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. 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 volunteered for the army, was trained as an officer and "passed out" (graduated) as top of his company. He was commissioned into the Coldstream Guards as a second lieutenant just as the war was ending, and did not see active service.
Potter was demobilised in 1919, 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, a fact that put him in the shadow of his elder sister Muriel (later a form mistress at St Paul's Girls' School, then headmistress of South Hampstead High School), who had won a scholarship to St Hugh's College, Oxford, and had taken a first-class degree. Potter achieved only a second-class degree in English language and literature. On the strength of this he 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. Potter instead 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 a 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 (1900–1981), a painter professionally known as Mary Potter. There were two sons of the marriage. 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 wrote, "a brilliant performance ... a distinguished contribution to intellectual fiction." In 1930 he 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, 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. After this he concentrated in his next four works on Coleridge. He edited 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), which Potter edited from the original manuscripts in the British Museum. In 1941 he wrote a play, Married to a Genius, based on the Coleridge marriage. In 1935 he 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 (The Observer) or else did not explore the underlying reasons for it (TLS).
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." Other reviewers thought Potter's suggestions more entertaining than practical. Potter's humorous insights into academic life were widely praised. He wrote of George Saintsbury: "It is recorded that for eighteen years he started the day by reading a French novel (in preparation for his history of them) – an act so unnatural to man as almost in itself to amount to genius."
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 in its features department, originally concentrating on literary features and documentaries. In the same 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 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 Third Programme. At the end of the war, Potter took on a number of concurrent literary tasks. These included drama critic for the New Statesman and book reviewer for the News Chronicle.
Gamesmanship and freelance writing
A ten-day power-cut at the beginning of 1947 prevented any broadcasting and gave Potter the opportunity to dash off a book. To the despair of his publisher he was a far from methodical author: 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, illustrated by Frank Wilson, was published in 1947, and sold prodigiously.
It was the first of his series of books purporting to teach ploys for manipulating one's associates, making them feel inferior and thus gaining the status of being one-up on them. From this book, the term "Gamesmanship" entered the English language. Potter said that he was introduced to the technique by C. E. M. Joad during a game of tennis in which Joad and Potter were struggling against two fit young students. Joad politely requested the students to state clearly whether a ball had landed in or out (when in truth it was so obviously out that they had not thought it necessary to say so). This nonplussed the students, who wondered if their sportsmanship was in question; they became so edgy that they lost the match. With the success of Gamesmanship, Potter left the BBC in 1949, ended his existing journalistic commitments, and briefly became editor of a weekly, Leader Magazine. The magazine closed in 1950, and thereafter he was a freelance writer for the rest of his life.
Potter followed up the success of Gamesmanship, extending the basic idea to many other aspects of life, in Some Notes on Lifemanship (1950), which was another big seller. In "Lifemanship" Potter extended the principles of gamesmanship to courtship ("Woomanship"), literature ("Writermanship") and pastimes ("Conversationship"). Thus for example the reader is enjoined, "never forget the uses of Lowbrowmanship in conversation ... LOWBROWMAN: Oh, I don't know, I rather like a good bit of old-fashioned vulgarity. And I'm awfully sorry but I like leg shows. If the Lowbrowman happens to be a Professor of Aesthetics ... his remark is all the more irritating". A related gambit for the journalist was ' Daily Mirrorship ... an unaffected love of tremendously ordinary and homely things like Danny Kaye, mild and bitter, the Daily Mirror, the Bertram Mills circus and Rita Hayworth" Potter mentions in passing how "in the last of my Bude lectures I spoke of Gamesmanship and Shakespeare, where most of my remarks referred to Footnote Play", His notes on Donmanship refer to the "art of Criticising without Actually Listening"
In his notes on Woomanship, Potter expresses surprise that "twelve times as many workers volunteered to send in reports on Woomanship as on any other subject" I mixed gamesmanship, for a man "a good working knowledge of the Chivalry Gambit is essential"; a woman's counter to "the least signs of trying the 'I have long adored you from afar' move", is to "treat it immediately as a formal proposal of marriage which you shyly accept. This is one of the most devastating, the most match-winning, counters in the whole realm of gamesmanship".
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 30 years of marriage, the Potters' divorce was finalised, and he remarried, to Heather Jenner, the founder of The Marriage Bureau. Their only child, Luke, was born the following year.
A second successor to Gamesmanship was published as One-Upmanship (1952). Potter had become well enough known overseas to be invited to give a literary lecture tour of America. He described his experiences in Potter on America (1956), which received a long and complimentary review in The Times Literary Supplement: "Mr. Potter's private army of Lifemen will need no recommendation to this latest frolic .... It is a pleasure to discover or rediscover the United States in this company, for the author is the most literate of humorists."
A third sequel to Gamesmanship, was published in 1958 under the title of Supermanship. Its publisher, Rupert Hart-Davis, privately wrote of the book, "Gamesmanship made me laugh a lot, and its two successors were just good enough (all three still sell prodigiously), but the world has moved (deathwards, you may say) in the last ten years, and Potter hasn't budged an inch. In truth the joke is played out, but he won't face the fact. This manuscript consists of a bunch of marginal articles, written during the past six years and slung together with the minimum of care." Some critics agreed. The New Yorker commented, "his methods and the point of view behind them don't seem as funny or as sharp as they once did, possibly because they are no longer surprising, or possibly because he is getting a little tired of his own joke." But Edmund Wilson remained a fan of Potter, praising "the brevity and compactness of the presentation. As in any practical manual, the principles are stated and concisely illustrated. Nothing goes on too long."
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", and in England Prince Philip borrowed from Potter in 1957, accusing accountants of "taxmanship – the art of scoring off the Inland Revenue without actually cheating". 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." Potter himself was aware of the pigeonhole in which he had put himself. He described 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". Another 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."
Potter's last works went in new directions. In 1959 he wrote a corporate history of H.J. Heinz under the title The Magic Number, and his autobiography of his first 20 years, Steps to Immaturity. His publisher was doubtful about the latter, but it was well received. The Times Literary Supplement, called it "this sympathetic, beguiling book" and looked forward to a sequel, and other papers from The Daily Express to The New Statesman praised it in their reviews. In 1965 when his youngest son was about 9 years old, Potter wrote a children's book, Squawky, illustrated by George Him, with whom he had earlier created the mythical County of Schweppshire as part of an advertising campaign for a soft-drink manufacturer. 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.
Potter died of pneumonia in London at the age of 69.