Dennis Potter, present tense

Dennis Potter’s final interview, given only two months before his death from pancreatic cancer in June 1994, is indescribably moving to me, partly for the gallantry he displays but also for his sense of vocation. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer on Valentine’s Day of that year, but instead of maxing out his credit cards on travel and gourmet meals, Potter followed his muse to the very end. He had two plays to finish and he was going to finish them, dammit. Dennis Potter was a writer, so he wrote.

This interview, once chiefly available as an extra on the DVD version of Potter’s masterpiece The Singing Detective, deserves to be circulated far and wide across the Internet. The man’s spirit is incredible. Though visibly shrunken within his suit, Potter is beamingly happy, though from time to time he needed to drink from a flask of morphine to muffle the pain of his cancer.

We tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense. It is, and it is now only. . . . Things are both more trivial than they ever were and more important than they ever were — and the difference between the two doesn’t matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous. . . . The fact is that if you see the present tense, boy! can you see it, and boy! can you celebrate it.

It wasn’t until I saw Dreamchild in 1985 that I realized I’d been enjoying Potter’s works without linking them to their creator. Dreamchild, a lovely fantasy set in 1934, when Alice Hargreaves — who as young Alice Liddell inspired Charles Dodgson to write Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass under the name Lewis Carroll — traveled to America to receive an honorary degree from Columbia University and join in a celebration of Carroll’s centenary.

Potter shows Alice as a rather insufferable dowager, haunted by unspoken dreads. Several fantasy sequences show her reenacting scenes from Alice in Wonderland, only here the characters created for the young girl’s amusement have become vulpine and menacing, poisoned by the  old woman’s suspicion that Dodgson’s love for her was pedophile. It all builds to a moment of epiphany, couched in the memory of Liddell’s last meeting with Dodgson, in which a lifetime of fears melt away and she realizes the true helpless sweetness of Dodgson’s character. It is one of the most purely beautiful moments in film.

I’ve never really warmed to Pennies From Heaven, the mini-series that made Potter’s reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. I value it mainly for the early glimpse of Bob Hoskins, who would go on to play endless variations on his basic canny Cockney roughneck persona.

On the other had, The Singing Detective is every bit the masterpiece you’ve heard. I’m just sorry so little of Potter’s output is available in this country.

He named the largest of his tumors after Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers regularly denounced Potter as a blight on civilization.

May we all face the end with Potter’s gallantry.

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