Karaoke and The South Bank Show


Thomas Sutcliffe
Sunday 28 April 1996 23:02

Potter sceptics will have had their worst fears confirmed. Not five minutes in to Karaoke (BBC1) and "television's greatest dramatist" is disappearing up the rectal passage of a television dramatist. We first meet Daniel Feeld (Albert Finney) as he is being given a barium enema in an attempt to discover the origin of a griping abdominal pain. This will be misdiagnosed, just as Potter's own pancreatic cancer was, as the result of a spastic colon. At the time, this scene strikes you as absolutely characteristic of Potter in its silky pleasure at mentioning the unmentionable. "You'll feel as though you want to defecate," murmurs the doctor performing the operation. "Needless to say I'd be extremely obliged to you if you don't."

By the end of Karaoke, though, after you've struggled to untangle a plot about a fictional television playwright, whose current screenplay also contains a fictional playwright (played by Ian McDiarmid, who bears a startling physical resemblance to Dennis Potter), even a devotee might begin to wonder whether that opening scene doesn't have a larger significance. If we had looked more closely at the medical monitor, crammed with the shadowy sinuosities of the lower bowel, could we have spotted a cameo profile of the author? Si monumentum requiris, circumspice? Potter, of course, is hardly unaware of the joke. It may even be a sly final gift to the critics, because he knew full well the hazards of this sort of thing. In his preface to the published screenplays of Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, he describes the "almost overwhelming temptation" to further complicate the scheme by having Daniel Feeld effectively write his own death scene. "Fortunately, the temptations were finally scourged and driven off," he continues, "otherwise the whole edifice would have been twisted into the kind of game, or cheat, that it had so far resisted becoming."

Some viewers are likely to feel cheated even so - dismayed to find quite so much that is familiar, so little that has the fresh splash of newness. Potter, with the recklessness of imminent death upon him, wrote that the plays are "as fitting a summation as they are a testament both to my character and my career". Certainly the opening episode of Karaoke appears to offer a condensed tour of his principal artistic trademarks - a monorail trip through Potterland. There's the erotic obsession with directable women, in this case a bar hostess who may, or may not, end up garrotted; the potency of cheap music, the dread of hospitals, the dark potential of creative invention, the delicious exercise of spleen - and this sense of a career regurgitated is unlikely to diminish as the series unfolds. Karaoke ends with the singing of "Pennies From Heaven" and references to the Methodist hymn which Potter quoted in his final interview with Melvyn Bragg - "Will there be any stars, any stars in my crown". Anyone who has seen Potter's play Double Dare, in which a television playwright finds his lines coming disturbingly to life, will hear a stronger echo still of earlier work. Karaoke is funny and unexpectedly gentle at times. For the moment, though, it is more an aide- memoire to Potter's past achievements than a fitting memorial to them.

As Daniel Feeld, Albert Finney gives it his all - indeed he's out of breath with acting, delivering a gasping, rumpled performance that is as characteristic of his style as the script is of Potter's. "You just have to blow," he said in The South Bank Show (ITV), using a jazz image for his unsystematic method. Gerald Fox's film, shot over lunch and accompanied by far too much chummy joshing about Bragg's drinking habits, was either screamingly incestuous or thoughtfully self-referential, according to your taste. I tentatively came down on the side of the latter, persuaded by useful echoes between drama and interview (and between Finney and Potter, grammar school boys who made it into the Soho aristocracy), but it was a damned tight call.

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