REVIEW / Flying in the face of a painful death

Thomas Sutcliffe
Tuesday 05 April 1994 23:02

'I FELT I was really flying,' said Dennis Potter, winding down after his interview with Melvyn Bragg. He was talking about the conversation they had just had, and you only heard the remark because someone had decided not to tidy up the recording, so that the small-talk not intended for broadcast - the settling in and the getting up - blended into the more considered utterances of the interview proper. It was a good decision, both for deceptive and honest reasons.

Deceptive, because the rough edges consciously fashioned the programme into a found object, an untouched relic, with all the force of authenticity which that can carry (even the fragments are precious now, it suggested). Honest, because it allowed you to see what a self-conscious act such interviews are. Potter used exactly the same phrase about his current writing as he did about this conversation, and he knew as he talked that he was saying some things for the last time. Melvyn Bragg barely spoke and barely needed to.

Potter appears cheerful with the knowledge of his impending death from cancer of the pancreas, the pain of which required him to nip occasionally from a flask of liquid morphine, tucked out of sight at the beginning of the interview but properly revealed by the editing. 'I've said it before,' he noted with a grin, 'but it doesn't matter if I repeat myself, I won't get many more chances to repeat myself, thank God.' Indeed, though the rage and the passion were still there, this seemed to be a much happier man than has appeared in previous interviews, either less weighed down by the presence of the enemy or more buoyed up by small pleasures.

He talked with rapture about the blossom tree outside his study window, and caressed a cigarette ('this lovely tube of delight') before lighting up, so that you could hear the whisper of dry fingers on paper. This didn't seem to be stiff-upper- lippery (it's difficult to think of a writer less likely to engage in such an obliging fiction) but the real thing. 'I haven't had a single moment of terror since I was told,' he said, and you could see he meant it. Here he tidied his desk, publicly making peace with his father, and, more obliquely, also making peace with those he has inadvertently scalded in his life.

Admirers of his cussed scepticism will be glad to know that he hasn't found God, or anything like that. 'Religion to me has always been the wound not the bandage,' he noted elsewhere. His hatred of Rupert Murdoch continues unabated - 'I've got too much writing to do and I haven't got the energy, but I would shoot the bugger if I could,' he said with a grin - and he is as passionate as ever about what he sees as the casual vandalism of the social fabric.

But he has been taken to a place where only the present really matters, a state of grace which he directly compared to childhood. His sense of futurity is entirely bound up with completing his two current plays, a task which requires a nice balancing act between endurable pain and mental coherence. Thousands of artists have claimed to suffer for their art and lied, but for Dennis Potter the cliche is a practical reality. Too much morphine equals no pain and no pages, and he is committed to 10 a day.

These circumstances have forced on him a certain economy of means. He used the end of the interview, for example, to make a public appeal to Alan Yentob and Michael Grade. Potter is currently writing one play, Karaoke, for BBC 1 and another, Cold Lazarus, for Channel 4. He wants the same actor to be at the centre of both works and, more complicatedly, wants both channels to collaborate in transmitting the works. He has no time to spare for complicated negotiations and has been freed by death from any inhibiting proprieties, so he just asked straight out.

If he achieves what he wants, it will be the last time that he disrupts the established conventions of British television, a fact that might give both men pause for thought. The last wishes of condemned men are traditionally honoured. It would be nice to think these might be too.

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