Irritating author syndrome

TELEVISION

"Well, Mr Feeld, I'm just going to insert this soft tube into your rectum." And so the sufferings of the artist began, sufferings of such intensity, complexity and supposed seriousness, you'd expect nothing less than Shakespeare to emerge at the other end. Have demons, will wrestle. Instead, as the barium seeps into Feeld's inner reaches, all that pops into his mind are snatches from a dull TV play he's written about pouting prostitutes in a karaoke club - a hellish vision, in which everyone's a star for five minutes, at the mike singing "Why must I be a teenager in love?" or "How much is that doggie in the window?" often in Japanese.

We've had art about artists, novels about novelists, and now, a television drama about a television dramatist. In Karaoke (BBC1/ C4), the late Dennis Potter takes self- reference to the point of self-parody. As was his wont, he uses autobiography as far as it will go, but makes his central character, Daniel Feeld, arrogant beyond endurance, with paranoid fits of pique and delusions of omnipotence. This poor playwright has been driven barmy by too many script changes imposed by the BBC or its equivalent (quite a common occurrence, I believe). His life is a maudlin melodrama, a solitary business of earning pounds 488,724.80 a year from his dubious writings, punctuated by "the occasional sleazy and all but commercial sneezelike bonk".

Albert Finney is magnificent as Feeld, smoking with a gusto almost outlawed these days (and thereby drawing the eye even more frequently to his interesting underlip), exploding from drink, imploding with a stomach ache and what is clearly Irritable Author Syndrome, a mixture of overweening ego and self-disgust. Not content with the grim reality he inhabits, Feeld decides in a climax of self-aggrandisement that he has brought into existence the vividly coloured karaoke world, in which every passing passive woman is a fantasy object covered in sequins, mouthing lines like "Thank you very very bleedin' much", when allowed to speak at all. Haunted by intimations of mortality, Feeld begins to reconsider the morality of these soulless creations, and makes the act of writing plays sound obscene: "I put words into people's mouths ... I make them do things. I even let them screw each other or lie to each other or ... kill each other."

The millionaire director of his play (Richard E Grant) would be happy to mow Feeld down with his Rolls-Royce. Mediating between the two is the ineffectual "flap, flap, rush, rush Anna" (Anna Chancellor) - again not much of a part for a woman. Supposedly on Feeld's side is his agent Ben (Roy Hudd), the most sympathetic character on screen. Ben, the epitome of unwordliness, is forever spouting Spoonerisms, unfortunately rarely funny (apart from "He who fays the piddler" perhaps), and lives with an ancient, red-haired and gaga mother. Rather than read scripts, he spends all his spare time making a match-stick model of Notre Dame, about which he's poignantly embarrassed.

More sinisterly, Feeld's characters include a man named Oliver Morse (Ian McDiarmid) who looks remarkably like Potter, and has to say to a waiter: "All old men want to call back yesterday" with a straight face. Weirder still, Hywel Bennett as "Pig" Mailion, the karaoke club manager, does not look like Hywel Bennett at all.

And all the women are enervating, meaningless beings who have no influence over anything (they're always being pushed about, shut up or ignored). They experience life in the way a high-class hooker accepts a client - as something she's paid not to enjoy. "What do I get out of it?" asks the wigged, sequinned, pouting Sandra (Saffron Burrows). Good question.

This would seem the moment to repeat Potter's final interview, for which Melvyn Bragg is so renowned, but instead Melvyn duly (and dully) dragged Albert Finney out to lunch for what was really an interview about the interviewer (The South Bank Show, ITV). We heard more than we could ever have wanted to know about Melvyn's "pristine liver" and the arrangements he makes annually for its comfort - he stunned Finney with the news that he'd avoided alcohol for 66 days. Despite this sobriety, or perhaps because of it, there was no energy to his questions, and while Finney answered them Melvyn seemed to be fading away with ennui. He only cheered up when Finney mentioned the Potter interview, which he did flatteringly many times. While the actor floundered through old drama school anecdotes, trying desperately to revive Melvyn, only Finney's hands were free, groping at the air between himself and Melvyn, in a last bid to make something (if only an invisible sculpture) of their date.

The conversation ebbed and flowed during a big meal at a restaurant and a stint in a cutting-room watching clips from Finney's films, in imitation of Karaoke settings. Melvyn seemed uninspired by the art of acting but the best moments here came in clips - of Finney doing voice-overs in the dubbing room for scenes from Cold Lazarus; he revved up to such a pitch that he began to dance a strange lopsided jig. Melvyn was unmoved. When Finney asked at the restaurant if he could wear his white napkin under his chin, Melvyn said no, it would dominate. But it wasn't the napkin, it was Melvyn who wanted to dominate. Him and his 66 days' abstinence! I haven't had a drink for a day and a half and I don't feel any better for it.

Clive James, on the other hand, has a way of allowing his guests to relax between questions that brings out the best in them, and sets him apart from Melvyn and the ubiquitous Gaby Roslin. I find her displays of sincerity unconvincing (The Gaby Roslin Show, C4). She's too well-rehearsed, so well that she asks her tabloid questions and insists on a tabloid answer; there is no genial veering off the subject. Her celebs are grilled, guzzled and disgorged. Ultimately unsatisfying, it's the bulimic approach to chat shows, and an uncomfortable spectacle to watch.

Much more ingeniously, Clive James need only smile in that faintly threatening manner to spur his visitors into action, and the result is a first-rate talk-show (The Clive James Show, ITV). The drag-queen Lily Savage came on, with a wig like a huge marshmallow heaped on her head. "I'm very spiritual, you know," she told Clive improbably. "I've had quite a few out-of-body experiences. I can't guarantee this is ME ... This could be 10 and a half stone of ectoplasm you're talking to." Next, clips of a middle-aged Scandinavian woman demonstrating facial exercises, and some hazardously subtitled excerpts from an Egyptian soap opera: "What's wrong with you, Gamal? Is it because some critics have criticised you rudely?" rushed past very fast.

Clive must be forgiven (I guess) for his lack of objectivity when confronted by Elle MacPherson, whom he viewed solely as an object, "as perfectly formed as a human being can be". It is Margarita Pracatan who is his great discovery. She seems to have no understanding of music (or an understanding the rest of us can't share) yet is determined to sing, bouncing her fingers along her electric piano keyboard as she does so - a one-woman ... fiasco! What lurks in those big greedy eyes - does she want love, fame, cash or Clive? She laughs charmingly, like an exultant coyote. The sound reverberates for days.

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