Stephen Meredith Potter (1 February 1900 – 2 December 1969) was an English writer best known for his parodies of self-help books, and their film and television derivatives.
After leaving school in the final months of the First World War, Potter was commissioned as a junior officer in the British Army, but by the time he had completed his training the war was over, and he was demobilised. He then studied English at Oxford, and after some false starts he spent his early working life as an academic, lecturing in English literature at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, during which time he published several works on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Finding his income inadequate to support himself and his family, he left the university and took up a post producing and writing for the BBC. He remained with the BBC until after the Second World War, when he became a freelance writer, and remained so for the rest of his life.
His series of humorous books on how to secure an unfair advantage began in 1947 with Gamesmanship, purporting to show how poor players can beat better ones by subtle psychological ploys. This sold prodigiously and led to a series of sequels covering other aspects of life. The books were adapted for the cinema in the 1960s and for television in the 1970s.
Stephen Potter was born in Battersea, London, the only son of Frank Collard Potter (1858–1939), a chartered accountant, and his wife Elizabeth Mary Jubilee née Reynolds (1863–1950). He attended Westminster School from age 13 to 18, during the First World War, and on leaving school volunteered for the army. He was trained as an officer and commissioned into the Coldstream Guards as a second lieutenant just as the war was ending, and so did not see active service.
Potter was demobilised in 1919 without having seen active service, and spent a few months in his father’s office learning book-keeping, before going to Merton College, Oxford to study English. His family paid for his university education, which had a negative effect on his self-esteem, as his elder sister Muriel had won a scholarship to St Hugh’s College, Oxford. After graduating with a second-class degree in English language and literature, Potter was offered the post of talks producer at the BBC, but turned it down as it was based in the provincial city of Birmingham, where he had no wish to reside. Instead he tried to earn a living as an elocution teacher in London, advertising “Cockney accents cured”, but attracted only one pupil. He then tried his luck as a tutor and schoolmaster before becoming private secretary to the well-known playwright Henry Arthur Jones.
Lecturer in English literature
In 1926 Potter began teaching English literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. On 7 July 1927 he married Marian Anderson Attenborough, a painter professionally known as Mary Potter. There were two sons of the marriage Andrew (1928–2008) and Julian (1931–2013). The family at first lived in Chiswick, London before moving to a flat in Harley Street.
Potter’s first book, The Young Man (1929), was an autobiographical novel, which was well-reviewed. The Manchester Guardian described it as “a brilliant performance … a distinguished contribution to intellectual fiction, although it caused “little stir”. In 1930 he wrote the first book-length work on D. H. Lawrence, D. H. Lawrence: A First Study, which appeared in print within a few days of the death of its subject, unfortunate timing because it seemed like an inadequate memorial rather than what it was intended to be, a critical reappraisal. It also suffered from a regrettable misprint, rendering the heading “Sea and Sardinia”, as “Sex and Sardinia”. This was soon amplified by rumour into “Sex and Sardines”, none of which helped Potter’s reputation as a serious writer. He then turned his attention to Samuel Coleridge, editing the Nonesuch Press Coleridge (1933), praised in The Times as “the best anthology that has ever shown Coleridge as poet, philosopher and critic. This was followed by an edition of Sara Coleridge’s letters to Thomas Poole, Minnow among Tritons (1934), but the following year Potter published his most important contribution to the subject, Coleridge and S.T.C., a discussion of the duality in the poet’s nature, “not merely the earlier and the later, but the true and the false, and the exciting and the nauseating,” as John Middleton Murry put it in a review in The Times Literary Supplement. Reviews were good, but with reservations that Potter oversimplified the dichotomy in Coleridge’s nature, or did not explore the underlying reasons for it. Potter also wrote a play, Married to a Genius (1941), based on Coleridge’s marriage.
In 1937 Potter published The Muse in Chains: a Study in Education, a humorous satire on the academic teaching of English literature. G. M. Young wrote of it: “if I were suddenly commissioned by some Golden Dustman to organize a new University, I think I should send for Mr. Potter and offer him the Chair of English literature forthwith.”
BBC writer and producer
Potter first wrote for BBC radio in 1936. Finding that his academic career, although promising, was insufficiently well paid to support his family, he resigned from Birkbeck in 1937 and the following year joined the BBC as a writer-producer, initially concentrating on literary features and documentaries for its features department. In the same year he joined the Savile Club, known for its artistic and especially literary members, who have included Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and W. B. Yeats. He was a leading player of the club’s idiosyncratic version of snooker, and some of his later “gamesmanship” ploys are thought to have originated in the Savile’s games room.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Potter was sent by the BBC to work in Manchester. Later in the war years he and his wife moved south, living in a farmhouse in Essex, where she found more scope to pursue her career as a painter. In 1943 Potter collaborated with Joyce Grenfell on a gently satirical comedy feature “How to Talk to Children”. It was well received and they made twenty-eight more “How to …” programmes, including “How to Woo” and “How to Give a Party”. In 1946 “How to Listen” was the first broadcast heard on the newly created BBC Third Programme. At the end of the war, Potter took on a number of concurrent literary tasks. These included theatre critic for the New Statesman and Nation, and book reviewer for the News Chronicle.
A ten-day power-cut at the beginning of 1947 prevented any broadcasting and gave Potter the opportunity to “dash off” a book “which gave a new word to the language and a new concept to the whole world of sport”. The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, or, The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating, was published in November 1947. The idea was extended to other aspects of life, and Some Notes on Lifemanship (1950) was followed by One-Upmanship (1952), and Supermanship (1958).
Potter claimed that the idea of gamesmanship had crystallised during a tennis match against two younger and fitter opponents, in which he and his partner, the English philosopher C. E. M. Joad, were struggling. After hitting an obviously long ball, so obvious that the students had not thought it necessary to say so, Joad politely requested that the students state clearly whether the ball was in or out. This nonplussed the students, who wondered if their sportsmanship was in question, and became so nervous that they lost the match.
The 1960 film School for Scoundrels is a comedy starring Ian Carmichael as the innocent in need of lessons on up-manship from Professor Potter, played by Alastair Sim, after the girl he loves is won over by the caddish Raymond Delauney, played by Terry-Thomas.
A British television series based on Potter’s work, One-Upmanship, was written and adapted by Barry Took initially as a BBC Christmas special in 1974. Starring Richard Briers, Peter Jones and Frederick Jaeger, it was subsequently commissioned for three series broadcast between 1976 and 1978, introducing among others the ideas of healthmanship in dealing with doctors, out-manoeuvring boardroom rivals with businessmanship, and a treatise on how to seduce women with woomanship.
In 1951 Potter and his wife moved to Suffolk, to the Red House in Aldeburgh. The most famous local residents were Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, with whom the Potters quickly became friendly. They got involved with the running of Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival, and “every summer Britten, Peter Pears, and the Potters formed the nucleus of countless tennis parties on the grass court at the Red House.” In 1954 Potter asked his wife for a divorce. She consented, and he moved away from Aldeburgh. Finding the Red House too large and expensive for one person, Mary Potter agreed to exchange houses with Britten and Pears, who moved into the Red House, with which they were associated for the rest of their lives and beyond. In 1955, after nearly thirty years of marriage, the Potter’s divorce was finalised, and he remarried, to Heather Jenner, the founder of The Marriage Bureau; their only child, Luke, was born the following year.
By the late 1950s the concept and the suffix “-manship” had entered the English language; the foreign policy of the American secretary of state John Foster Dulles was universally known as “brinkmanship”. But according to his biographer Joyce Grenfell, Potter had become bored with the joke by this time, and “for the rest of his life he found it difficult to speak or write naturally, so accustomed had he grown to the jocose gambits and ploys of his own invention.” Potter was aware of the pigeonhole in which he had placed himself, describing himself in The Times in 1967 as “one whose sole contribution to world thought has been the naming and description of the form of behaviour now known as gamesmanship”. A friend said of him, “this kind of fame was not what he had hoped for. He wanted to be a great serious writer. Yet that was totally beyond him.”
Stephen Potter died in London of pneumonia at the age of 69.
The psychiatrist Eric Berne, in his best-selling Games People Play (1964), acknowledges Potter’s gamesmanship as a precursor to his own theory of transactional analysis: “due credit should be given to Stephen Potter for his perceptive, humorous discussions of manoeuvres, or ‘ploys’, in everyday social situations”.
- Stephen Potter bibliographyWorks of Stephen Potter (1900–1969) listed in order of their date of first publication.
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