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Brian Dillon on Dennis Potter’s Final Interview

‘It’s the way he talks about his own death that amazed then and impresses today’

Dennis Potter being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, 1994. Courtesy: LWT/Channel 4

Dennis Potter being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, 1994. Courtesy: LWT/Channel 4

Around nine o’clock in the morning on 15 March 1994, the 58-year-old television dramatist Dennis Potter, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer of the pancreas and liver, arrived at South Bank Studios, London, to give his final interview. Technicians had been working since six to ensure hot studio lights were not too close, because the sick man’s body temperature had begun to fluctuate uncomfortably. To conserve Potter’s energy, his agent was allowed to drive him into the studio’s scenery dock. Cameras rolled straight away. In the footage broadcast three weeks later on Channel 4, Potter is thin, raw and nervous as he approaches his chair – nobody knew for how long he could sit and speak – and arranges a few items to keep himself going: cigarettes, black coffee, a glass of champagne and a hip flask full of liquid morphine. There are some friendly preliminaries about his present headlong writing schedule before the interviewer, Melvyn Bragg, asks: ‘Are you set now? Shall we?’

The hour-long interview that follows is Potter’s last great work: a lyric, mordant, furious and sentimental reflection on death, religion, childhood, politics, England and writing itself. (Like most of his interviews, and some of his writing, it is also not without ego.) Potter was born in 1935 in a mining village in the Forest of Dean: ‘a heart-shaped place between two rivers’, near the Welsh border. His first substantial piece of work for television was a BBC documentary about his journey from pious, working-class rural life to Oxford, London, journalism and left-wing politics. (He stood as a Labour candidate in the 1964 general election.) As ever with Potter’s work, it was a film about guilt and betrayal. In his mid-20s, illness struck: psoriatic arthropathy caused his joints to seize and his skin itch, crack, bleed. Potter took it as a sort of visitation or annunciation; he gradually retreated from journalism and politics to write TV plays – plays filled with guilt, betrayal, accidental grace and, in his most famous work, crucifying disease.

Earlier in 1994, Derek Jarman had died, from AIDS. As an orphan in early adulthood, amazed anyone could speak so openly and eloquently about sickness unto death, I paid close attention to the interviews Jarman gave towards the end of his life. Now, suddenly, here was another of my heroes announcing his imminent end. I had been consumed in my late teens by Potter’s writing for television. First by The Singing Detective (1986), in which Michael Gambon plays a writer who plots metafictional fantasies, and recalls his boyhood in the Forest of Dean, while hospitalized with the same disease as Potter. I watched rapt but also in secret terror: in my teens, I had a mild but vexing case of psoriasis and somehow got it in my head that I would end up afflicted just like Potter. In a peculiar spasm of the adolescent brain, I pored over interviews in which he described a life split in half: six months each of writing and illness, every year. Was that my future too? What if I could not write?

In Blue Remembered Hills (1979) he cast adult actors to play children in a twisted reconstruction of his Forest of Dean childhood. In Pennies from Heaven (1978) and again in The Singing Detective, his characters lip-synched to popular songs of the 1930s – ‘Painting the Clouds with Sunshine’, ‘The Sweetest Thing’, ‘Down Sunnyside Lane’. Potter’s formal innovations – also, his darkling views of sex, class and religion – were made possible by a television culture, especially at the BBC, that was fading fast in the media landscape of the early 1990s. When diagnosed with cancer, Potter named his main tumour Rupert, after Murdoch: ‘I would shoot the bugger if I could.’

Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective, 1986, television still. Courtesy: BFI and BBC

Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective, 1986, television still. Courtesy: BFI and BBC

All of this television history is important, but it is not really why Potter’s interview seemed so extraordinary at the time, nor why it repays viewing now. Instead, it’s the way he talks about his own death that amazed then, and impresses today. In places, he is merely sardonic. Bragg asks how long he’s known about the cancer and Potter replies: ‘Well, I knew for sure on St. Valentine’s Day, like a little gift, a little kiss, from somebody or something.’ But as they get deeper into the conversation another tone takes over, a thrilled lyricism, urgent and precise as Potter describes the view that spring from his study in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, as he works on his final script:

Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now – it’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white – and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh, that’s nice blossom!’ last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that 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.

I remember feeling a flush of something like embarrassment when Potter said this – mixed with amazement at his presence of mind. As James Wolcott wrote in a New Yorker obituary two months later, in this interview Potter sounded like a psalm. Amid all the reminiscence and score-settling, he grasped that the serious language of pure sentiment – childhood hymns and cheap songs – was his proper valedictory register, and in this passage he is laying it on thick. Potter means every word and, at the same time, he is performing; there’s a frank theatricality about the studio setting, the champagne, the cigarette jammed in his arthritic fist, even the pause for a swig of morphine. The whole hour feels perilous – pain or fatigue might silence him any moment – and perfectly composed.

After its broadcast on 5 April, transcripts of the interview were published in the Independent, the New Left Review and a short Faber book titled Seeing the Blossom. There are minor differences between the three versions, but all sound strangely flat on the page, as if to be heard properly his words also need Potter’s tender, cracked, near-Welsh accent. The sound of that voice has stuck with me since, and especially the ease with which it moves between deadly crafted invective, sober self-knowledge and pure emotion. I wasn’t yet a writer in 1994, hadn’t yet addressed the ‘referred pain’ (as Potter put it) of having chosen at first the wrong vocation. But alongside his frankness there was a lesson in the dying writer’s sheer rigour: up at five every morning to write ten pages before the pain crept in, frightened only of expiring four pages too soon. At the end of his interview, Potter grabs his cigarettes, pockets his morphine and turns again to Bragg: ‘I felt OK, you see. At certain points, I felt I was flying with it.’

Brian Dillon’s Essayism (2017) and In the Dark Room (2018) are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. He is senior tutor in writing at the Royal College of Art, London, UK.

Issue 200

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January - February 2019
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