Dateline: July 2, 2000
The final two works of legendary British television writer Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, are at last available to American viewers. Having been listed on my Top 10 Series Not Seen In the U.S. (except for a screening on Bravo several years ago), I am happy to now place it on the Does Your PBS Station Show? list.
In 1994 Potter, dying of cancer, was writing furiously to complete his final two works. He had a grand scheme to link them together and such was his stature in Britain that he was able to persuade the BBC and Channel 4 into making them co-productions to be run one right after the other and broadcast on both networks. The first, Karaoke, is a four-part drama about a dying, alcoholic screenwriter, Daniel Feeld (Albert Finney), who begins to think people in real life are starting to imitate characters in a movie he wrote. The film (also called "Karaoke") is being edited by an egotistical director (Richard E. Grant) who is having an affair with his leading lady. Feeld in turn gets involved with a woman who seems very much like the one in the movie. The film-within-a-film scenes are nicely handled (and very in-jokey, with Ian McDiarmid (from The Phantom Menace) playing the Daniel Feeld role in the movie and looking a lot like Dennis Potter!), and Feeld (and Potter) manages to write his own happy ending - or does he? Knowing this would be produced posthumously, one wonders how autobiographical Potter's drama was concerning his own mortality. But wait until you see what comes next in the sequel Cold Lazarus.
For the final work of his life, Potter pulled out all the stops and wrote Cold Lazarus, a full-fledged science fiction drama in the immediate sequel to Karaoke. Set 350 years in the future, a host of interests vie for the memories contained in Daniel Feeld's head which was cryogenically frozen upon his death. His memories are disturbing but potentially commercially lucrative to the citizens of the future, who live in bland world, marred only by outbreaks of terrorism by the "RONs" who espouse, "Reality Or Nothing." Crass American commercialization is well satirized, embodied by Diane Ladd as a manipulating trillionaire crone who wants to sell Feeld's memories to the jaded public. The focus is on the scientists who experiment on Feeld's head unaware he has achieved consciousness and knows what is going on around him. Like Karaoke, many parts of Potter's life (and death) make up elements of Cold Lazarus, and give a fascinating glimpse into how he must have viewed posterity. A slick production, Channel 4 spared no expense in creating a futuristic world, with digital effects o'plenty.
In 1994, as he was still writing, Potter himself consented to a rare TV interview, the result being Dennis Potter--Terminal Cancer, a prophetic title as he died that year on June 7th of liver and pancreatic cancer. Conducted in a TV studio by Melvyn Bragg, Potter was only able to keep going by drinking liquid morphine. He talked about his career, his final two plays and his hopes to get the BBC and Channel 4 to cooperate in their making (which they did after a dispute between long-time Potter collaborators producer Kenith Trodd and director Renny Rye was ultimately resolved).