by Allan Fish
(UK 1996 210m) DVD2
Why must I be a teenager in love?
p Kenith Tridd d Renny Rye w Dennis Potter ph Ashley Rowe ed Clare Douglas m Christopher Gunning art Gary Williamson
Albert Finney (Daniel Feeld), Richard E.Grant (Nick Balmer), Saffron Burrows (Sandra Sollars), Keeley Hawes (Linda Langer), Hywel Bennett (Arthur ‘Pig’ Mallion), Alison Steadman (Mrs Haynes), Anna Chancellor (Anna Griffiths), Julie Christie (Lady Ruth Balmer), Roy Hudd (Ben Baglin), Ian McDiarmid (Oliver Morse), Liz Smith (Mrs Baglin), Steven Mackintosh, Natascha McElhone, Beth Goddard, Ewan McGregor,
In early 1994, a month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given months to live, Dennis Potter gave a unique valedictory interview with Melvyn Bragg. In it, while discussing his life, his fears, his hopes and his work, the discussion got on to what would be his final work, written ten pages a day while taking morphine to numb the pain as much as could be without rendering him mentally incapable of writing. At the point of the interview he’d all but written Karaoke and presented a dying wish, as it were, that the BBC and Channel 4 would come together to make it and its sequel Cold Lazarus, each premiering one and repeating the other. He got his wish, and Karaoke showed on BBC1 in 1996, two years after his death, and was repeated the following week on Channel 4, with the process reversed for Cold Lazarus straight after. The irony is that the copyright problems this once in a lifetime arrangement presented delayed a DVD until 2010.
Daniel Feeld is an author who finds out he’s suffering from cancer (pancreatic, naturally), and who is stunned to find that people in his real life are saying words from his latest script ‘Karaoke’. He becomes obsessed with a young girl, Sandra, who is under the thumb of a sadistic underworld club owner nicknamed ‘Pig’ (just as in his play), much to the distress of his agent, Ben Baglin. Meanwhile, his script is in production and its director, Nick Balmer, wants to change portions of it to favour his obsession with leading lady Linda Langer, a raw, not especially talented girl who, it later transpires, has been planted there to blackmail him by none other than the same ‘Pig’.
That it’s autobiographical goes without saying, but there’s something else at work here, for it also references his earlier work, while actors from such earlier works pop up in cameos (Ewan McGregor is seen walking down the street), and it says much for the respect the cast and the suits at the BBC and Channel 4 had for him, that they totally submit themselves to his vision. One wonders, however, whether Potter had any say in casting, not just of Albert Finney in the lead, but especially of Ian McDiarmid in the role of Finney’s character in the movie within the movie of Karaoke. McDiardmid could easily be Potter’s own double, so that we have a reflection within a reflection, of Potter writing of effectively himself, but holding that mirror back on himself, literally through the screen, in the form of an actor quite literally playing himself. It’s a mind-boggling concept of which David Lynch would have approved and it’s a masterstroke. Yet it’s not the only masterstroke at work here. Renny Rye had also directed Lipstick on Your Collar and was well attuned to interpreting his work, but it’s certain he never did finer work. The entire cast have a ball, and if Burrows’ cockney accent may wobble, it’s meant to, while a very young Hawes is excellent as the scheming starlet. Grant does panicky as only he can, Bennett plays the sort of slime-ball as to merit euthanasia, like Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney’s father, Steadman’s comic scenes with jigsaws are priceless and Hudd is delicious in his spoonerisms, in a way to rival the old news-reader bits of Ronnie Barker (“rucking fain”, Finney says, mimicking him in a downpour). And then there’s Finney doing his best work in years, enjoying himself from impersonating daleks in the mirror (“obey the EEC…obey”) to getting plastered on red wine. It would have been a fitting tribute to the man if it was his last work, but it would only be the genesis of it, the spasms of it. Cold Lazarus went even further; too far for me, but he was pushing back boundaries even posthumously.