Stephen Meredith Potter, a British writer best known for his parodies of self-help books, was born in Battersea on 1 February 1900, and attended Westminster School. As he reached school-leaving age he wrote in his diary, “If this war doesn’t end soon I shall have to join the beastly army and lay down my blooming life for my blinking country.” He earned his commission as the First World War was drawing to a close, and went up to Oxford in 1919 to read English.
He turned down a job as a BBC producer in Birmingham, preferring instead to try and earn a living as an elocution teacher in London. His advertised promise, “Cockney accents cured”, attracted only one pupil.
In 1926 Potter began teaching English literature at Birkbeck College, and the following year married the painter professionally remembered as Mary Potter. There were two sons of the marriage; the family at first lived in Chiswick before moving to a flat in Harley Street.
In 1930 Potter wrote D. H. Lawrence: A First Study, the first book-length work on Lawrence, which appeared in print within a few days of the death of its subject. The unfortunate timing rendered it an inadequate memorial rather than the intended critical reappraisal. It also suffered from a regrettable misprint, showing the heading “Sea and Sardinia”, as “Sex and Sardinia” (soon amplified by rumour into “Sex and Sardines”).
Potter first wrote for BBC radio in 1936.
Finding that his academic career was insufficiently well paid, Potter resigned from Birkbeck in 1937, publishing that year The Muse in Chains: a Study in Education, a humorous satire on the academic teaching of English literature.
In 1938, he joined the BBC as a writer-producer in its features department. Also that year he joined the Savile Club, known for its artistic and especially literary members, who have included Hardy, Kipling, and 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 to 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 Third Programme.
In the enforced idleness of a ten-day power-cut at the beginning of 1947, Potter dashed off a book. His publisher noted that every Potter manuscript was “a mass of dirty bits of paper, vilely typed, corrected in illegible biro, episodic and half-revised.” This book, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: Or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating, sold prodigiously.
It was the first of his series of books purporting to teach ploys for manipulating one’s associates to gain the status of being one-up on them. From this book, the term “Gamesmanship” entered the English language. (By the late 1950s the concept and the suffix “-manship” had entered the English language. According to Joyce Grenfell, Potter had become bored with the joke by this time, “but 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.”) Eric Berne in his best-selling Games People Play readily acknowledges Potter’s Gamemanship as a precursor: ‘Due credit should be given to Stephen Potter for his perceptive, humorous discussions of manoeuvres, or “ploys”, in everyday social situations’. Elsewhere he calls Potter ‘the chief representative of the humorous exposition of ulterior transactions’. Tom Burns, in his biography of Erving Goffman, notes that the sociologist also profited from Potter’s work, in the sense that it “disclose[s] an elaborate code of conventions which operated in everyday social intercourse, which was nevertheless tacit”.
In 1951 Potter and his wife had 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, and in 1955, after nearly 30 years of marriage, the Potters’ divorce was finalised. He remarried, to Heather Jenner, the founder of The Marriage Bureau.
The 1960 film School for Scoundrels recapitulates many of the “one-up” ideas, and extends them to “Woo-manship”, meaning the art of manipulative seduction of women.
Stephen Potter died of pneumonia in London on 2 December 1969. At the time of his death he was making notes on word origins from the natural world; they were posthumously edited and published in 1973 as Pedigree: Essays on the Etymology of Words from Nature.