be explored in the homes, gardens and trees of this ancient woodland with all its ancient Rights, demonstrates that television exists outside the flow (as many television scholars have argued).

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