The Blossomest Blossom
. Dennis Potter disliked Rupert Murdoch so much that he gave the name "Rupert" to his cancer. In the weeks before his death (June 7, 1994), Potter was writing ten pages a day in a desperate attempt to complete his last two teleplays, the interlinked Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, before he died. On Without Walls (April 5, 1994) Potter took swigs from a flask of liquid morphine while he was interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, possibly the most unforgettable interview ever done for television. Potter talked with Bragg about his impending demise in a casual, celebratory fashion, seeing the world in a different way and marveling at the "nowness" of it all:
We're the one animal that knows that we're going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there's eternity in a sense. And we forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is is, and it is now only. I mean, as much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to, and ache to sometimes, we can't. It's in us, but we can't actually; it's not there in front of us. However predictable tomorrow is, and unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it's too predictable, they're locked into whatever situation they're locked into... Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there's the element of the unpredictable, of the you don't know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I'm almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.
Below my window in Ross, when I'm working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It's a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it's white, and looking at it, instead of saying, "Oh, that's a nice blossom"... last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There's no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance... not that I'm interested in reassuring people - bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.
The interview was the polar opposite of the last interview with dying, crying Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz shown near the end of last week's American Mastersprofile of Schulz on PBS. The documentary revealed how Schulz incorporated his own past into his comic strip, just as Potter reworked his life into The Singing Detective and other teleplays. Possibly Schulz was crying after a lifetime of seeing writers misspell his name as "Schultz." Even PBS couldn't get it right. (It's sort of like the mistake of adding a dot to "Dr Pepper".)
In this clip Potter tells Bragg about virtual reality and the other concepts that prompted the futuristic science fiction drama, Cold Lazarus (1996), his final work for television.
In Potter's Karaoke (1996), obsessive, self-destructive London television scriptwriter Daniel Feeld (Albert Finney) finds his health failing while involved with the post-production on his new TV drama, Karaoke. Potter was dying, and so is Feeld. The name is an obvious pun on "Potter's Field," yet as Richard Corliss has noted, it is the landscape of Potter's entire life. A hard-drinking heavy smoker, Feeld is in much physical pain as he struggles with pancreatic cancer. Going about his daily routines, he has some odd experiences leading him to conclude that his fictional creations are erupting into real life.
He overhears people speaking scraps of his own dialogue, including young Sandra Sollars (Saffron Burrows), hostess at a karaoke club run by petty thug Arthur "Pig" Maillion (Hywel Bennett). Feeld fears Sandra could be threatened by "Pig" Maillion in a manner similar to scenes he wrote for Karaoke, as his memory, fantasy and reality overlap and interweave into a complex mental tapestry that takes the viewer back to Potter's earlier works, Pennies from Heaven (1981) and The Singing Detective (1986). At the karaoke club, Feeld sings "Pennies from Heaven." "Stars in My Crown," the hymn Potter recalled from his childhood and featured prominently in The Singing Detective, is referenced in Karaoke, in Cold Lazarus and also in John Turturro's Potter-influenced Romance and Cigarettes (2005). It seems likely that, in his teens, Potter saw the movie Stars in My Crown (1950), starring Joel McCrea as the minister in a small frontier community after the Civil War.
Feeld returns three centuries later as a disembodied head in Cold Lazarus. While technology has advanced in the 24th Century, global corporate control has brought about an austere, antiseptic way of life. In the year 2368, the Luddites of the terrorist organization RON (Reality or Nothing) seek a return to the tranquility of earlier times.
At the Masdon Science Center, a team of scientists led by Emma Porlock (Frances De La Tour) work to extract memories from Feeld's cryogenically preserved head. The scientists glide about their lab in chairs which respond to their thoughts of movement and direction. Porlock says, "We can break into this man’s synapses. Imagine the wonder of it all. And if we wear our VR helmets we will live for hours at a time in the real past, the authentic past – and perhaps escape."
When they finally succeed, they watch in awe as Feeld's memories are displayed on the large "memory wall." His memories are, in fact, scenes from the earlier Karaoke. Aging Martina Masdon (Diane Ladd), the tyrannical owner of the Science Center, and international Murdoch-like media mogul David Siltz (Henry Goodman) see the potential for the commercial exploitation of Feeld's memories as entertainment.
As Siltz puts it, "Who would want made-up stories from a hack when you can mainline into the real thing? At last, privacy has a true market value." This is an intriguing notion, considering the rise of mobile webcam lifecasting in 2007, followed by the possibility of more reality TV shows triggered by the current Writer's Guild strike. (The long-run, unscripted Cops was launched by Fox in 1989 as a direct result of the 1988 writer's strike.) Lifecasters such as Sarah Meyers and Lisa Batey are skilled at sharing their inner thoughts with their viewers, sometimes verbalizing an ongoing stream-of-consciousness with surfacing memories. Lifecasting is a new medium that would have fascinated Dennis Potter. How will the corporate suits attempt to exploit the lifecasters?
This clip from Cold Lazarus incorporates scenes from Karaoke. The note on YouTube that Potter appears in this clip is obviously incorrect, since Potter was dead when Karaoke and Cold Lazarus were produced. That's actually the actor Ian McDiarmid (who portrayed Palpatine in the Star Wars series) as a character named Oliver Morse. McDiarmid has a striking physical resemblance to Potter, moreso when wearing glasses identical to Potter's, and his appearance makes this scene like Chinese nesting boxes... dialogue written by Feeld (and thusly Potter) is being overheard in a cafe by two different surrogate Potters. In another shot in the cafe (not in this clip), McDiarmid stares straight down into cream swirling in a coffee cup, momentarily suggesting Potter's Cream in My Coffee (1980), which we wrote about four months ago.
omg is that really not dennis? Hmmm yeah that singing part in Karaoke was very good acting.
In the Netherlands i had seen this on TV on VPRO. They had a short documentairy about Potter and his lifework before the episodes started.
And because i'dve seen that.
I really thought i heard it was him maby it should have been him but he died to early so maby that actor Ian plays HIM playing a guy sitting at a table witch looks like that scene of another serial by him.
He was superb, thanks for this blog and the info and linking me