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.

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