Thursday, September 30, 2010

Day 174: "Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven"

On 5th April 1994, three months before his death from pancreatic cancer (with secondary cancers in the liver), television dramatist, Dennis Potter, gave a TV interview with Melvyn Bragg on Britain’s Channel 4. He knew at the time that he was dying and the interview is punctuated with Potter sipping from a small flask of liquid morphine, enjoying champagne and smoking his favoured cigarettes.

Dennis Potter’s television work was distinctive and seminal, using the non-naturalistic devices of characters lip-synching to songs, having adult actors play children, characters addressing the camera (speaking through the fourth wall) and more. These techniques became the trademarks of his famous television series Blue Remembered Hills, Pennies From Heaven, Lipstick On Your Collar and the his most well-known and loved of pieces, The Singing Detective,

The Singing Detective went to air on BBC in the UK, in 1986 and was most people’s introduction to the actor that is Michael Gambon (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Gosford Park), making him a household name, but maybe not known in as many households as his is now, for playing the part of Albus Dumbledore in the wizardry that is Harrypotterworld. The Singing Detective suffered a ghastly film remake - featuring Robert Downey Jnr and Mel Gibson - in 2003. Maybe my thinking on the remake is coloured by my affection for Dennis Potter and the original, but I know that I’m not alone; enjoying a mixed reception, the film was called “an interesting failure” by one critic.

But then, the original television series in the UK was by no means a phenomenal hit, rather it was for an acquired taste, even an eccentric palate, however it was influential. So to was it's predecessor Pennies From Heaven (1978), the first of his several television series, in which this time, we met Bob Hoskins (The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa), as the protagonist, Arthur Parker, a role that was to make his name.

It was this stylistic choice in Dennis Potter’s work, of characters suddenly breaking into song, that made his work instantly recognisable, but not singing in the way that characters do in traditional musicals; in this style of his, characters would lip-synch to the original recording, a style that has since been much imitated on television and in TV commercials.

He followed-up The Singing Detective with Lipstick On Your Collar (1993), the first major role for another acting talent who has endured, Ewan McGregor. It’s unofficially thought of by many, as the third in the trilogy of works that Dennis Potter began with Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective.

Potter wrote much; as well as the television work, there were stage plays, novels, journalist works and film scripts - Gorky Park (1983) and his own film Brimstone and Treacle. However, Dennis Potter is also well-remembered for his thoughts on the media and notably, his verbal “attacks” on mogul Rupert Murdoch. At the beginning of an half-hour television piece called Opinions (broadcast on Ch 4 in 1993) Potter opened with this: “I’m going to get down there in the gutter where so many journalists crawl... what I’m about to do is make a provenly vindictive and extremely powerful enemy...the enemy in question is that drivel-merchant, global huckster and so-to-speak media psychopath, Rupert Murdoch...Hannibal the Cannibal...”

Journalist Craig Brown, writing in the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times described this performance of Potter's thus: “ many ways it felt like being collared by a mad man on the Tube. Filmed disturbingly close to camera, seemingly ad-libbing the entire half hour, now mumbling, now rasping. Potter somehow managed to cut through the vacuum that on television usually separates viewer from viewee. This made the performance extraordinary.”

And that was the hallmark of Dennis Potter’s work, the ability to “cut-through” on an increasingly mind-numbing medium.

In that final interview with Melvyn Bragg, Dennis Potter revealed that he had named his cancer, “Rupert”, adding “ can we have a mature democracy when newspapers and television, where there’s standard television, cable television is beginning to be so interlaced in ownership terms? Where are our freedoms to be guaranteed? Who is going to guarantee them? Look at the power Murdoch has....”

Benign or benevolent dicatorship (however well-meant) worries me. I have a great sense of unease over the rich and powerful holding undue sway and influence. It concerns me that previous Prime Ministers of the country in which I live, oft supped with Rupert Murdoch and that other late media-mogul, Kerry Packer, and it worries me greatly that on a television programme last night - a programme that astutely analyses the world of advertising - one of the commentators said what I have often thought: Oprah’s “hand of approval” on Barrack Obama’s shoulder “probably got him the Presidency”.

Day #174 Tip: Tell the truth
Let me turn to my barometer on all such screenwriting things, that is McKee: “...given story’s power to influence, we need to look at the issue of an artist’s social responsibility. I believe we have no responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity, to uplift the spirits of society or even express our inner being.We only have one responsibility: to tell the truth....for although and artist may, in his private life, lie to others, even to himself, when he creates he tells the truth; and in a world of lies and liars, an honest work of art is always an act of social responsibility.”

“They” say that on the day of the revolution, whatever that might be and whenever that might come, we writers will be the first to be lined up against the wall, because writers are to be silenced. For “silenced” read “shot”!

Maybe I’ve drifted back to my feisty, late teenage years, when I listened to The Clash and Billy Bragg, that same period in the 1970’s when an emerging Dennis Potter was in full-flight? Maybe I’m romanticising the whole notion of speaking one’s truth and being a writer; forgive me, beneath my imperial British exterior, I have some long-lost French ancestry that rears it’s head de temps en temps.

Power to the people, power to the late Dennis Potter.

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