Making a drama out of a corpse

Playwrights can learn from Dennis Potter's triumph over TV moguls, says Stan Hey
Click to follow
The Independent Online
No matter what critical and popular reception is in store for Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, the last epic works of Dennis Potter that begin screening on television this weekend, the late playwright will certainly go down in history as making the "deal of the century" as far as writers are concerned.

After being made aware of his terminal illness in February 1995, Potter - by the medium of his last screen interview with Melvyn Bragg - successfully orchestrated his own memorial by asking for the unprecedented co-operation of Channel 4 and BBC1 to co-produce the two serials. He also nominated his producers and director, and suggested some key casting elements. The two rival channels were, in an artistic sense, obliged to execute to the letter Potter's last will and testament.

This superbly manipulated deal will not go unnoticed in television and cinema, where a writer's influence is usually limited to flashing out the "back of an envelope" whims thought up by highly paid drama executives who think they know what the public wants.

For these script executives, the thought of a writer wielding power, albeit from beyond the grave, is the stuff of ulcerous nightmares. So already their legal affairs executives will be redrafting writer's contracts with a new "mortality clause" along the lines of: "If, at any stage in the heretomentioned drama development, the writer should transfer his mind and body to another plane of existence, either known or as yet undiscovered, and whether or not it has a communication facility or Web site, or interface with an Ouija board, any wishes the writer may make regarding the final production will be deemed invalid by the producers due to the writer's inability to make meetings."

Meanwhile, across the cultural divide, the effect of Potter's Deal on writers themselves will be no less significant. The most self-absorbed of them - the equivalents of those intense "method actors" such as Daniel Day-Lewis - may well begin experimenting with their own near-death experiences, in the hope that a heightened state of consciousness can give them the edge when they pitch for the latest unconventional-pathologist or exhausted- medic drama serial.

But what of those writers who have long since resigned themselves to giving up any notions of originality, who hack away at soaps, or long- running workplace dramas about vets, doctors, firemen, nurses, policemen, RSPCA inspectors or investigative vicars?

With acknowledgements to Rob Long's recently published Conversations With My Agent (Faber), it could go like this:

Sound effects: phone rings.

Agent: Hi, how are you doing?

Writer: I'm depressed, out of ideas, broke ...

Agent: I have just the thing for you!

Writer: A job?

Agent: Don't rush me! Listen, have you considered death as a career move?

Writer: You mean mine?

Agent: Of course! Look at it this way. Cut off in your prime. Great promise unfulfilled. I could sell every one of your unmade scripts?

Writer: (excited): You could?

Agent: No question! You'd be up there on the screen. Then there's the posthumous Baftas, the standing ovation for your funeral urn at the Oscars!

Writer: Wait a minute - I can see a downside.

Agent: There is none!

Writer: I wouldn't be around.

Agent: Since when did producers and directors want writers around when they were alive? Believe me, dead is better. It suits them. No rewrite arguments, no tedious lunches, no rows about shared credits. They would love you dead! They'd respect your mortality. Think about it, OK?

It was no accident that the central image of Robert Altman's film of Michael Tolkin's novel The Player featured a Hollywood producer killing a writer. That's how they'd prefer us after we've finished a script - out of the way, pliantly, endlessly marketable and, despite Dennis Potter's last achievement, with no means of answering the bastards back.

Stan Hey writes television film scripts. His works include 'Coast to Coast', Channel 4's 'The Manageress' and several episodes of 'Auf Wiedersehen Pet'.