Saturday 28 March 2009

Colonel Potter's love of westerns

As I'm starting to get into the mood to watch American 1970s sitcom M*A*S*H again, I've been reminded of Colonel Potter. This character, as played by veteran actor Harry Morgan, was the only main character in the series I didn't like. It's probably not his fault as I tended to find him annoying when he turned up in western films and shouted a lot for no good reason.

The main problem though was that he took over command of the M*A*S*H unit from Henry Blake, one of my favourite sitcom characters. For the first three seasons of the series Blake, who essentially wandered around in a clueless fog while avoiding making decisions, was the perfect comic creation. The actor's timing was astounding, especially when giving orders to Radar, a man who can predict exactly what Blake is going to say and do before being given the order.

Blake was less successful at pretending to be drunk or clumsy, which he had to do in every episode, but when he left the series and was written out by being killed off, he traumatised viewers, probably for all time. I know I've still not got over it!

So to replace Blake was an impossible task and in fairness they didn't try. This was one of the strengths of the series and it probably helps to explain why it ran for so long. The womanizing Trapper was replaced with the family-man BJ. The bumbling idiot Frank Burns was replaced with the skilled but pompous Winchester, and Hotlips in a bad move was replaced with Margaret Houlihan, but I digress.

So for the new commander of the unit in season four we got the opposite of the permanently bemused Blake in the form of army career officer and former cavalryman Potter. Sadly for continuity obsessives like me this ignored the fact that the actor had played a barking-mad general in an episode of season three.

Potter was a version of the Harry Morgan western role of the old cowboy who yells a lot and says Horse Hockey. I never found a single thing he did amusing or found his character particularly believable as such a stickler for discipline would never cope with the rest of the characters and their antics. But I did like it that he read westerns. In fact, unless anyone can tell me otherwise, I don’t think any other series character has ever been shown so often engrossed in a western novel nor so often been heard to say how much he loves reading a good western. For the record his favourite writer was Zane Grey.

Potter's finest western moment came in the episode Movie Tonight. For my money this is the best episode of M*A*S*H as it perfectly distilled everything the series was about. In it, the doctors and nurses are more depressed than is usual after a lull in the fighting leaves them sitting around getting on each others' nerves. So to cheer them up Potter hires his favourite western movie My Darling Clementine for the whole unit to see.

Nobody is particularly enthused and they attend the film in a bad mood. When the film keeps breaking down it only adds to everyone's annoyance. So to while away the time while Klinger rethreads the film they recreate the OK Corral shootout, Hotlips sings, Radar does some movie-star impressions, and generally all the actors and actresses do their little party pieces.

Despite everything, everyone ends up having a good time. This is the only youtube clip I could find of this episode, including the sublime punchline where Frank Burns, with impeccable timing and a complete disregard for the prevailing spirit, chips in with his own verse:

Hawkeye and B.J. think they're pretty smart. I'd like to take a scalpel and stab them in the heart.

So all together now : I don't want no more of Army life, gee, Ma, I want to go home.

1 comment:

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

You know incredibly I've never seen an episode of MASH. I remember it being on BBC2 when I was a kid but I think I was too young for it to appeal.