REVIEW / Potter returns to talk among the living

LAST NIGHT Dennis Potter returned, a revenant talking about his own death. Channel 4 had chosen to pay tribute to him by repeating the interview he gave Melvyn Bragg just two months ago, an interview in which he revealed that he was already defying the grim clinical timetable of his disease. Treatment has effectively ceased, he said with a flickering smile, all that's left is 'analgesic care until 'Goodnight Vienna' '.

In other circumstances Channel 4's commitment to honouring its own might have looked a little underwhelming. What? No analysis? No survey of the work? No wreaths of words taken in solemn procession to the grave's edge? They could hardly claim they had been taken by surprise. But watching Bragg's interview again you could see the decision made sense. The BBC had already done the decent thing on Wednesday night, with a programme which assembled mourners for a celebration of the life. They rose to the occasion well. But Channel 4 had the occasion on tape - that extraordinary encounter which almost certainly changed the nature of the obituaries that followed Potter's death.

Before that interview the judgements would have been highly approving but also equivocal - a slight sense of a career that had wandered into the sands, a great deal of critical scale-balancing. After that interview such a summary was impossible - it was Potter, not a loyal friend after the event, who reminded everyone of the value of his passion. It was Potter, not a critic, who insisted that his last two plays might be his most important. Watching him talk again last night you could see what an audacious and characteristic performance it was - Without Walls runs an occasional series called 'The Obituary Show', in which celebrities deliver a verdict on their own lives. Potter outdid them all.

There were other ironies here, beyond those supplied by Potter's sense of mischief. That morphine, for example, sipped from a flask when the pain threatened to interrupt the flow of words. It is difficult to think of a less 'analgesic' writer than Potter, one more dedicated to avoiding the 'relief of discomfort' which is often the last resort of the cancer patient. His ambition was quite opposite, to break through the natural opiates which people draw on to get through their lives, whether it was popular song or received opinion. There can be no doubting his ability to do this - in the BBC tribute one of his early producers recalled walking down a commuter train corridor and hearing discussions of the previous night's play from every side. It didn't always result in earnest discussion of course - Potter could be an embarrassing playwright and a disgusting one, as a brief clip from Brimstone and Treacle demonstrated in the BBC tribute. His point was that it was usually worth finding out why you wanted to look away.

A few weeks ago the playwright David Hare asked why 'nobody writes tragedy anymore'. He presumably exempted himself from this generalisation but he must either have forgotten Potter or disregarded television as unworthy of inclusion. Hare's answer to himself was that 'we are reluctant to accept there are situations where forces are at work about which you can do nothing', which is as good a summary of Potter's central concerns as any we've heard over the last few days. Trevor Griffiths suggested on Wednesday that if he had written for the stage, rather than this odd, corruptible, mercantile medium, then he would have been regarded as another Shaw. It's nice to know that we don't have to decide about that judgement yet. We can still look forward to the latest Potter, even if it's also the last.

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