Dennis May Potter Interview - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dennis Potter with Melvyn Bragg (interview date March 1994)

SOURCE: An interview in The New York Times, June 12, 1994, p. H30.

[Bragg is an English writer and TV personality. In the following excerpt from an interview first broadcast in England in early 1994, Potter discusses how the knowledge of his imminent death and its attendant physical pain have affected his outlook and his work.]

Given his commitment not to novels or to plays but to what he considered the inherently democratic and implicitly subversive medium of television, it made perfect sense for [Dennis Potter] to make his farewell in a televised interview.

In March, Melvyn Bragg, an English author and television personality, and Michael Grade, the chief executive officer of Channel 4, invited Potter for a televised conversation with Mr. Bragg. The tape was edited by Mr. Bragg and broadcast in Britain on April 5, after which Potter withdrew from public life to concentrate on his last two plays.

The telecast attracted enormous attention in Britain, partly for its almost gruesome intimacy, with Potter twisting nervously in his seat as he let loose with a stream of political polemics, personal justifications and near-religious epiphanies. Particularly discomforting were his occasional swigs of liquid morphine to dull his pain. Potter explored the eerie and insidious effects of morphine in his final work, a short story written last month for The Daily Telegraph of London.

The following is an edited transcript of the Potter-Bragg conversation, which has not been shown in the United States. A footnote: A few days ago, acceding to Potter's plea, Channel 4 and the BBC announced plans to cooperate in the joint presentation, tentatively set for next year, of his final two, now lamentably posthumous, plays, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus.


[Bragg]: How long have you been working on this new thing?

[Potter]: Since I knew what was happening. I hope I've got enough days to finish it. I'm keeping to a very hard schedule, I'm driving myself. Even when I walk up and down—with the pain you sometimes have to keep moving—I still have the pen in my hand to make sure I can put a sentence down when it eases.

It's like that. It keeps me going. There'd be no point in remaining if I didn't, because there's no treatment possible; it's just blanking out pain with morphine. So it's finding a balance—if you blank it out totally, you can't work. It's one of those ratios that you have to work out daily.

How and when did you find out that you'd got this cancer?

Well I knew for sure on St. Valentine's Day—like a little gift, a little kiss from somebody.

I've been working since then flat out at strange hours, because I'm done in the evenings, mostly because of the morphine. Also the pain is very energy-sapping. But I do find that I can be at my desk at 5 in the morning, and I'm keeping to a schedule of pages, and I will and do meet that schedule every day.

Obviously, I had to attend to my affairs as well. I remember reading that phrase when I was a kid: "He had time to tend to his affairs."

But what it's given me also…. As a child, I know for a fact that I was a coward, a physical coward. And I'm really a cripplingly shy person. I hate new situations, new people, with almost a dread.

Now those two consequences in your adult life can really create seriously wrong impressions of yourself, to yourself and to other people, because you try and compensate. That can lead to aggression and the reverse of shy—arrogance, if you like—because you wear it like a cloak. But to let that drop and find out that in fact, at the last, thank God, you're not actually a coward—I haven't shed a tear since I knew. I grieve for my family, and friends who know me closest, obviously, and they're going through it in a sense more than I am.

I've discovered also what you always know to be true, but you never know it till you know it, if you follow. I remember Martin Amis saying something about how when you reach your 40's, middle age, nobody has ever told you what it's like.

Well, it's the same with knowing about death. We're the one animal that knows that we're going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there's eternity in a sense, and we tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense.

It is, and it is now only. As much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed ache to sometimes, we can't. It's in us, but it's not there in front of us. And however predictable tomorrow is, no matter how predictable it is, there's the element on the unpredictable.


That nowness becomes so vivid to me now, that in a perverse sort of way, I'm almost serene, I can celebrate life. Below...

(The entire section is 2085 words.)