In an appropriately dramatic curtain-down to a career spent pushing the envelope of British TV drama, writer Dennis Potter agreed to a one-on-one final interview with Melvyn Bragg. Whatever one’s opinions of Potter as an artist, the result is a gripping, moving, eye-opening first: A writer choosing the medium in which he has thrived for a final testimonial to be aired while still alive.
In what he wryly acknowledges as an ironic coincidence, Potter was diagnosed Feb. 14 (St. Valentine’s Day) as having incurable cancer of the pancreas and liver, and given three months to live. When Channel 4 topper Michael Grade told Bragg the news in mid-March, the two proposed a final interview. Program aired as a special in C4’s nonfiction series “Without Walls.”
Recorded early one morning in late March, it’s an unedited version of their talk, starting with the pair entering an unadorned studio, sitting down, sipping white wine and finally leaving when Potter’s strength starts to sap. With a cig perpetually clenched in his arthritic hand, Potter pauses twice to quaff liquid morphine to blank out his constant pain.
Tone is anything but maudlin. Looking thin but alert, Potter comes across as a man at peace with himself and his career as a cage-rattler, his only fear being that he might “die four pages too soon”– a reference to two TV dramas he’s still racing to complete, “Karaoke” (for the BBC) and “Cold Lazarus” (for C 4).
The former is essentially finished, the latter started the day he learned of the diagnosis.
He speaks vividly of his delight in writing a work (“Lazarus”) that will be a true personal memorial; a daily work schedule, beginning at 5 a.m., of 10 pages a day, tops; of his heightened sense of “now-ness,” of life lived in the present tense; and the sustaining exhilaration of penning a work he feels will rank alongside ’70s classics like “Pennies From Heaven,””Brimstone and Treacle” and “Blue Remembered Hills.”
Bragg’s input consists more of occasional prompts than one-on-one questioning , which gives Potter a chance to range over many memories, from his childhood in the remote Forest of Dean, his coal miner father, the years at Oxford U., early tabloid journalism (“I hated every second of it”), the first onset in the early ’60s of debilitating psoriasis and his sense of vocation as a writer.
There’s plenty of measured bile for the decline of Brit TV as a vehicle for ideas and experiment (unlike the liberal ’60s and ’70s), the commercialization of the media by entrepreneurs like Rupert Murdoch (“I would shoot the bugger if I could”), and the “pollution” of the Brit press by rampant cynicism and ’80s Thatcherism. He’s equally lucid on some of his own works.
As Potter leaves the studio, with the tape still running, he movingly admits to Bragg about the interview that “at certain points I felt I was flying with it. I’m grateful for the chance … to say my last words. So, thanks.”