TELEVISION / Under our skin to the last

THIS is no time for Dennis Potter to go dying on us. The television world through which he blazed his bright absolutes is a muckier place by the minute: all fudge-it and budget. Passion, if you could find it, would be subject to VAT. Not exactly the kind of added values Potter has taxed us with for 30 years. In his last interview, with Melvyn Bragg on Without Walls (C4), the playwright seemed eerily blithe - 'The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous': a good cheer that it was hard to share as he talked, a living reminder of what we are about to lose.

He calls his cancer Rupert. 'That man Murdoch . . . I'd shoot the bugger if I could. There is no one more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press. And the pollution is an important part of the cynicism and misperception of our own realities.' Pollution lapped at this programme too: a humming logo announced it was 'sponsored by Independent Financial Advisers'. Strange bedfellows for a man who has never danced to the money men's tune.

We saw Potter, Bragg and a couple of production staff straggle into a crepuscular studio. The untidiness was contrived, but it felt just right. Celebrity interviews tuck away all the awkward corners, presenting an immaculate place untroubled by entrances and exits, where distinguished guests do not generally reach for painkillers. Here, the proper messiness of the human condition was restored, and every inch of footage seemed precious - Potter asking Bragg to help him unscrew his flask of morphine, Potter exhaling smoke in a contemplative wreath.

He has always been a hard man to like, quicker to quarrel with others than to pursue the artist's more fruitful quarrel with himself. Along with another literary giant, John Updike, he has psoriasis, a condition that in Potter's case seemed to aggravate a scabrous way with words, a Swiftian disgust at hypocrisy. 'The psoriatic,' Updike has written, 'struggles for philosophy, for thoughts that are more than skin deep. What could matter less than the integument a skeleton once wore.' Potter's capacity to get to the bones of things was undiminished. Bragg, a gently prompting presence, asked if he felt decay was deeply set in. 'I do. With great regret and pity and a feeling of shame of self. But it's rescuable, just. It's up to people to stand up and shout. Not to turn it into cynicism.' Aged only 58, Potter already feels like one of the last representatives of an older world where people could use the big, idealistic words - pride, vocation, shame, love of country - without fear of sniggers.

He is frantically trying to finish two connected last plays. In the second, a man whose head has been frozen thaws out in 400 years and his memories - Potter's memories - are broadcast on TV. It sounded like a stab at immortality; rather unnecessary when you saw the roll-call of Potter plays at the end. (I can still hear the curtain-pull tapping out its intimation of death in Cream in My Coffee.) Almost more moving than his exhortations to keep fighting the good fight was the way he made peace with his dead father. The Forest of Dean music got louder in his voice as he recalled being a driven adolescent writing at home while his father leant shyly against the door: 'S'aright, our Den?' He had been impatient then, not said the right thing. But he tried it out now: 'Come on in, Dad.' The quick prick of tears confirmed what you knew already: we may be saying goodbye to the hope of a civilised intelligence to proclaim the truth of things.

Decapitation and 400 years in the freezer could only help Beavis and Butt-Head (C4). America's new cartoon anti-heroes arrived trailing dire warnings from the Moral Majority, who are pretty upset with this Amoral Minority for allegedly inspiring young viewers to arson and starting a craze for blowing up cats. Taking no chances, C4 has cut the feline fireworks and is putting the show out at 11.35pm. Animation turns out to be a rather misleading term for these pubescent zombies: King Edwards among couch potatoes, Beavis and Butt-Head spend all day watching MTV and urging the singing 'chicks' to get their kit off while they play with their 'Johnsons'.

Before you saw the boys you heard their characteristic noise, a laugh halfway between a masturbatory grunt and sinus trouble. Things didn't improve when the picture arrived. Beavis is blond, Butt-Head dark; both look like Picasso's twisted beasties - knobbly Doberman faces, hacksaw teeth. Nor do they pose an immediate threat to Henry James in the dialogue department: 'This is stoopid.' 'And it sucks too.' 'Look at the special effects.' 'The special effects suck.' Suck is bad, so is woosie, but cool (koo-wul) is good. Occasionally, the boys venture into daylight where they throw a plate for a poodle to catch so its teeth shatter, or try to befriend local tough Todd. You could tell Todd was koo-wul because he had a skull tattoo saying 'Life sucks'. He brutally rebuffs B&B, but that only turns them on. In a moment of genuine invention, the screen suddenly fills with gurgling pink hearts.

Beavis and Butt-Head are clearly related to Wayne and Garth of Wayne's World (and retarded third cousins of the Fonz in Happy Days). But Wayne and Garth were hapless cuties by comparison. B&B look as if they've already been exposed to all the malignity on earth; anything that happens to them isn't going to make them any better or worse. They come fully formed as horrors. Personifying middle-class anxiety about kids who watch too much TV, they are happy strangers to morality; all the more provocative because they don't share our sense of their deprivation. This is aggravated by the in-yer-face style: the cartoons are sub-Scooby Doo and we spend much of the time looking at MTV itself. I am grateful to the commentators who have pointed out that this nihilist show is actually a brilliant satire on trash culture. There I was thinking that it was partaking of the sickness, not piss-taking. The credits reveal that it takes a remarkable nine men to write Beavis and Butt-Head: one post-modernist to hold the crayon, the rest to play with their Johnsons.

For proof that works about alienation need not disappear up their own woosie, see Nicholas Barker's brilliant From A to B (BBC2). I had my doubts about Barker's Signs of the Times on home decoration - it didn't seem that tasteful for a metropolitan auteur to subject the nation's coal-effect soul to such unforgiving scrutiny: never mind through a glass darkly, this had shades of through Ray-Bans cruelly. But there were already indications that Barker with his deadpan, stills- photography style might become a definitive guide to the real world of interiors. Now, in Tales of Modern Motoring, his susceptibility to the eccentric particulars of British life has really hit top gear. The highlight to date was programme two, which observed couples in their cars, revealing the shrill mesh of relationships from the male battle for a priapic vehicle to the woman's titanic but furtive struggle to control the heater. On Friday, it was the turn of seven sales reps. Unlike their US counterparts, British writers have foolishly kept a disdainful distance from middle-management; it takes a documentarist using dramatic techniques to alert us to their lachrymose poetry: 'Well, I started with a Ford Cortina 1.6L estate Mark 3, moved on to a Morris Marina 1.3, went back to Mark 4 Cortina estate 1.6 then the Sierra 1.6Ls. My current car is an Astra CD 1.6 saloon. New shape.'

A BMW pulled up under a car poster: 'The I's have it,' it declared. But really you saw it was the me's that had it, needed it. 'These days 'i' on your car stands for important,' one man confided. Another had cried when he had been demoted to a Maestro - 'not just a Maestro, but a Clubman'. Hilarious, exuberantly pathetic, all the reps regarded a motor as the strictest index of self- definition. In the car spec - 'leather gear-knob, alloy wheels, pollen filter' - they drew fine distinctions that might otherwise be reserved for meaningful areas of life. Barker shot them and their bleak journeys with a lucid strangeness. The colours were crazy, as if seen through a narrowed, fanatic eye; the skies a psychopath blue straight out of Hitchcock.

Class Act (ITV) is an attempt to cash in on the Joanna Lumley boom. Lumley does not disappoint, but the sublimely snarling Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous is light years and a serious script away from Kate, the hard- pressed aristo who is just a patsy in Michael Aitkens's exhausted plot. Aitkens is already facing charges for driving BBC1's Honey for Tea without due care and attention, and there is no hope of time off for good behaviour after this farcical thriller which needed the Cleesian frenzy of A Fish Called Wanda to make the laughs fly. Lumley is also in an ad for dishwasher powder that removes egg stains. She's going to need it.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone