The afterlife of Dennis Potter

When Britain's greatest TV writer died in 1994, he left behind two last works and some extraordinary instructions. Robin Buss reports
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The Independent Culture
TWO YEARS ago, on 5 April 1994, Dennis Potter published his own obituary. He accepted an offer to do so in the form of an interview on television with Melvyn Bragg. It was an extraordinary 80 minutes - moving, reflective, sentimental, courageous, vitriolic - which can have left few who watched it dry-eyed. Potter told us that he had an incurable cancer of the pancreas and described his feelings about the prospect of imminent death; he talked about his life, his work and his beliefs; he surveyed the state of the nation, denouncing the tabloid press and what the media moguls were doing to broadcasting: he had christened his cancer "Rupert", he said, after the man he blamed for much of this decline. And, finally, he announced that he was writing not one, but two last works: two linked four-part television dramas, which he was trying to persuade the BBC and Channel 4 to put out in tandem. If he could get them to agree to this unique arrangement, "I could go out with a fitting memorial."

Note the ambivalence of the remark: is it the plays themselves that are to be Potter's memorial, or the fact that he was able, in extremis, to get the television bosses singing to his tune? As far as the plays are concerned, we can judge for ourselves when they are shown, starting with the first part of Karaoke on Sunday 28 April on BBC1 (repeated the following day on Channel 4). But the advance publicity has already begun, taking a form that Potter himself would have found quite unsurprising, with articles warning - or promising? - that we are about to be assailed by a barrage of foul language and unbridled sex.

This must have the BBC worried, surely? Well, not really. There are those who think the corporation may even have decided to revive Potter's "Dirty Den" reputation to stir up advance interest. Mrs Whitehouse's successor at the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association is already following the expected script by expressing concern, while admitting he hasn't actually seen either of the plays (at time of writing, Cold Lazarus, which involves a lot of computer-generated effects, is still in production).

According to the producers, Kenith Trodd and Rosemarie Whitman, the tape made for the BBC press launch did highlight the use of swear words by some characters, but they differ in their interpretation of the BBC's motives. "We agreed that the trailer was poor and doesn't represent the work," Whitman says, "and that does raise the question of why." Trodd, on the other hand, argues that the BBC was right not to disguise the fact that the plays contain swearing: "That was the decision made ... that we wouldn't change the script at all." In other words, the BBC felt bound by an unwritten agreement with the dead author - a further acknowledgement of the power of Potter's name.

It has often been said (usually by TV scriptwriters) that if Shakespeare were alive today, he would be writing for television. And the writer most often quoted in connection with this fatuous assertion is, of course, Dennis Potter. Who else could have "blackmailed" rival channel chiefs Michael Grade and Alan Yentob into the shotgun-wedding arrangement for broadcasting his last two works? "Blackmailed" is the word used by the director of Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, Renny Rye: "He phoned me and said, 'I've got 'em both! I've got 'em both!' He was totally clear-headed about manipulating them, which was typically Dennis."

When Potter learnt he was dying, he had already signed contracts with the BBC and C4 for unconnected works and had started writing Karaoke: the central image of people miming to a pre-ordained script appealed to him, and recalled his extraordinary use of popular music in Pennies From Heaven and other plays. But this first draft of Karaoke was not going well. Then the doctors identified the pain from which he had been suffering for some months (and trying to treat with paracetamol). With a limit on his time and a carefully worked-out regime of morphine, he scrapped what he had written and set about reworking the script as the story of a dying writer (played by Albert Finney), who is fascinated by a singer in a karaoke club and finds that characters in real life seem to be speaking the lines from one of his plays. He followed this with a science-fiction story, Cold Lazarus, in which the same writer's head, preserved in cryogenic suspension, is revived after four centuries and plundered for its memories, in a Brave New World cleansed of pain and powerful emotions. His physical strength fading as the illness progressed, Potter worked out exactly how many pages he needed to write each day and struggled with amazing heroism to complete the task. In Kenith Trodd's view, it was only because of a lifetime coping with the pain of psoriasis that he was able to manage.

"He knew well enough that these would have the position of being his last works, and he felt the weight of that," says Rennie Rye, recalling how he met Potter during this period. "But it never came across as arrogance." More than any other important writer of the past 40 years, Potter devoted his energies to television and was prepared to entrust his life's work to a medium usually considered trivial and ephemeral. In single plays and serials, he set about exploring his feelings on sex, love, religion, memory, happiness, pain and death, to create a coherent body of work - what the French call une oeuvre. In Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, he includes conscious references to previous plays, and goes over some familiar themes: childhood in the Forest of Dean, popular music, hospital wards, the playing with genres ...

Television, as a new arrival in British post-war culture, needed someone to believe in it with that degree of conviction, which explains why its bosses have been prepared to let Potter call the tune. The two new plays cost a total of pounds 10.3m to bring to the screen - a considerable budget, much of which went on the special effects necessary for Cold Lazarus. But how far does television still need or value the endorsement of the Potter oeuvre? He flourished under a public-service regime at a time when viewers could be offered an evening of weighty drama, without the danger that most would switch to another channel. "Karaoke and Cold Lazarus are the last major celebration of that tradition," Trodd says, remarking that nowadays young writers come into television from fringe theatre and graduate to writing episodes of Casualty. And no one was more aware than Potter himself of the sad irony that the foremost defender and illustrator of the youngest art form had become a reminder of its past glories and unrealised ambitions.

No wonder he felt depressed as he looked around him: "by the state of the single play" (Rosemarie Whitman); "by Rupert Murdoch" (Kenith Trodd); "by ownership of the press" (Whitman). "He was a great believer in television, as opposed to film," Rennie Rye says. "It all harked back to the live feeling that you used to get in multi-camera studio recording."

The medium of television, which Potter valued for its immediacy, is essentially a cooperative one, which inevitably sets a limit on the writer's ability to control what happens to his works (notably with a play, like Cold Lazarus, that requires a lot of special effects). The Bard of the Box felt he was entitled to dictate to the moguls, because he had a concept of the writer as auteur which was inherited from a pre-television age. "I've never heard anyone shouting at the head of Universal Studios as Dennis did one day on the phone," Rye recalls. He got away with it, particularly in a public-service system that was prepared to absorb his failures, put up with his idiosyncrasies and defend him against attack. In the future - which promises to be a great time for writing teams, creative consultants and work "based on an original idea by...", not to mention the V-chip to protect audiences against bad language and other things that they may not want to hear - it seems unlikely that any TV writer will be allowed to acquire such prestige and the power that it brings.

! 'Karaoke': Sundays from 28 April, BBC1 (repeated Mondays, C4); 'Cold Lazarus': Sundays from 26 May, C4 (repeated Mondays, BBC1). The scripts of both plays, with an introduction by Dennis Potter, are published in one volume by Faber & Faber (pounds 9.99, out tomorrow).