Dennis Potter: the end game

Finishing 'Karaoke' and 'Cold Lazarus' before he died was one thing. Finding the right people to put his vision on screen quite another. Here, Jasper Rees talks to Renny Rye, Dennis Potter's controversial choice of director, while (right) Dominic Cavendish meets the unsung technical heroes
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The Independent Culture
In the penultimate meeting Renny Rye had with Dennis Potter, they were due to discuss the beginning of Cold Lazarus. "But he said, 'Tomorrow I've got 12 pages of Lazarus left to write. If I die tonight, I've written an outline, and you'll have to finish it.' I said, 'Don't you dare die tonight, you bastard, because I'm not going to write the last 12 pages of Dennis Potter.'"

In last Sunday's Bafta ceremony there was an award for best director in the film section but no equivalent gong for the lowlier calling of television direction. But directing Karaoke and Cold Lazarus was never going to be just another job for some hired hand. Thanks to Potter's decree, the task of artistic executor for two scripts that could not be more visually or logistically different fell to Rye. As if that weren't onus enough, Karaoke, featuring the classic Potteresque scenario of a script that seems to be coming to life, includes the character of a television director.

As played by Richard E Grant, who brings all his bug-eyed fervour to the role, Nick Balmer is ambitious, vain, obsessive and, even though married to Julie Christie, adulterous. The first thing that strikes you about Rye is that, while he's hardly Grant's spitting image, and 10 years his senior, there are clear similarities, mainly in colour, length and hair style. "Fortuitous," says Rye, who is shorter, with a wide Apache sort of face, and a woollier dress sense. But given that Karaoke includes various characterisations taken more or less from the life - including a role for Potter lookalike Ian McDiarmid - is Balmer an accurate portrait too?

Rye insists that, according to Potter, he's actually a composite of Piers Haggard, who directed Pennies from Heaven, and - rather bizarrely - the late cartoonist Mark Boxer, with elements of Potter himself. Some of the spats from their previous collaborations have made it into the script, but the moment when the writer Daniel Feeld (played by Albert Finney) gives Balmer a black eye has no connection with the reality of a mutually trusting relationship.

That black eye is one of the many retrospective puns and souvenirs that Potter and Rye have siphoned into Karaoke. It was because of Blackeyes that they met. The most famous director of Potter's work - Potter himself - had just been advised that after that notorious flop he ought to hand over the helm. Rye was one of several names invited to apply to direct Lipstick on Your Collar. His CV can hardly have looked like appropriate preparation. He'd directed a few children's dramas, episodes of Poirot and Casualty, and as a student at Oxford in 1968 he had been a second assistant on an Italian soft porn art movie in which he also got to hold down Jane Birkin while three others raped her.

"The only thing we shared, it seemed, was red wine and cigarettes," he says, sipping one, pulling on the other, and ignoring the platter of Channel 4 sandwiches. "But I suspect that he was keen on getting a director who would hopefully bring a popular touch. He felt he'd got so introverted and intellectualised about his own work, although he never said that explicitly."

Having chosen to absent himself from the set of Lipstick, Potter was enticed back by Rye to be a producer. "He did enjoy that. Dennis's mind worked at such a pace that he found directing tedious: all that standing around waiting for the cameraman to light it." They repeated the formula for Midnight Movie, and so it was only logical that, on the night the doctor handed Potter his death sentence, it was Rye he rang to outline his plans. "We came to this arrangement that we'd meet every fortnight, which meant I roughly got two scripts - because he was writing almost one episode a week: 10 pages a day, six days a week, and then at the end he upped it to 12, when the dates looked like they wouldn't work out."

The two-hour meetings were held in the wine bar - a shabby joint called Needles, if any Potterologists want to make the pilgrimage - nearest to Potter's pied a terre under Telecom Tower, rather than in Ross-on-Wye. Right to the last, and against medical advice, he kept professional and private lives apart. Rye got there first and racked up the wine, "because I wanted to make every minute count. By the third meeting he couldn't drink wine any more: he was just on to whisky. And on the fifth and final occasion he couldn't get down to the wine bar, he was too ill, so it was in the flat, which was like his inner sanctum - he never allowed anyone to go to this flat. And then he was on the flask - the Brompton cocktail" - that mixture of morphine and heroin which he famously tippled on the valedictory interview with Melvyn Bragg.

In the second or third meeting Potter casually mentioned that he wanted Kenith Trodd, the producer of Blue Remembered Hills, Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective to come aboard. Trodd, whose relations with Potter had frosted over, was soon advocating Rye's removal from one script or both. He argued that this was too prestigious a job to go to a "mediocre" director stooging for the author. "I fought my corner as much as I felt it was necessary," says Rye, "but Dennis fought it much stronger." Two years on, peace seems to have broken out between them. "On a personal level we get on fine. There is still tension when we're apart."

"One of the reasons about Dennis wanting me to do it, was that he had this anxiety about directors wanting to impose their own stamp to such a degree that the writer's original voice is masked or overcoloured. That distancing is one of the things he was dramatising. There is an element in which he puts a part of himself into Nick Balmer. Nick's obsession with the girl playing the role is very akin to Dennis's obsession with Gina Bellman during the filming of Blackeyes, or Louise Germaine." (Germaine was the cockney sparrow in Lipstick and Midnight Movie, and Potter nominated her for much the same role in Karaoke, but she became pregnant.)

Some light is shed on this tendency by Rye's first meeting with Potter's wife, Margaret. At the Edinburgh Television Festival in 1993, when Potter delivered his great anti-Murdoch tirade, they sat next to each other at dinner while the writer eyed them nervously from down the table. "She was fairly brusque and a wonderfully strong lady, and she talked a bit about this whole thing of these young actresses and said, 'He's never done it. I don't believe he ever has.' I wonder in retrospect if there is a perception of her tolerance of him through the Julie Christie character."

So, after two years of keeping the flame, what next? He's all but signed up to direct an adaptation of a Nina Bauden novel for Channel 4, but what Rye really wants to do is buy back from America the rights to Potter's completed version of Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. There would be an exquisite symmetry, after filming the scripts Potter finished before death, in also filming the story that Potter finished after Dickens's death. And just listen to the echoes from Cold Lazarus, a sci-fi thriller set 400 years into the future, in which several scientists have navigated a way into the cryogenically frozen brain of the writer, Daniel Feeld. "Dennis loved the conceit of this group of scientists exploiting a writer's brain after his death. 'That's what you're going to be doing in a year's time,' he said: 'exploiting my work.' "

'Karaoke' starts Sun 9.30pm BBC 1 (repeated Mon 10pm C4); 'Cold Lazarus' starts 26 May C4 (repeated on BBC1 from 27 May)

He may have been adamant about which director he wanted, he may also have insisted on the BBC and Channel 4 holding hands, but Dennis Potter was surprisingly unspecific about important aspects of his final work - what Cold Lazarus should look like, for e xample. In the script, he describes the "live wall" on to which 24th-century scientists project the memories of cryogenically suspended scriptwriter Daniel Feeld (last seen in Karaoke): "A group of blobs reaches out glutinously to another group of blobs and, in a micro-second or so, the shape of something near human oozes itself into existence." The words bubble and stretch, briefly seem to make sense, then break apart. It was left to the Computer Film Company to give coherent shape to the writer'svagu ely sketched, vaguely sinister vision. In a sublimely Potteresque location - Soho, sunlight-deprived basement - man, woman and gadget spent six months working round the clock to give the blobs artistic credibility. "All he knew was that he wasn't going to have to deal with the technical problems," says Mark Nelmes, who supervised the five-strong post-production team and was on hand throughout the shoot. "The challenge was to come up with a technology we'd never see n before, something that wasn't quite solid, liquid or gas." Any sort of work on the TV drama to end all TV dramas would have been a spur to perfectionism (even without Potter's jibes at crass post-production work in Karaoke), but the 3-D wall is the foc al point for the playwright's concerns about memory. It devoured a large chunk of the pounds 500,000 special effects budget. After discussions with Renny Rye, computer and technician got to work. Dominic Parker, one of the designers, explains: "We used the computer to generate 3-D polygonal models, or metaballs - up to 30,000 per shot - which glooped together. We were able to alter their shape and movement to create anything from a calm surface to wildy agitated waves. The digitised film image was wrapped round them, with corresponding distortions - 2-D software composited the result into the rest of the scene." The result is extraordinary. The wall buckles alarmingly under the weight of Feeld's psycho-footage: a hospital bed, a 1970s football match, Hammersmith Bridge and the Forest of Dean all ripple into view and shimmer away, showering surroundings with globules. Although Cold Lazarus displays feature-film sophistication, a certain camp aesthetic a la Blake's Seven has been retained. In part this was owing to budgetary constraints: Masdon Science Centre, for example, where much of the action takes place, is actua lly Ratcliff Power Station, Nottinghamshire, with blobs on. But the vision is deliberately grub-free. "The aim was to peek into the future, rather than linger on it," says Nelmes. Parker dismisses the charge that the wall is a flashy gimmick: "It sets th e narrative in context and taps into more ambiguous areas of the writing. Its organic quality ensures that we don't see Cold Lazarus as simply an anti-technology play. What it's opposed to is control and the inhumanity of corporate capitalism." Whether o r not there's academic fodder in the emblematic structure they have created is debatable, but you can be sure of two things: it will do for Cold Lazarus what lip-synching did for The Singing Detective and transfix the punters. It is also bound to get ad- men's mouths watering. DC