Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Angels Are So Few

Channel 4 finally did something right last night, showing Without Walls, the interview Dennis Potter did with Melvyn Bragg just over two months before his death (marvellously, they're also showing Cold Lazarus and Lipstick On Your Collar for free on the web service 4OD - for the most part a frightfully useless application, but worth it just for those two.) It's absolutely fascinating viewing, not least for the sense it gives of the symbiotic relationship between Dennis Potter and his fiction(s): he talks about every aspect of his life that touched on his work, a comprehensive fucking rundown; it felt as if the works - The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven, Karaoke, Blackeyes - were something he had written in an attempt to construct a mythology around himself, and, simultaneously, that the plays had written him into existence, that Dennis Potter's life would not exist without the plays. Which shows that Potter's value was not just in terms of his formal innovations and ideas - those come and go in more or less random fashion for writers, it's just a question of being open and implementing them, as he apparently did with Blue Remembered Hills, using adults because children were, uh, just children, and couldn't convey the brutality and absurdity of childhood without it being naturalised - but in terms of understanding better than probably anyone the need for narrative, and the process of narrative, the writer's relationship to what he's writing. By apparently inserting himself into the plays at various points - as Marlow in The Singing Detective, the lecher in Blackeyes - he short-circuits the autobiographical reading by paradoxically inviting it, blending dream, reality, hallucination and supposed memory to break down what we think we know about the capacity for 'making shit up', as if it were ever that simple.
In a sense, it feels as if Potter the writer were writing this last interview, too, beforehand and during. The supposed autobiography of the plays needs Dennis Potter the writer to function, and the writer needs the plays in these last days to find a role to play, to find Dennis Potter the writer, located amid a sparkling, sordid mass of things: the explicitly mythologised Forest Of Dean, the hymns and Thirties songs (the voice of God rising up from the phonograph(?)=the voice of the so-called 'author'(?)), the Biblical plague of psoriasis, the resolutely old-old-school Owenian socialism, the transition from the pits to Oxford, the curves of women's bodies and the drift of cigarette smoke. And just occasionally death flares up: Potter reaches for the flask of liquid morphine, and is unable to do it because of his club hands. It's only then, as he gets up and goes during the break, an assistant tending to him, that you think of what was being done to him at the time, his cells eating away his own body at a terrifying rate. And somehow, he can still turn that around, chanting "Will there be any stars in your crown?", like only a true poet (and I mean that in a good way) could.


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