Dennis Potter 1935-1994: 'Classic' last works show writer on top form: Serials breaking new ground completed in final stages of illness. David Lister and Maggie Brown report
Wednesday 08 June 1994
Production on the two four-part serials will start next year for screening in 1996. And, in accordance with his wishes, one will be shown on BBC and the other on Channel 4. They mark a departure, even for a playwright who was always testing the medium to its limit, moving into the realms of science fiction. They show, according to his Channel 4 commissioning editor Peter Ansorge, 'Dennis writing at the top of his form. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry.'
Potter died yesterday morning, aged 59, at his home in Ross-on- Wye, near Hereford, eight days after his wife Margaret, who suffered from breast cancer. He was told he was dying on 14 February.
One of the most significant tributes came from Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4.
He said: 'Dennis Potter felt very strongly that everything he had worked for was in danger of being lost sight of. You can use the medium of television for all sorts of things. In his McTaggart lecture (delivered to the Edinburgh Television festival last August) there was the feeling that if we weren't careful we would let television slip into the anodyne, the placebo. He strove to make television aspirational.
'His greatest fear was that 18- and 19-year-old future Dennis Potters won't get the chance he had. He was right. The chances are fewer and farther between. Young writers get channelled into formulaic writing. The number of single plays has decreased. But Dennis was a great optimist: he believed you could change anything.'
Potter's last works are anything but formulaic. Kenith Trodd, the long-standing friend and creative partner who was asked by Potter to produce the two series, said yesterday: 'Dennis is his work. He died when he was no longer writing.'
Although the men had a stormy relationship, breaking up over the filming of his BBC 2 flop Blackeyes, Mr Trodd said yesterday: 'You would kill to work on these scripts. They are both classic Dennis Potter. He doesn't slaver over his obsessions, as in Blackeyes, they are more controlled, they are his last statement.
'He would never have written them to this quality if he had not been dying. He did as much in these last three months as most people do in their entire lives.'
He chose Grade and Yentob to handle his last works, Mr Trodd explained, because 'he sees in them two very vigorous and not very old survivors of public service broadcasting'. The central character in both dramas is a writer who dies of cancer, as did Potter.
Karaoke, earmarked for the BBC, is a classic thriller, based around a writer who finds that the things he invents for his book happen in his life: Dennis Potter had suggested that Michael Gambon, the star of Singing Detective, might take the lead, but no casting has been as yet finalised. It shows the writer's memories of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties and includes, as Potter followers might expect, an affair with a young woman.
The writer dies of cancer, is scientifically frozen for 400 years and brought back to life in the second four-part serial Cold Lazarus to be shown on Channel 4. Here the work moves into the future, with Potter projecting what might happen with virtual reality and ever more powerful computers. The concerns, though, are those that Potter spoke about in his last television interview and in his speech at Edinburgh last year, where he attacked Rupert Murdoch and the new hierarchy at the BBC: his fears for the future, the ways in which great media conglomerates are moving, the way in which we have increasingly become voyeurs.
Mr Ansorge said: 'It is science fiction but Dennis said it mustn't look like Dr Who. It is probably more in the tradition of Huxley and Brave New World.'
The new works will not be based around music like The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven and Lipstick On Your Collar, but there will include some music.
Mr Grade said: 'I have never known a situation where a great artist has died and you know that there are two works, polished, and ready to go.'
Obituary, page 14
Angela Lambert, page 16
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