Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IT'S NOT always very obvious how one strand of arts documentaries differs from another. The intention of close up (BBC2) is to slither further up the noses of its subjects than The Works, the series it replaces, and it has been granted twice the screen time to do so. Its passage is eased by the removal from its title of anything as unwieldy as a capital letter. The first film even called itself "Dennis Potter: Under the Skin". Why Potter isn't deemed important enough for the more monolithic treatment dished out by Omnibus to lesser television writers like Jack Rosenthal or Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, I don't quite know. It may well be that this film was seconded from Omnibus in order to allow the new kid on the block to come in with a bang.

Potter is probably the perfect subject for an arts documentary, an artist whose life and work performed a fascinating and endlessly complicated duet. His messianic belief was that television should be used to educate the masses, from which he had himself sprung as a miner's son who went up to Oxford. In case they found his work hard going, he bequeathed to the archive a set of Coles Notes in the form of television interviews: the first was given when still an undergraduate; the last, famously, to Melvin Bragg, throughout which he quaffed liquid morphine with a dramatic flourish. So there was something pleasingly knotted and Potteresque about this film: a study on television of the life and work of someone who himself worked in television in order to study his own life.

Potter referred to sex as "the copulations which splatter us into existence". The determination with which he funnelled into drama his own traumas associated with sex and psoriasis has given Potterologists a mountain of material to sift through. Julian Birkett, who made this film, is not the first person to have tried to paw his way around this hall of mirrors. He may, however, be the first to have rounded up most of the direct-ors Potter worked with, all the actresses who ever obsessed him, wrapped them up with Potter's own interviews, and compiled their memories into a single exegesis.

While the film didn't seem to have much that was new to say about him, it neatly packaged the conventional theory that Potter lived his lines, and, on occasion, even created a situation in which he could live them, just so that he could then write them. In the most extreme and disturbing example of this reflexive approach to creativity, the actress Kika Markham revealed how she had a meeting with Potter in a hotel which formed the basis of the script for Double Dare. She went on to play not only an actress meeting a writer but also a prostitute servicing a client. The film drew the line at interviewing her in the hotel where the meeting took place.

The testimony of Gina Bellman, who played the beautiful blank page in Blackeyes onto whom a middle-aged writer scribbled his fantasies, was equally revealing, though less for what she said than for what you could hear the old satyr saying through her. She recalled Potter telling her how he had to wear pyjamas tucked into his socks under his ordinary clothes to stop flakes of skin cascading out of his trousers and cuffs. Potter teaches that it doesn't pay to assume the best in people, so I won't: it sounded very much as if he was trying to get her to pity him enough to sleep with him.

You didn't meet the whole Potter here, any more than you did in the work. The film picked from his body of work the chips and films it needed to illustrate its own position. There was nothing about Potter's contempt for media barons, little about his passion for the cheap music of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, and, just as he wrote about being a son but never a father, the family man did not make an appearance. In his own phrase, The Singing Detective is a "detective story of how you find out about yourself". This absorbing film went under the skin, only to encounter another layer of skin.

Reflexivity doesn't work for everyone. Among the tired jokes about other people on television in Smith and Jones (BBC1), there was a running gag about two comedians desperately trying to write as funny a message on someone's leaving card as was expected of them. "We've got to be witty and clever, have we?" said one or other of them. Fat chance.