Stephen Potter

From Academic Kids

Stephen Potter (1 February 1900 - December 1969) was a British author best known for his tongue-in-cheek self-help books, and film and television derivatives from them, though he wrote much more widely, including scholarly books on English literature, and worked producing and writing for the BBC.

Potter attended Westminster School from age 13 to 18, then served from 1918 to 1919 in the Coldstream Guards, known for the ceremonial roles that some of their units play in London and Windsor.


Foundations of his literary career

Following his military service, he studied English Language and Literature at Merton College of Oxford, and in 1923 became secretary to a noted playwright, Henry Arthur Jones. In 1926 he began teaching English Literature at Birkbeck College of the University of London.

In his teaching years, he began publishing, starting with a novel, The Young Man, in 1929. The next year, he published D.H.Lawrence: a First Study, the first book-length work on that author. In 1934 and 1935, three books that he wrote or edited, relating to Coleridge, were published.

The next year brought both his first writing for radio, on the BBC, and his departure from his university position. In 1937, he harshly criticized British university teaching of English, in The Muse in Chains.

In 1938, Potter joined the Savile Club, known for its "artistic" and especially literary members, who have included, for example, Hardy, Kipling, and Yeats. As of 2004, the club's Web site begins its second entry under "Social Events" by saying of "Savile Snooker":

a unique version of the more staid game was popularized by the late Stephen Potter.

He started 1939 by beginning full-time writing and producing for the BBC, continuing through the end of the war and writing and/or producing at least 250 programs.

Satire and more

In June 1943, Potter began producing a series of BBC "How" programmes that he wrote in collaboration with Joyce Grenfell. The content (starting with "How to Talk to Children") was satirical, and ran for 29 episodes.

With the war's end, Potter took on a number of concurrent literary tasks. These included drama critic for the New Statesman and Nation, book reviewer for the News Chronicle, and also more BBC work: the first programme on the BBC Third Programme, in 1946, was "How to Listen", again in collaboration with Joyce Grenfell.

He published Gamesmanship, the first of his books that purport to teach "ploys" for manipulating one's associates, especially making them feel inferior and thereby gaining the status of being "one-up" on them.

In 1949 he left the BBC and ended his existing journalistic commitments, and became editor of a weekly, The Leader.

1950 brought publication of Lifemanship, and 1952 One-Upmanship.

His Potter on America in 1956 described observations of that country made while travelling between lectures there.

The original series of "one-up" books closed with the publication of Supermanship in 1958.

The 1960 film "School for Scoundrels" (not to be confused with the play The School for Scandal) recapitulates many of the "one-up" ideas, and extends them to "Woomanship", meaning the art of manipulative seduction of women by men.

One-Upmanship, in 1976, was a British television series.

Close of his ouevre

His last works went in new directions:

  • in 1959, a corporate history of H.J. Heinz under the title The Magic Number, and his autobiography of his first 20 years, Steps to Immaturity.
  • in 1965 a children's book (when the last of his sons was about 9 years old) entitled Squawky,
  • in 1973 (after his death in 1969), Pedigree, completed by Laurens Sargent from his notes, on word origins from the natural world.

His diaries, acquired by the University of Texas after his death, were a major source for Stephen Potter at the BBC, (ISBN 0-954-66530-9) by his second son, Julian Potter. It is about the Features department of the BBC, in the 1940s (when Stephen Potter worked there, and is published in the U.K. by Orford Books, Orford, Suffolk.

Personal life

He married Mary Attenborough (the artist Mary Potter)in 1927, and they settled in Chiswick. Their two sons, Andrew and Julian, were born over the next 5 years. After a series of work-mandated moves during the war, he returned in London; in 1951 they relocated to Aldeburgh in Suffolk. In 1955, after nearly 30 years of marriage, they divorced, and he remarried, to Heather Jenner; the second Mrs. Potter was the founder of the Marriage Bureau. Their only child, Luke, was born the next year. Potter's death came in 1969.

His Bibliography

(As of 2004, some of his works are out of print, but most have new editions. Audio versions, read by Stephen Fry, are available in the U.K.) This year (2005) Lifemanship was re-published by Moyer Bell.

  • The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: Or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating
  • Lifemanship: With a Summary of Recent Researches in Gamesmanship. Illustrated by Frank Wilson. 1950. (Alternative subtitle: Or, the Art of Getting Away With It Without Being an Absolute Plonk.)
  • One-Upmanship: Being Some Account of the Activities and Teachings of the Lifemanship Correspondence College of One-Upness and Games Lifemastery
  • Sense of Humour. 1954.
  • Potter on America. 1956.
  • Steps to Immaturity: An Autobiography. 1959.
  • Supermanship, or, How to Continue to Stay Top without Actually Falling Apart. Illustrated by Frank Wilson. 1958.
  • Three-Upmanship. 1962.
  • Anti-Woo: The Lifeman's Improved Primer for Non-Lovers. Illustrated by Frank Wilson. 1965.
  • The Complete Golf Gamesmanship. Illustrated by Frank Wilson. 1968. (Also titled Golfmanship.)
  • The Complete Upmanship: Including, Gamesmanship, Lifemanship, One-Upmanship, Supermanship

Books on Potter

  • Stephen Potter: Inventor of Gamesmanship, by Alan Jenkins
  • A Charmed Life: The Spirituality of Potterworld, by Francis Bridger
  • Stephen Potter at the BBC: 'Features' in War and Peace, by Julian Potter

External links


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