“O, but they say the tongues of dying men/Enforce attention like deep harmony.”
Richard II, Act II, Scene I
Has anyone relished the delirious power of death as much as Dennis Potter? With a copper-bottomed guarantee of death in your back pocket, you can abuse your enemy with impunity (“I call my cancer Rupert; I’d shoot the bugger if I could”); smoke, drink and take drugs on TV (“I can break any rule now”); rearrange the chess pieces on the board of management (“Alan Yentob should run Channel 4 and there is no question in my mind Michael Grade should be the director of the BBC”); and – though there is no room for it in this edited version of the interview – blackmail the BBC and Channel 4 into arranging their schedules around his last programmes. (Alan Yentob, then controller of BBC1, and Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4 at the time, surrendered without a fight.)
These are Dennis Potter’s last words. The show opened on an empty, cluttered studio, a ladder going nowhere, two stacking chairs. This unpromising sort of place is the matrix in which television is made. Potter’s white skin and pale red hair had the bite of milk and whisky, a favourite tipple. His hands were clenched with psoriasis and arthritis as they had been half his life, one on a cigarette, one on a glass. The month before, he had been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. He was, though the text alone hardly conveys this, humorous, teasing, skimming along. He told the interviewer Melvyn Bragg he felt as if he had been flying.
Most TV is here today and gone tomorrow, but no one who saw this interview will ever forget three things: the blossom on Potter’s plum tree, the stars in his crown, and the liquid morphine in his hip flask. The plum tree, unlike Potter’s plays, has made it into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. When he was told there was no future, he began to live like a child in the present. “Below my window in Ross, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be.” He did not live to taste the plums.
Our lives overlapped at the Daily Herald. I became the TV critic when he left to stand for parliament in 1964 but with so little enthusiasm he neglected to vote for himself. The experience did, however, feed his play Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton! Bliss was it then to be in television. Anyone who was clever, vivid and talkative wanted to be part of it. Everyone in the office, including Potter, was writing skits for That Was The Week That Was. Everyone on the morning bus was talking about the Wednesday Play or the Play for Today the night before. You felt part of something momentous.
Putting on a play then was as easy as laying an egg. He wrote Blue Remembered Hills, a masterpiece, without consulting anybody, popped it in the post and it went straight into production. As he said, “I was given the space to grow and I gave my working life to it as a result.” Unique among playwrights, he dedicated himself entirely to television. He was a socialist and he liked being part of that bubbling hotpot of soap operas, panel games and plays that ordinary people came home to at night. Adam Hart-Davis, who now makes a pretty living on TV, wondered then if the welfare state hadn’t gone a little too far when his son’s maid got her own TV. Dennis Potter’s grandmother was a maid.
He was the son and grandson of miners and he mined his own childhood religiously as if he were looking for something. In Cold Lazarus, his last play, a dying man is whirled backward down a wormhole of memories towards the sound of children singing. That the plays he produced at the end were disastrously received hardly matters. Potter’s last great work was this interview.