In 1962, the British television, radio and stage writer Dennis Potter (May 17, 1935 – June 7, 1994) was diagnosed as suffering from psoriatic arthropathy, which affected his joints to the extent that he was unable to use a typewriter and had to write with a pen strapped to his hand.
An archive of Dennis Potter’s unpublished works and written fragments, purchased by residents of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, where Potter was born, includes the full text of an unproduced television play “Mushroom on Toast” from the early 1970s …
Handwritten of course, because everyone knows you can’t make toast with a typewriter, French toast being the exception …
Potter’s 1976 BBC television Play for Today, Only Make Believe highlighted the problems that Potter experienced as a television writer for real in the early Seventies.
In the play, Christopher Hudson, a TV playright working on his latest play for the BBC, has burned his right hand, which means that instead of writing in his usual longhand, he has been forced to employ a secretary to type the lines as he composes. This frustrates him. The presence of another person in the room feels like someone sharing his private fantasies. Even more frustratingly, he is attracted to the demure girl sitting at the typewriter.
She, however, is neither interested in him nor the play. To her, the process of writing is not a personal act, simply a mundane job for which she is paid by the hour. Essentially, this is the drama – an exploration of the sexual and creative tensions between these two very different personalities. (the play Hudson is dictating is none other than one of Potter’s own, his 1970 play for Today, Angels Are So Few).
First transmitted on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in 1993, Lipstick on Your Collar is a reworking of Potter’s play from 1970, Lay Down Your Arms, expanded to fit the format of a six-episode serial with lip-synched old songs – a dramatic device that was so successful with Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective.
Lay Down Your Arms’ central character, Private Bob Hawk, is imported virtually unaltered and becomes Private Francis Francis — a gauche, inexperienced, working-class young man, who puts his foot in it all the time, yet is highly intelligent and a lover of the arts. Doing his National Service in 1956, Francis (Giles Thomas) arrives in London from Wales to work as a translation clerk at the War Office (echoing Potter’s real-life work experience) joining a group consisting of five officers of the rank of major or above, fellow Private Mick Hopper (Ewan McGregor) and the bullying Corporal Pete Berry (Douglas Henshall).
“You ‘orrible little man!”
Francis is lodging with his Aunt and Uncle (Maggie Steed and Bernard Hill), who coincidentally live in a flat below Berry and his voluptuous, Diana Dors-like wife, cinema usherette Sylvia (Louise Germaine).
The couple are not happy and Berry sometimes beats his wife, witnessed by the shocked Francis, who develops a crush on Sylvia and wants to save her. And he’s not alone, for the pervy cinema organist Harold Atterbow (Roy Hudd) is similarly enamoured, spending hours sitting in his car watching Sylvia’s window. Soon the Suez crisis starts to brew, undercutting the monotony of life at the War Office and focussing everyone’s attention on the possibility of it igniting World War Three.
M.I. (B.O.) Military Intelligence (Battle Order, Russian)
At the heart of Lipstick, as in so many other Potter works, lies the theme of sexual obsession, and the narrative becomes an exploration of the objectification of women—the familiar madonna/whore dichotomy, with Louise Germaine occupying the same pedestal that Gina Bellman did in Blackeyes.
Whilst Francis grapples with the philosophical side of love in this respect, looking to Pushkin and Nietzsche for guidance, Atterbow angles for more immediate gratification, and the downstairs neighbours see Sylvia for what she ‘really’ is: a ‘tart’, a ‘slut’, a ‘Jezebel’. Not dissimilarly, Mick Hopper transfers his lustful urges from the imaginary Dream Girl (Carrie Leigh), who appears nude in his musical fantasies, to the flesh-and-blood Lisa (Kymberley Huffman), only to find himself out of his intellectual depth when she tackles him with Chekhov.
I was working in an office at the Leeds Metropolitan University when Lipstick first aired, and could relate to the office tedium. I just wish I could’ve conjured up the musical fantasies enjoyed by Mick Hopper.
Extracts from FILM: The Digital Fix and Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen, 1998 by John R Cook (Manchester University Press, 1998).