Must Write a Happy Ending: The Posthumous Dennis Potter

Michael Potter Essay - Cold Lazarus

In February 1994, Dennis Potter was diagnosed with untreatable pancreatic cancer. Balancing pain management with the demands of creativity, the acclaimed television writer confronted death without a shred of sentiment. Potter told Melvyn Bragg in his final interview that the certainty of death had engendered an acuity of perception akin to that of childhood; it had forced him to embrace “nowness” and accept that “life can only be defined in the present tense.” It was a strange position for a writer whose work was so concerned with unravelling the past to find himself in. Potter wanted to “stand up and shout a bit” in defense of the ideas he most valued that were under attack. He was engaged in a race against time, “working to a very hard schedule” to complete his remaining work. Potter admitted that “all I hope is that I’ve got enough days to finish it.”

Dennis Potter redefined the medium at the BBC with provocative Play for Today and The Wednesday Play episodes like “Stand Up, Nigel Barton” (1965), “Blue Remembered Hills” (1979) and “Brimstone and Treacle” (a 1976 production which proved so controversial it was not transmitted until 1987). Potter brought his singular vision to ground-breaking series like Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986), which established his signature style of mythic realism with an understated political charge. Potter believed in the possibilities of television as a medium of mass address (an idea that has waned in the era of niche programming and boutique content provision). Potter saw the lowest popular culture as an “inheritor of something else,” with the potential to “illuminate something deeper in their irony and self-knowledge.” In their cliched lines and repetitive melodies, popular songs contain some vestige of truth.

Dennis Potter’s work is one of living in a world where the songs come true; he allows his characters to lose themselves in their own narrative, to give full flight to their illusions. It is a negotiation with reality which allows worlds to bleed into each other; states of consciousness coalesce into a kind of desperate pastiche in which the drabness of the everyday is leavened by lip-synched performances which amplify the glamorous and the grotesque, followed by a precipitous drop.  Pop culture infiltrates the subconscious, a whisper to the most primitive part of the brain, heightening the distinction between what is perceived and what is felt. Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon) in The Singing Detective observes that “minute by minute we make the world; we make our own world,” to the point that it becomes indistinguishable from a dream. But the borders of this world are porous; stories invade other stories, contexts cross and overlap; the lie assumes its own density, and we end up becoming what we’ve pretended to be.

Michael Potter Essay - The Singing Detective

Dennis Potter’s posthumous works — Karaoke and Cold Lazarus (1996) — were an unprecedented co-production between the BBC and Channel 4 (where Potter had moved in 1993 to make Lipstick on Your Collar), and were broadcast on both stations. Karaoke advances Potter’s preoccupation with programmed sensation, symbolized here by the karaoke bar. Karaoke offers a closed system of expression in which, as Potter puts it, “everything is written for you.” To sing karaoke is to exist on a set of cultural rails; the singer regurgitates pre-programmed lines, chooses from a pre-approved canon of standards. Potter — as the uncredited narrator in Blackeyes (1989) — wonders: “Do we invent ourselves, or have others already done it for us? Do we think, or are we thought?” The role of the author is central to Potter’s work. Just as the lip-synch offers emotive cues from a pre-determined script, so the writer lays out the emotional terrain.

A theme recurs throughout Dennis Potter’s oeuvre of the author being held to account, of their creations coming to life and disturbing the surface of reality. Like Blackeyes and The Singing Detective, Karaoke tracks the imagination’s revenge; the author loses control of the mannequins they pose in accordance with their dramatic designs, and they find themselves drowning in a fetid swamp of style and archetypes; the very genre conventions which buttress their purloined insights become perilous. Not that Potter positions the author as a victim… far from it. Potter understands that a writer is at heart a dream thief, plundering memory, fantasy and tragedy without compunction; whether a revered novelist, pulp author, ad copywriter or hard-drinking screenwriter, they are a heartless sniper, lying in wait for the next confession to mine.

In Karaoke, Daniel Feeld (Albert Finney) is a writer struggling to wrest control of his screenplay — titled “Karaoke” — from maniacal director Nick Balmer (Richard E. Grant) as he assembles a cut in the editing suite. Feeld struggles with a pain in his stomach, and begins to believe that the people he encounters are repeating lines from his screenplay. Feeld cannot shake the feeling that these people are occupying the roles set out in “Karaoke,” hitting their marks and delivering their lines. Dennis Potter himself is being played as much as any character, surrendering himself to his own dramatic grammar. Feeld is Potter’s avatar, who in turn has his own avatar in the production of “Karaoke,” Oliver Morse (Ian McDiarmid), who is made to resemble Potter more than Finney does. It is the kind of meta-textual stew which would make Charlie Kaufman envious; if you get close enough, the model passes for the real thing.

Michael Potter Essay - Albert Finney in Karaoke

The truth of the image is interrogated — the film set and the “actual location” cannot be disentangled, scenes from Karaoke and “Karaoke” are repeated with different actors; the script and “reality” are conflated. Scenes from “Karaoke” are cut and recut to emphasize a certain emotional pitch, multiple editors are vying for control, authorship and volition are in flux, until everyone suspects that what they “hear, see, think” have “all been arranged in advance.” Morse states wistfully that “all old men want to claw back yesterday,” and viewed from this perspective, all creative endeavors become an attempt to trap feeling in amber, to retrieve lost time. It feels almost as if Dennis Potter is attempting to suspend himself in an endlessly unfolding set of variations on the possibilities of this story world, abandoning the body to his avatar.  Feeld’s research into the field of cryogenics offers the possibility of escaping physical debility, and of extending the biography beyond the impermanence of the written or performed record.

Those who contrive the narrative bear a certain responsibility. In Dennis Potter’s final interview, he joked that he had named his cancer “Rupert” — after Mr. Murdoch — and confessed that “I would shoot the bugger if I could.” Potter’s parting shot constituted its own form of assassination. He said that “there is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press,” and with it “the pollution of British political life.” Murdoch’s belief in “the commercialization of everything,” his facilitation of the transition from citizen to consumer, was the dark culmination of an anti-paternalist wave which Potter celebrated, and which celebrated Potter. The birth of individualism as a doctrine in post-war Britain heralded a new spirit of restlessness, enshrined in the pop culture product which is so intrinsic to Potter’s evocation of fantasy. In Lipstick on Your Collar, Hopper (Ewen McGregor) describes it as “the old stodge, the empire, knowing your place.” But this fantasy can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and media proprietors like Murdoch offered the individual “a thin gruel indeed.”

Stories are fundamental to shaping the discourse, and Dennis Potter does not absolve himself. Karaoke’s Feeld explains, as if confessing a crime, that “I put words into other people’s mouths, and make them do things.” It is a concession that our fictions impact the world. As if to atone, Feeld is adamant that he “must write a happy ending,” to undo the damage he has wrought, to restore the order of what Balmer calls an “ABC drive,” to redeem the final act with the order of a clear and comprehensible dénouement. It is Potter’s battle against the noise of public life, the malicious muzak spread by Murdoch and his ilk, the ambient innuendo, insinuation and invective. Potter takes control of his own story by confronting it on his own terms; he places his ailing form in center stage, and examines his relationship to what he has created in the public space. The prospect of a happy ending only exists in the dramatic world; the final act is never so charitable in reality; redemption is reserved for the screen. The fabulists of the world summon their monsters, and Potter understood that they would not be slayed before the credits roll; they would burrow deeper into the public consciousness, and he had to leave a warning.

Dennis Potter’s attack became more explicit in Cold Lazarus, which moves into dystopian sci-fi territory to outline his peculiar form of patriotism. While by no means a jingoist, Potter did retain an affection for what he described as “a brave and steadfast people” who “shared an aim, a condition, a political aspiration” which was expressed in the 1945 election, and was being “so brutally and wantonly and callously dismantled.” Potter had those doing the dismantling in his sights; he saw in the rise of Murdoch a flattening of the media landscape. Mass culture could no longer afford the space for voices like Potter’s; it was there to offer diversion over illumination, consolation over confrontation and television fell into line with the new orthodoxy, in which “the price tag is the only gospel.” In the remains of an England that is a “troublesome little dump” which “hasn’t existed as a political entity for 200 years,” a team of cryobiologists excavates the memories contained in a head frozen 374 years ago — the head is Daniel Feeld’s, and Cold Lazarus becomes Potter’s final reckoning with himself.

Michael Potter Essay - Cold Lazarus

The world of Cold Lazarus takes the ascendancy of capital to chilling, and familiar, extremes: pharma tycoon Martina Masdon (Dianne Ladd) oversees her “trillion-unidollar” network of labs with ubiquitous surveillance, spending her days pursuing various life extension strategies, while media mogul David Siltz (Henry Goodman) boasts of “800,000,000 subscribers” for his Universal Total Entertainment network, which provides content for “the cripples and the misfits.” Cold Lazarus plays with sci-fi conventions in the same way Dennis Potter had done with noir tropes, bringing to mind Luc Besson, Dino De Laurentiis and Terry Gilliam in the convergence of the gaudy and grimy, a smart city that is simultaneously efficient and dilapidated. An elite gets to sample the real, while the rest must be content with their virtual reality headsets, immersed in a mass-market simulacrum of experience not dissimilar from karaoke. VR is the new frontier of dramatic mystification, enfolding the user in a total fiction. In a time of isolation, the tactile becomes an asset (bringing to mind Silicon Valley parents who raise their children tech-free). But some are not content with consuming the simulation, and the RON (Reality or Nothing) movement seeks to reassert the real in the face of an all-encompassing spectacle.

As the cryogenics team observe the mental projections of this “subject from near-antiquity,” they become another audience, watching much of what appears in Karaoke, but filtered through Feeld’s perceptions. They construct their own version of Feeld and judge the character’s actions through the series of intertwining scenes and merging timelines with which his life will be defined by posterity. It occurs to them that as a writer, Feeld can make the story whatever he wants; in the interest of neatness, he can jumble the chronology, combine characters, rewrite scenarios and cut extraneous material. Feeld’s final words are “no biography,” and as he presents his story, he experiences a resurrection of a haphazard kind. It is clear Feeld wants the subjective record to prevail, to let complexity reign for all time. As his avatar leaves his body, Dennis Potter pores over it all: what his life as an artist and a man amounted to; how it will be treated by future generations, stripped of its cultural trappings. Potter’s world already seems distant, the spirit of ’45 foundering under the weight of an epoch in which endless stimulation becomes the overriding function, a monoculture of engagement rather than content, prophesized by Potter as a hyperreal sphere where “people won’t know what’s real and what isn’t.”

Dennis Potter Essay - Cold Lazarus

The fear for Dennis Potter is that his life’s work will go the way of Feeld’s memories — yet more IP clutter churned into insignificance by an opportunist like Siltz, whose ownership of the collective memory permits him to dig until he finds “a mainline to the real thing,” but reduced to karaoke, a deracinated sample of itself, the most salacious excerpts (Potter was branded “Television’s Mr. Filth” by the News of the World, which was keen to dwell on the nudity in his work). Potter was probing what will survive of him, asking whether the essence outlives the body, or if we are simply beguiled by a welter of electrical signals which take on a patina of significance. Art represents life sustained, keeping the mind and letting the body die. Feeld is able to reach his new audience and urges them to “let me go.” His story needs a final act; death is integral to an ABC progression; the perennial second act pursued by the ultra-rich suspends them in an unbearable state of indeterminacy, the barest definition of a life.

Fyodor (Ciarán Hinds) — a RON sleeper agent embedded in the lab — wants to “let the past speak, let it accuse,” seeing the accelerationist possibilities of Feeld’s memories being exploited as an entertainment property, that their absorption into the flurry of images will give rise to questions as to how Feeld’s reality slipped away. Entertainment can inadvertently condemn itself, “the show” can contain the seed of its own critique, and Potter was adept at concealing his most trenchant insights beneath a canopy of reminiscence and deconstruction, snaring the monsters in the thrilling and foreboding forests of his Gloucestershire childhood. Dennis Potter left us with one of the most ambitious and meaningful pieces of British television, bridging commercial and public broadcasting to address the state of the nation and the fate of the artist with his customary irreverence and accessibility. It was as much an entreaty as a valediction: to preserve the sovereignty of the mind from those intent on manufacturing anxiety, outrage, scandal and disgrace in the interest of shareholder value; to write instead of being written; to seize the symbolic potency of the word, and demand a better ending. 

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.