Posted by BE on February 7th, 2011
On 15 March 1994 Melvyn Bragg interviewed the playwright and television dramatist Dennis Potter. The interview was broadcast on the BBC’s Channel Four on April 5. Potter died of cancer two months later on June 7.
Potter smokes throughout the interview, holding the cigarette and lighter between the bunched fingers of his clawed right hand. Like his hero Philip E Marlowe, the mystery writer in perhaps his most celebrated work, The Singing Detective, the playwright had suffered for much of his life from debilitating and painful psoriatic arthropathy, a skin and joint disease which, in its chronic stages, formed lesions and sores over his entire body, partially crippling his hands and feet. He was eventually obliged to write with the pen tied to his wrist.
Beside his chair in the television studio he has a flask of morphine, which he drinks from at intervals during the conversation to control the pain.
All of this would make the interview remarkable enough. But it is the quality of what is said, of Bragg’s questions and Potters responses, which allows me to call this ‘the finest television interview ever recorded’. Much of a media commentator’s time is given over to criticism in the negative rather than the neutral sense of the word. I thought it appropriate to redress the balance a little by inviting you to watch this small screen gem. The YouTube version is in seven parts, each just under 10 minutes long.
If you’re unfamiliar with Potter’s work, Wikipedia or YouTube are both good places to start.
I agree with all your comments Brian. I saw this interview when it was originally screened. A very moving and honest interview with one of the world’s greatest dramatists. I count myself lucky to have seen most of his work. My personal favourite was Pennies From Heaven.
Baz: My personal favourite was Pennies From Heaven.
Mine, too. Just brilliant. Finest TV drama, ever.
Roll along prairie moon, roll along while I croon…
1. The Singing Detective
2. Pennies From Heaven
3. Lipstick On Your Collar (the most underrated by critics).
Last night I watched a DVD of a BBC production of Alice In Wonderland directed by Jonathon Miller. It was just an hour long so I decided to check the extras. Included is another BBC hour long play called “Alice and the Sunday Play” about Lewis Carroll and his relationship with Alice Liddell with screenplay by Dennis Potter c1966. I have saved it for tonight. Nice to find an unknown (to me) work by Mr. Potter.
you will know that music played a large part of many of Potters productions.
Baz: I kid you not — never, have I been so enraptured by a programme such as ‘Pennies from Heaven’. In every aspect of production, it’s just dazzling brlliance. It was first screened on Sundays on TVNZ in 1978 (or ’79), which I didn’t see. About 2 years later, TVNZ repeated the screening, again, on consecutive Sundays; and that’s when I saw it. Got completely hooked on the music, Bob Hoskins, Cheryl Campbell et al, and the whole concept of the musical tragicomedy drama. It was so incredibly clever as well as very poignant. Of course, I have the DVD set
Not so much interview, as almost monologue…
Merv…I also have the set on DVD. Ever the completist I also have the Steve Martin version which he produced himself and which Potter adapted for the big screen. Madeline Kahn plays the heroine. I enjoyed it very much but it wasn’t really to the US taste.
Madeline Khan? I think, you mean Bernadette Peters.
I’ve not gone out of my way to see the American version. Somehow, it didn’t appeal; other than seeing Christopher Walken, dance about.
Some unforgettable scenes: When Arthur and Eileen, maniacally, start destroying all the records in Arthur’s shop, after his business fails. But Arthur restrains Eileen from smashing his favourite one, Roll Along Praire Moon.
And towards the end, when Arthur’s on the run and living rough, and Eileen brings him fish-and-chips, and you just hear Arthur’s exclamation coming from behind the bush: “They’re stone cold!”
Yes, it was arguably one of *the* key moments in 90s British television, not least because many of Potter’s responses had an eerie, almost prescient quality to them.
Was it the fact he knew he had not long to go that made him so unguarded? Potter was never one to hold back at the best of times, so it’s like he would’ve made these statements in full flush of health. Still, his condition at the time of the interview was what made it so poignant.
What a wonderful programme the South Bank Show was throughout its run, it seems awful that ITV pulled the plug on it early last year.
Here’s the full list of interview subjects from 1978-2010:
yes, extraordinary, Brian
One work I particularly love is Lipstick on your collar, which has just finally come out on dvd in the UK
Thank you Brian. I remember seeing it when it was first broadcast in Britain. It was extraordinary then and it still is. We never see anything as real as that any more.