09 December 2013

Karaoke/Cold Lazarus

In 1994 playwright Dennis Potter was dying of pancreatic cancer. In a moving and memorable TV interview he calmly explained that he was racing against his terminal diagnosis to complete a final pair of television plays. He accomplished this just weeks later and with only days to spare. Eventually in 1996, in accordance with Potter's request, the two four-part plays were screened weekly on the BBC with repeats the same week on Channel 4 in a rare show of co-operation.

I watched 'Karaoke' and its immediate sequel 'Cold Lazarus' seventeen years ago. This week I broke open my DVD box set to watch them again. By the mid nineties Potter had perfected a unique style which had begun with his groundbreaking work in the sixties and reached its full potential with 1986's The Singing Detective. He wove stories of the human condition in claustrophobic settings for the small screen, in which characters would burst into song, miming to relevant popular songs of the forties and fifties, then drop back into sharply written dialogue.

This sometimes perplexing approach polarised opinion but for those, like me, who fell under his beguiling spell, the results were pure genius. His protagonists often sought and found love in the face of adversity or ill health. Potter drew heavily from personal experience and just as his fictional singing detective suffered from the same debilitating psoriasis as Potter himself, so the main character in his final plays, Daniel Field, has terminal pancreatic cancer.

Dropping any pretences, Potter not only gives Field the same diagnosis as himself, but also scripted him as a playwright racing against time to finish a play before his death. Field begins to lose his mind, writes, drinks heavily, and tries to right a series of wrongs from his recent life. He draws a new Will, writes detailed final instructions and elects to leave his body to medical science; to an experimental cryogenics clinic. 'Karaoke's' auto-biographical details give the viewer a direct insight into Potter's own frame of mind.

The sequel 'Cold Lazarus' takes place three hundred years after Field's death so he is the only character common to both plays. Field's head has been preserved and future scientists reanimate it in order to examine embedded memories. Ultimately the reanimated, disembodied head begs the scientists to let it die.

'Karaoke' adopts a classic film noir style complete with rain soaked streets, furtive conversations, prostitutes and dingy bars. The sets for 'Cold Lazarus,' in stark contrast, are like cheap 1960s science fiction. Shapes are organic with seats and buildings resembling petals and toadstools; the straight lines and stark minimalism we mostly ascribe to the future, absent.

Despite my very brief summaries, the stories are long and complex, each running for four hours. Themes of love, loss, anger, redemption and death permeate both plays and, good though they are, I feel Potter has portrayed them better and with more emotion in earlier works. Nonetheless the plays are exquisitely written and stand as a fitting final testament to an exceptional writing talent.

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