Just one more paragraph!


Dennis Potter: The Authorised Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter Faber & Faber, 672pp, £20 in UK

It says something about our forms of entertainment that most people will probably remember Dennis Potter from a single television interview. Early in 1994, having spent a lifetime of gruesome suffering from psoriasis and attendant arthritis, Potter was diagnosed as having advanced pancreatic cancer. He was given (more or less accurately) three months to live. A wonderful television writer, he decided to go out, as it were, on a television interview.

Millions of people were shocked and moved by the man's appearance and words. But on the box Potter feverishly articulated something central to his whole life, the exhilaratingly dangerous, vulgar and sublime contract with the immediacy of life, with things as they actually are, now. Approaching death cast everything - the blossom of a plum tree - into heightened relief, a sort of escape. ("The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous - The fact is, you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.")

More than the experimentation with television as a medium, his brilliant break-up of dull realism, it was this thrilling, head-on assault upon what was immediately in front of his imagination which makes the Potter plays so exciting. It also accounts for the numerous failures. And it certainly helps to explain why he was such an appallingly difficult person to deal with. There were no half measures on offer at any time.

In the same interview he also cut a deal before the watching millions. This, too, said something about the man. On his deathbed, almost, he made a request/demand that both the BBC and Channel 4 should present his posthumous dramas (Karaoke and Cold Lazarus) one after the other as "a fitting memorial" to himself, a case of doubling your income for the same products. Faced with that kind of proposition and given the grim, very public circumstances, the television bosses had to say yes, of course. Both series, in television terms, turned out to be failures. The miracle is that they were written at all, through such pain and frailty.

By all accounts he was a fearsome presence and most people seemed to be terrified of him, particularly when the red wine flowed. Red hair and spectacles askew, the livid skin disease scarifying his body and scaring everyone in the vicinity, he poured a kind of evangelical scorn on all and sundry. And still there was (most of the time) the grim humour. Here he is in the final days in the inevitable wine bar:

"I've only got till the middle of May. Take my hand," he said to Clare, offering his still arthritically clenched fist across the table. She did. "It's catching, you know," he said with a wicked twinkle.

Others (mostly women) talked about the shy, damaged, tender boy who was hiding behind this ferocious exterior, the son of a miner from the Forest of Dean who had made it to Oxford and beyond. It is one of the weaknesses of Humphrey Carpenter's richly detailed biography that it never quite gets this balance right between the inner and the public man. It certainly documents it all but you feel a shorter, more reflective book would have done more justice to its subject. Carpenter has interviewed everyone, re corded every review, acknowledged all the complexities of his subject. And yet the book retains a vivid superficiality, not unlike the medium to which Potter dedicated his life.

Carpenter is much more effective in tackling the relationship between the life and the work, crucial to a biography of any creative person but particularly acute in the case of Potter.

From first to last Potter resisted any autobiographical reading of the work. Of course, he was right in so far as it is the personal, imaginative vision which finally matters, not the bits and scraps borrowed from life. In his case this vision was essentially spiritual, an anguished, disgust-ridden struggle towards transcendence no matter how sleazy the setting. Carpenter is very good on the plays, and he records the kind of shocked recognition with which Potter greeted revelations of himself when he first saw the finished product on screen, as if someone else had written the piece. When he had particularly bad bouts of psoriasis towards the end he called them "Gambon-like" after Michael Gambon who played the stricken hero of the The Singing Detective.

Most people would pick The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven as the highlights (Carpenter makes a good case for Moonlight on the Highway, and I have a soft spot, myself, for the early Nigel Barton plays). Most people, too, will remember those series because of Potter's ingenious use of popular songs from the Thirties and Forties. Carpenter again fills in important details of the part played by Ken Trodd, a marvellous producer not unknown to Irish writers, in developing this mix of song and surreal comedy drama.

The ingredients were those of the tabloids, sit-com, hospital farce, thrillers, sex for hire and, increasingly as he went on, the trauma of abuse from his own childhood. Ironically, as he pressed his obsessions to their limits he became a target of that scurrilous abuse which only the British tabloids are capable of dishing out.

What lifted the work on to another plane was the subtle intelligence of the writer behind it all and the doomed quest which drove him without let-up to the very end. He hated sentimentality but he exploited it with great, ironic skill. The songs in the plays are more than sentimental relief. They are part of the visionary enterprise, a sort of hand-medown psalter. "A lot of the music is drivel," he told the Evening Standard, "in that it's commercial and never too difficult, but it does possess an almost religious image of the world as a perfect place."

Everything available was put to use by Potter, often with surprising transformations. Even his own death. The last thing he wrote was, literally, a fictionalised version of his dying where Jack, the writer, in his last words, "before the great swamp of opiates sucked him under", offers the true Potter epitaph: "Just one more paragraph!"

Thomas Kilroy's most recent play, The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, will be presented at the Melbourne International Festival in October