by Mary Craig Dennis Potter believes that Brimstone and Treacle may he his best play. The BBC have banned it. He considers it "relentlessly religious". But the BBC Television director of programmes, Alasdair Milne, calls it "nauseating", "disgusting", "outrageous".
The trouble. says Potter somewhat bitterly, is that we live in such a secular age that people, including BBC administrators, recognise religion only when it has a label round its neck and is properly confined within the "God-slot" on television or ' Sunday Half Hour. When religion is brought away from the margin of life to become a central preoccupation of drama it is rejected as profoundly shocking. And shock induces nausea.
Because of Milne's diktat, and because the two other Potter plays recently shown on BBC Television Double Dare and Where Adam Stood are also capable of causing shock, Dennis Potter is receiving quantities of outraged letters, some-of them infinitely more obscene than he would know how to he.
Opening the morning's mail has become something of a hazard for a man who already has more than his share of daily pain. Though he is only 40, both hands of this sensitive writer are crippled and he can only with difficulty hold a pen between thumb and forefinger. Pain and nausea alternate. Every word he writes is an agony.
Recently I went to interview Dennis Potter for BBC radio. I thought I knew what he was going to he like. After seeing the controversial Son of Man some years ago I had formed a coherent mental image of the man — intense, eyes like coals, angry, perfervid, intolerant, spiky with savage wit. A sort of combination of Aneurin Bevin and the prophet Elijah.
Reality was a shock: I was unprepared for gentleness. Even for serenity, though he confessed to feeling edgy and smoked innumerable cigarettes.
In Ross on Wye, where he Jives with his wife Margaret and their three children, Potter is very much chez soi. He was born and bred hereabouts, "up there in the Forest", he explains, pointing to a spur of the Forest of Dean which you can just see from the windows of his Victorian hobse.
When he was a child, the Bible came alive for him, because he was convinced that it all took place in the Forest. It couldn't have been anywhere else: the landscapes were right. "I knew the quarry they threw Joseph into. I used to play there".
But the magic faded later on when religion became tainted with "the smell of cabbage, dreary hymns, the fading of light, and crabapple faces". He rejected the whole package as irrelevant to the needs of youth and to the political struggle which, then as now, he cared passionately about.
The journey back has been an intellectual one, "a treacherous but necessary way". When he wrote Son of Man in 1969 he described himself as "a respectful agnostic". Today he would still not discard the description "agnostic", though he is now an agnostic from the inside, so to speak.
The essential element of faith is doubt. "Whatever faith I may have'or hope to have, it will be within doubt. It will he walled in by doubt. I think of religion as. the crucible of doubt".
Nevertheless, after Son of Man he began to change. He wrote that play in a mood of belligerence, otit of a desire to strike back at his chapel
childhood and the cabbage smells.
But the writing of it turned him back towards the parables, "into the challenge and beauty, the glory and pain and sometimes shoddiness of the New Testament! A sense of tension and wonder and gratitude and bewilderment beganto grow in me". He has arrived at the point where he can no longer live without some idea of a loving God.
This is what he hoped he was saying in Brimstone and Treacle. Perhaps he said it with too much passion: that people's lives have a shape, that our moral choices are based on absolute freedom, and that even the most trivial of them can have awesome consequences; that good comes out of evil: that our relationships with each other are lived out in a tension of choice: and that all choice has its origin in a loving creation.
Man is unique solely because he has the capacity to choose beyond his appetites. "Every day God makes the world and every day I give a bit of it back. There's a precarious balance of serenity, doubt, fear, confusion. I know I'm on a knife-edge and that if things were even marginally different everything would collapse. So .I'm poised always on the edge of discovery about the meaning of life".
It's no accident that Dennis Potter is a dramatist. He sees life and its most central "gut-truths" in terms of drama, tension, dialectic. A powerful poetic imagination sweeps him forward, clothing the dialectic in images of great potency. He uses image and myth as the men who composed the Bible used them, to express the inexpressible, to give sub stance to the dark and fearsome side of life.
If the Bible is frequently shocking (yes, and nauseating too) it is because man's religious experience is fraught with anguish. "If we don't come to terms with that, with the anguish of being, of existence, that things should be as they are, then religion is simply an aspirin. It doesn't interest me".
Despite such a highly personal faith, he does not discard the Church. As yet (his phrase not mine) he "cannot bend the knee to any formal creed", but with all its defects he wants the Church to endure. "I would feel more hunted, more uneasKif it wasn't there".
Potter sees the Church as necessary to carry forward, contain, reflect on and discipline the received religious wisdom of man. "It's a piece of historical hygiene to ensure that a certain fundamental poetry can be sustained from one generation to another. It should be a place where one ultimately can take shelter, whether one believes or not."
But shelter or no, it is we ourselves who must come to terms with our own confusion. "The things we do battle with have to be resolved by us, by me, by you, by everyone, no matter what we do or how we live. The actual process of getting up each morning and getting through the day is enough. We can't worry about tomorrow. It's the next minute that's difficult".
And you know, as another spasm of uncontrollable pain crosses his face, that for Dennis Potter this and every other minute is difficult.