A dying writer, haunted by his past creations and aware of how his legacy will be picked over by the media barons he so hates, writes about a dying writer, haunted by his past creations, and then how his legacy is picked over by the media barons.
Albert Finney is (and occasionally was) Daniel Feeld in these two dramas, but so is Dennis Potter. This duet is the ‘lastest last great work’ you’ll see, and there’s nothing really quite like it.
Or, perhaps there is, as throughout there are numerous homages to previous Potter productions, rarely subtle: Karaoke with all the hospital imagery of The Singing Detective and the moving Pennies From Heaven finale, Cold Lazarus even heavier, as the voyeurism of The Singing Detective, the adult-as-child young Daniel recalling Blue Remembered Hills, the oily Stiltz further oiled by two beautiful nurses.
Karaoke is the ‘fantasy drama’ half, Cold Lazarus the full-blooded science fiction sequel. Made at Potter’s request as a joint BBC/Channel 4 venture, both are (just about) standalone, but you wouldn’t really want to only see one or the other.
It begins with Feeld slowly realising and coming to terms with fatal illness, whilst lines from scripts keep popping up around him, people he meets are eerily familiar, and soon he finds himself trying to prevent the brutal murder he’s already written about.
Then, for Cold Lazarus, flash forward, four hundred years. Unsurprisingly, Feeld’s dead by now (we’ll see a bit of his death later on) and a team of scientists led by Emma Porlock (Frances de la Tour) are extracting memories, visualised on a virtual screen.
Meanwhile, an American oligarch competes with the president to control the project, the marketing of Feeld’s often harrowing memories their concern. But Feeld may not be as completely unaware of his situation as people realise.
The episodes are not always the paciest. That said, Potter wasn’t the paciest of writers, but the performances are, mostly, good enough, big enough or both to keep up interest, from a highly respectable company.
Albert Finney is excellent as Feeld across both, balancing weary bitterness with the nearest Potter gets to warmth early on, and all the fear and discomfort later on, never putting a twitch wrong even as a disembodied, frozen head. Karaoke is his showcase, while in Cold Lazarus he’s always the focus, but not the star.
In Karaoke, Roy Hudd’s constantly Spoonerisming agent doesn’t quite sell the over-egged dialogue he’s given, but I don’t know who could. Richard E Grant, with the barmy Balmer, revisits the obsessional Dennis from How To Get Ahead In Advertising, as he tries to get ahead in boiling bunnies for Keeley Hawes. ‘Pig’ Malion, the villain, is played with a more grounded menace by Hywell Bennett. Then there’s Anna Chancellor and Alison Steadman.
At times, it’s easy to drift from the story and just enjoy the images and actors doing their thing. Overall, the heightened reality, which makes an implied sense once you’ve seen all of Cold Lazarus, makes it a weirder watch than the conclusion. De la Tour and Ciarán Hands, as edgy Fyodor, ground and own Lazarus, papering over a few weak supporting roles, although there’s a scene stealing turn from Donald Sumpter as a psycho-sexual ‘expert’ towards the end.
Karaoke is like much of Potter’s work, self-indulgent, and occasionally unpleasant, but compelling. But then, as an occasional mike whore myself, so’s karaoke. It’s the stronger piece of writing on points, but some shortcomings in Lazarus can, in part, be put down to how uncomfortable, despite a rich history, British television was with science fiction at this point.
This was an age of The X-Files and The Outer Limits on BBC2, but with nothing home grown. Henry Goodman’s Siltz and Diane Ladd’s Masdon aren’t just American to make a political point. They have to be for this to be believed as science fiction at this point, as the Paul McGann Doctor Who TV Movie ‘proved’.
Red Dwarf was resting, lame ducks of Jed Mercurio’s Invasion: Earth and Anthony Horowitz’s Crime Traveller were round the corner, all trying to be ‘the next Doctor Who‘ and just making people say “Why not just make more Doctor Who?”
Cold Lazarus is largely about as far from Who as you could get, bar perhaps Eric Saward’s Revelation Of The Daleks from 1985, superficially. Now, if Potter didn’t see it on first broadcast, perhaps he caught a glimpse on its 1993 repeat. The timing works. A nearly-dead head in a tank in a laboratory, floaty chairs that look a bit blobby and organic, and a bit Dalek-y, no?
The effects work is extremely good for the time, with decent CGI, compositing, sets and props complementing un-showy but effective camera direction. Once we’ve dispensed with the Masdon bits, the pacing improves and it builds, surprisingly, to a rather satisfying climax,on the way giving enough clues to ‘explain’ the vagaries of Karaoke further, letting it make as much sense as you want it to. Clever, clever old Dennis Potter, for all the strangulated metatextuality.
The DVD presentation is basic with text biographies (rather tastelessly, I mean Feeld’s dying words were “No biography!” after all. Oh, please yourselves…!) and pretty menus, as well as two episodes per disc.
The film prints are a little grainy and contain the usual minor imperfections a non-remastered print of this age might, although the colour is decent. They’re also framed for 14:9 screens, so no tampering there, but the discs aren’t anamorphic.
There are discreet fades-to-black where the commercial breaks would have been in Cold Lazarus.
The really good news is I’ve been assured by Acorn that these are entirely uncut. They could easily have had chunks hacked out or music replacements, but not the case apparently, and I have no reason to doubt that.
Locked in rights hell, bar online and international repeat broadcast, for so long that we’re lucky to have them at all, and at a premium RRP, that’s not too much of a concern in times of online discounting.
Although a documentary and at least a partial cast/crew commentary would have been desirable to round the package off, these are productions that are long overdue on DVD and remain essential, if uncomfortable, viewing.
Dennis Potter: Karaoke & Cold Lazarus Boxed Set is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.