For me, Double Dare is possibly Dennis Potter's first bona fide masterpiece. It takes the theme of the relationship between reality and fantasy previously explored in his 1972 TV play Follow The Yellow Brick Road (reviewed here) and his novel Hide and Seek, as well as prefiguring the concept of the fantasy bleeding out into real life that he would later effectively use in The Singing Detective and Karaoke.
The play tells the story of blocked and ill TV playwright Martin Ellis (Alan Dobie, channeling Potter's own circumstances) who arranges to meet a young actress called Helen (Kika Markham) in a hotel to discuss a loose idea for a play he has in mind involving a meeting between a prostitute and her client, which he imagines will be fraught with sexual tension and bartering. As their own meeting goes on, it soon becomes clear that the same kind of game is being played between the writer and the actress.
The most interesting thing about this particular exploration of the blurring of fact and fiction is that the play was based on a real life hotel meeting between Potter and Markham.
As Kika Markham herself said, Potter seemed fascinated about "what it meant to act a part - he was confused as to whether you were what you were acting. I'm sure that was very central to him - he had trouble with the boundaries of reality."
Potter's belief, she believed, was that all performers are in effect whores; willing to reveal the most personal aspects of themselves to - and discard their principles for - an audience in order to gain a good part. He sought to examine this willing exploitation by casting Markham in the dual role of Helen the actress and Carol, the call girl who is playing a seemingly dangerous game with the profusely perspiring sexually frustrated businessman played by Malcolm Terris - in a performance that for once actually benefits from his loud, egregious style.
Perhaps naturally this was not a belief shared by Markham herself and, in the meeting that inspired the tale, she recalls she gave as good as she got defending her art by challenging and rebuking his theories and views, which ultimately made its way into the fiction itself; "I gave him half his lines in that play, because I really did argue back. And he kept that in, though I think my answers didn't always please him - and even that is incorporated!"
The symbiotic nature of the play and the two couples is further complicated by Martin's increasingly disturbed and panicked frame of mind as he starts to believe that the client and the prostitute are the characters in his mind brought into being and that the violent fate he has in mind to conclude his play will occur for real during the course of the evening. As the evening progresses and Martin's mind becomes further disturbed he begins to fear that he is even controlling Helen, as much as he would become her puppet master for the purposes of the play itself.
The reflexiveness has extra weight when you consider how fascinated and disgusted Martin is by Helen's previous nude scenes which in turn Potter positions Markham into doing for the play itself and ultimately, how Potter naturally has total control over his vision; "In a way, he won, in the play" Markham related.
The links between creativity and sexuality is a beguiling and disconcerting mix which I feel was the last real time Potter gave his women a genuine mouthpiece, thanks to the original meeting he had with Markham, who was very much an independent, late 20th century artiste with intelligence and principles - being active in the Workers Revolutionary Party. He continued to explore the nature of exploitation towards women and his own difficult coming to terms with female sexuality, but never quite with the same sensitivity or intelligence as he perhaps shows here, even if he does rather get his own way in the end as Markham alludes to.
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