Made for TV

Jenny Diski

  • Fight & Kick & Bite: The Life and Work of Dennis Potter by W. Stephen Gilbert
    Hodder, 382 pp, £18.99, November 1995, ISBN 0 340 64047 2
  • Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen by John Cook
    Manchester, 368 pp, £45.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 7190 4601 7

The death of Dennis Potter may have been authored by God, but it was adapted for television by Potter himself. It began after a brief report in the Guardian suggested that Potter’s terminal cancer related to his lifelong addiction to nicotine. By return there was a gleeful letter from Potter revelling in the Potteresque fact that far from his ‘beloved cigarettes’ being the culprits, his forthcoming death from pancreatic cancer was probably iatrogenic: the result of years of lethal medication. The Guardian letter assumed its readers knew that he had suffered all his adult life from psoriatic arthropathy, which, of course, they did. But tellingly, so did the readers of the Sun and the News of the World, who were more familiar with Potter as the‘Dirty Drama King’ and ‘Television’s Mr Filth’. Very few playwrights have had this kind of reach, and none has put it to such dramatic and manipulative use as Dennis Potter in his leavetaking broadcast to the nation. Though Potter was a Methodist, it was a final performance worthy of the archetypal Yiddisher momma having her guilt-laying, emotional-blackmailing finest hour. He may, as a lad, have gone three times every Sunday to a chapel called Salem, but it’s not for nothing that one of his plays was entitled Schmoedipus – as in the old Jewish joke, ‘Oedipus, schmoedipus, what does it matter so long as he loves his mother?’

Nobody was fooled, but everyone loved it and cheered Potter to the end, as he swigged morphine from a hip flask, forced BBC’s Yentob and Channel 4’s Grade into a graveside wedding, introduced his lethal tumour as ‘Rupert’ (after Murdoch), and kept the nation engrossed with a will he/won’t he finish his final play before death overcomes him cliffhanger. It was a tour de force in which he didn’t fail to include a Dostoevskian eulogy to the nowness of now and the blossomest of blossom, and even managed to gain the disapproval of his old primary school teacher who, according to Stephen Gilbert, admired his final interview but was not pleased when ‘he said “God the old bugger” ... I didn’t like that.’ It was such a successful finale that I still expect the credits to roll and Potter to pop up again to instruct us not to assume that what a writer says is simple autobiography.

If you’ve got to have self-referential fiction, you might as well have it in the form of Dennis Potter announcing his death on his chosen medium and going on to describe his imminent posthumous work about the dissemination of a dead writer’s memories via a TV hook-up between pickled brain and screen. It gets the whole recursive tangle – creation, authorship, death and readership – wrapped up in one neat package so intricately knotted that we can pick it up, feel its weight and then chuck it in the back of the drawer where it belongs. We might judge the final episode of Cold Lazarus an appropriate moment to draw a line under self-referential fiction, raise our glasses to Dennis Potter for providing a good deal of entertaining mischief and move on – not, I think, back – to the not, after all, so innocent view of fiction in the days before the intrusion of the authorial voice became a blinding authorial vice.

Potter himself was, in some moments, of this opinion. ‘One of the reasons I chose to write “drama” rather than prose fiction is precisely to avoid the question which has so damaged, or intellectually denuded, the contemporary novel: Who is saying this?’ But being a Godlike Author, and therefore an inconsistent old bugger, he then went on to poke his authorial voice into every crack and cranny of his novels and plays so as to provide them with the intellectual finery he feared was missing from television drama. The me/not me card is a joker in any writer’s pack, fun to play and providing just the right degree of equivocation for someone like Potter who claimed reclusiveness while being the most publicly visible of authors. He played the identity card for considerably more than it is worth. Writers who are not self-obsessed and wriggling through what they hope are their own labyrinthine psyches are very likely not writers at all, and the torpefying quest of the public and critics for simple autobiography deserves the run-around it gets. The trouble is that the side-issue of autobiography can become a dead end for the writer as well as the reader.

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