Dennis Potter was a television writer who shaped British TV drama over three decades. His final interview took place in April 1994, only a few weeks before his death. He knew there wasn’t long left, and he had things he wanted to say about his life, his writing, and the society he lived in. It was that rarest of moments – a chance to evaluate everything that has gone before without having to worry about what will come after.
It’s a moving interview to watch, but I found at the time of viewing it that it was almost too much to take in. As much as you’re listening to what he’s saying and engaging with it, you’re also looking at a very ill person and your thoughts are also taken up with that – the way he looks, and the obvious pain he’s in. It’s an overwhelming experience, and so it’s helpful to read Melvyn Bragg’s thoughts on the interview that serves as the book’s introduction. Bragg conducted the interview, and describes how, afterwards, he walked out into the English rain and looked over the Thames Embankment, holding back tears.
But this emotional response can, I think, swamp the intellectual connection we can also make to what Potter said, and so that’s why this transcript of the interview is absolutely worth a read, whether you have watched it or not. It gives you time to weigh up the words, and think about them and realise that, even though you’re reading the thoughts of someone near death, they are not accepting and not calm. The anger remains that drove such powerful works as Brimstone And Treacle and Blackeyes. Potter revealed that he called his cancer Rupert, after Rupert Murdoch. He hated the pollution of the press, and the decay of societal values in the face of commercialism, and we can only imagine that he would have continued to hate and stand against it, and express it through the medium of television, given the opportunity. He saw television as the way to reach the most people, and it’s true that at the height of his powers his plays were hugely influential.
This transcript gives you a good amount to think about, not least because twenty years have passed and you have to wonder whether things have changed for the better, in terms of television and in terms of society. That extra level of meaning, and the weird sense of almost-nostalgia that accompanies it, for a time when someone like Dennis Potter would be making incredibly challenging television, is a fitting addendum to the canon of the writer of such works as Blue Remembered Hills and Pennies From Heaven. Although I’m not sure he would argue that life is worse, or better, now. At one point he describes how he continually covered the same ground in his works, and didn’t ever ascribe to the idea that he was looking back fondly at the past, either generally or in regards to his own childhood. He says instead that it is only easier to look at a society more objectively through the lens of time, and therefore to recognise truths about the present.
Seeing The Blossom also includes the text of the speech Dennis Potter gave at the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1993, and the transcript of an interview he gave to Alan Yentob in 1987. The last part of the book reprints a short story, Last Pearls, that explores Potter’s feelings about the drive to write, and the lack of satisfaction it offers. Can anything, even the very last words in a writing career, really say what needs to be said? I think few books about the process of writing capture what a truly frustrating career it is, and how it never sates the need to be heard, but only makes it stronger. Here those emotions are front and centre, which makes it important stuff for those in the creative industries.
Whether you’re a fan of Dennis Potter or not, I think the texts here have something to say that’s worth hearing – and I was pleased to be able to take the time over the meaning by having it printed on the page. Interviews are rarely this candid, or this involved. I know it’s one of those books I’ll read again.
If you’d like to comment on this month’s non-fiction choice then we’d love to read it. At the beginning of June Kaci will be writing about Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.