Cold comforts

Dennis Potter's big-budget sci-fi drama of cryogenics and the nature of memory hits the small screen on Sunday night. But has Channel 4 been sold a pup?
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The Independent Culture
On Sunday, there comes into play the second half of the unprecedented deal whereby the last two four-part serials written by Dennis Potter are screened turn-and-turn-about by BBC1 and Channel 4. Cold Lazarus is the junior channel's baby, 50 per-cent more costly than Karaoke (which the BBC financed entirely, as Channel 4 did the new one), set in the - for Potter - uncharted territory of the deep future, and not exactly inheriting from the more familiar-looking serial a solid audience or a sheaf of raves. In short, Channel 4 have been sold a pup. Haven't they?

Peter Ansorge doesn't think so. As deputy head of drama at Channel 4 - which in practice means he's commissioning editor for drama series and serials - Ansorge gets to share executive producer credit and to tell his side of the story. Potter of course had some history with the channel where, after the painful failure of his BBC serial Blackeyes, he was encouraged to make the briefly-released feature film Secret Friends and the best- known of his late works, the serial Lipstick on Your Collar. "I think he had quite liked working with us," ventures Ansorge.

In 1992, Potter brought a deal to Channel 4's head of drama, David Aukin, who enjoys autonomy over the celebrated "Film on Four" strand. "He wanted to give us Karaoke," says Ansorge, "but he also wanted David's commitment to do his script Midnight Movie as a feature. David had backed Secret Friends but he quite boldly and bravely said no to Midnight Movie. Dennis went berserk and returned to the BBC who let him do the film. I think it's appalling that they allowed him to put a quarter of a million of his own money into it. I do, I'm sorry. The old BBC would never have done that. It was never a commercial movie. I don't think he enjoyed his time back at the BBC. The marketplace had taken over and his Edinburgh Festival lecture was a response to that. And Karaoke wasn't going well. I think at that time he was writing the film-within-the-film. It was Blackeyes II."

Potter was back at Channel 4 in the autumn of 1993 with a new proposal. "I am going to write you a serial and it's going to be science fiction" he announced. "To be honest, my heart sank," Ansorge says. Potter then expounded his researches in cryogenics and the difficulty of locating memory. Speculation that virtual reality techniques might allow memory to be reprogrammed had piqued Potter's interest. "They'll probably get a lot of it wrong," he scoffed. "So England will be remembered as losing the World Cup in 1966. The serial will be about these scientists trying to get this guy's memories. And his memories will have an effect on them."

Ansorge found optimism and enthusiasm infusing him. "Dennis wanted to do 20 episodes which was completely mad of course." He does his characteristic yelp of laughter. "I told Michael [Grade, Channel 4's chief executive] and he said: 'Maybe it should be eight' and John Willis [director of programmes] said: 'Maybe it should be six.' So we commissioned six hours. The creepy thing is that what came into my mind was The Tempest. Dennis said: 'Yes, I like that idea.' I didn't know then that it would be him breaking his staff; it would be his Tempest."

The following Valentine's Day, Potter learned of his terminal cancer. Ansorge believes that on that very day he turned the two separate projects into related stories, using the writer-figure from Karaoke as the cryogenically preserved head in Cold Lazarus.

Ansorge has no regrets that the dispensation of Potter's televisual effects fell out the way it did. "In some ways, Cold Lazarus is the much more innovative piece," he reckons, "the much more dangerous piece. With The Singing Detective, Dennis looked at the thriller genre and there are loads of cod thriller scenes. In a similar way there's a tongue-in-cheek approach to science fiction in Cold Lazarus."

But is it worth the expense? "We put money into it because we wanted to get the special effects right," Ansorge declares. "When that screen comes up, the audience that does watch science fiction won't be disappointed." And it's certainly true that you can see the money on the screen. The question remains as to whether anyone should have spent any money on this wandering, misshapen, strangely innocent (or perhaps faux naif) script.

Karaoke has its strong supporters. It also has virulent detractors. Right- wing critics in particular have jostled to jig on Potter's grave. The critical response has played into the most recent project on Peter Ansorge's agenda. Two days before we talked, he delivered the manuscript of his latest book to Faber, coincidentally Potter's own publisher.

I say "latest" to emphasise that he, like his fellow Channel 4 commissioning editors, has led a life outside tele-budgets. A quarter of century ago, he and I both reviewed theatre for the magazine Plays & Players. I was one of the first to read his debut, a slim paperback called Disrupting the Spectacle, which charted the first years of the then fledgling fringe theatre movement. Between times, we fetched up as fellow producers in David Rose's highly creative drama unit at Pebble Mill. When his BBC star waned, Rose was rescued by Jeremy Isaacs, then setting up Channel 4, who gave him a new lease of life as begetter of "Film on Four". Ansorge followed a few years later.

The new book is called The Best of Our Time: Contemporary Writing in Theatre, Television and Film, the first part a quote from Gloucester in King Lear. Ansorge has attempted to address what he perceives as a deep change in the culture since he first wrote about it. "England is a curious country, I begin to think," he says, "in the sense that we've experienced since the war more dramatic changes than any other European country but our perception is that nothing changes. In contrast to the French whose perception is that everything changes all the time, that there's always revolution."

So the book tackles our obeisance to Los Angeles culture, the decline of the European auteur, the intrusion of market and marketing values into public service television, the marginalising of the writer and inevitably that old demon, the critic. Channel 4 provides him with a good vantage point from which to survey these changes. "I'm probably the last person in television who can say: 'If I want to do this four-parter by that writer, I can.' When I started at the BBC, that's what all Heads of Drama and even producers could say."

This week, two of Ansorge's three commissions broadcast in 1995 were nominated for the Royal Television Society Drama Series Award. Whether Channel 4 will continue to be glad that he can so lightly green-light a project may be shown over the coming four weeks.

'Cold Lazarus' begins on Sunday at 9pm on Channel 4, repeating on Monday at 10.15pm on BBC1