Famous last words

The scourge of the moral majority. Dennis Potter wrote his final television plays Cold Lazarus and Karaoke. knowing that he was dying ofcancer. As they are broadcast to the nation, author of an acclaimed book on Potter‘s work. John Cook pays tribute to the writer.

laywright Dennis Potter was never conventional. as Mary Whitehouse knows. but this time he has pulled the ultimate stunt by ensuring that he speaks to audiences from beyond the grave. In an unprecedented partnership that Potter helped engineer while he was dying of cancer. the BBC and Channel 4 are to broadcast jointly his last two television works. Karaoke and (‘olzl Lazarus.

It was in his final 1994 ll’iI/ioul ll'a/ls interview with .\lelvyn Bragg that Potter spelled out his plans. The programme might have moved the nation. but it was also a crafty ploy to blackmail the controllers of BB(',‘ and ('hannel 4 into submission: alter all. you can’t publicly deny a dying man his wishes.

The reason behind the contrived shot-gun wedding was Potter’s wish to cut across the fragmentary. multi-channel 'l‘\' environment of the ()(ls. He wanted to be creating again. just for a moment. the kind of television event where he knew all types of people would be watching his plays in the sort of ‘common culture‘ that inspired him to write for the medium back in the very different media world of the 1960s.

For Potter. these final works represented nothing less than his own television memorial —- his determined attempt to transcend physical death from cancer in June 1904. liar from ideas

quickly sketched out before the effects of

morphine and the pain of cancer cruelly combined to snuff out all creative energy. the screenplays are thoroughly complete. heavy with a dogged determination and heightened attention to detail. Directions were painstakingly laid out for the benefit of Renny Rye. the director and Kenith 'l'rodd. the producer - Potter knew he would not live to see his final plays realised on screen. If only for the sheer degree of control in the face of imminent

12 The List 19 Apr-2 May I996


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Dennis Potter: reached the parts other television dramas could not

personal destruction. these works must rank as the most remarkable in the history of British television drama.

But what of the quality? To me. l’otter was always the greatest of television playwrights because. far more than any other writer. he was

the first to open up television to the landscape of

the mind. ‘All my plays are about the same

Karaoke and Cold Lazarus are evidence of a writer who finally managed to restore himself to somewhere near the peak of his powers because he

was staring into the implacable face of death.

thing.’ he once said. "l‘hey'rc about what goes on inside people's heads.‘ He gave television a new sense of depth. liar from being just the 'window on the world' of popular myth. he demonstrated that telc\ision ideally equipped to have an interior language: in other words. it could show the world behind that world. portraying dreams. memories and fantasies of individuals on screen. Potter reached the parts other television dramas could not reach: liasiemlers on acid. if you like.

Yet it‘s also fair to say that after his 1986


masterpiece. The Singing Delei'lii'e. he became a writer in decline. The critical drubbings he received for 1989's /)’la('ke_\'es and the l‘)‘)l film .S'eerei l"riemls. as well as the somewhat mediocre (by Potter's standards) Lipstick ()1: Your (‘o/lar. all seemed to indicate a wayward genius whose ideas and innovations had reached exhaustion point. The scripts of Karaoke and ('o/(/ Lazarus are evidence of a writer who finally managed to restore himself to somewhere near the peak of his powers because he was staring into the implacable face of death. These last works really are up there with The Singing Defective and Pennies [Vi-om Heaven.

There's another kind of message also embedded in the final plays. one which had been coming through loud and clear for some time. and it‘s there in black and white in the screenplay itself:

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