Great interviews of the 20th century: Dennis Potter interviewed by Melvyn Bragg

Edited version of Melvyn Bragg's interview of Dennis Potter on March 15 1994. It was broadcast by Channel 4 on April 5 1994
Video: Melvyn Bragg remembers the Potter interview

Melvyn Bragg: How did you, and when did you, find out that you'd got this cancer?

Dennis Potter: Well, I knew for sure on St Valentine's day, [laughs] like a little gift, a little kiss from somebody or something. Obviously I had suspicions. I had a lot of pain before then and there was a quite accidental sort of misdiagnosis of the condition. In a way it was almost a relief to find out what it was: cancer of the pancreas with secondary cancers already in the liver and the knowledge that it can't be treated. There's no ... neither chemotherapy nor surgery are appropriate, it's just simply analgesic care until, you know: Goodnight Vienna, as they say in football nowadays. [laughs] And I've been working since then, flat out at strange hours, 'cause I'm done in the evenings, because of the morphine. The pain is very energysapping, but I do find that I can, I can be at my desk at five o'clock in the morning, and I'm keeping to a schedule of pages, and I will and do meet that schedule every day.

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. But I discover also what you always know to be true, but you never know it till you know it, if you follow (sorry, I've got ... my voice is echoing in my head for some reason).

We all, 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 forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is is, and it is now only. I mean, as much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to, and ache to sometimes, we can't. It's in us, but we can't actually; it's not there in front of us. However predictable tomorrow is, and unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it's too predictable, they're locked into whatever situation they're locked into ... Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there's the element of the unpredictable, of the you don't know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I'm almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.

Below my window in Ross, when I'm working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It's a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it's white, and looking at it, instead of saying "Oh that's nice blossom" ... last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There's no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance ... not that I'm interested in reassuring people - bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.

Do you spend much time thinking about your childhood and raking through that, Dennis, and the time in the Forest of Dean, the time with your parents? Because you've written about it often. Where is it now, as it were, in your ...

Where is the Forest of Dean? It's still back there. It's a sort of mythic Forest of Dean. There's the real one (laughs), with the same signs and stresses as the real anywhere, and there's the other one, the one I grew up as a small child in, and those rather ugly villages in beautiful landscape. Just accidentally a heart-shaped place between two rivers, somehow slightly cut off from them, the rest of England and Wales on the far side, the other border ...

Do you look back and ... I mean, a lot of people think that you see your childhood in ... there are terrors in it, but it is some kind of place in England that was a particular period in the lives of a lot of people which was to do with a sense of community. Now, we've both been through that, and we know that things were wrong - awful and terrible and so on - but there's a glow there. Is it a glow because you're a middle-aged man looking back?

Well, it's partly that and it's partly ... it's true the fact about childhood, which I tried to do in things like Blue Remembered Hills, for example. I used adult actors to play children in order to make them like a magnifying glass, to show what it's like. And because if you look at a child, talk about present tense, that's all they, all a small child lives in. So a wet Tuesday afternoon can actually be years long, and it - childhood - is full to the brim of fear, horror, excitement, joy, boredom, love, anxiety ... Maybe you kind of revert to that in a way, but my Forest of Dean childhood, well ... it is a strange and beautiful place, with a people who were as warm as anywhere else, but they seemed warmer to me, and the accent is almost so strong, it's almost like a dialect.

Up the hill three times, well, twice actually, usually on a Sunday, sometimes three times to Salem Chapel and those little floppy, orange-covered hymn books, Ira Sankey's 1,200 Sacred Songs and Solos and all this. Numbers would be slotted up on the board like those choruses, like ... There's one I'm trying to - it's funny, I can think of the number before I can think of the chorus, I can see it as clear as though it were written in front of me on the slat - 787, hymn number 787: "Will there be any stars, any stars in my crown, when the evening sun goes down, when I wake with the blessed in the mansion of rest, will there be any stars in my crown?" And, of course, it makes me laugh, and yet it tugs at me. And for me, of course it was the Holy Land - I knew Cannop Ponds by the pit where Dad worked, I knew that was where Jesus walked on the water; I knew where the Valley of the Shadow of Death was, that lane where the overhanging trees were.

We were poor, yes. Dad was a coalminer, reserved occupation, so he didn't go in the army. But the whole country at that time was politicised; even children knew what the war was about. I mean, we did. We English tend to deride ourselves far too easily, because we've lost so much confidence, because we lost so much of our own sense of identity, which had been subsumed in this forced imperial identity which I obviously hate. But we were, at that time, both a brave and a steadfast people, and we shared an aim, a condition, a political aspiration if you like, which was shown immediately in the 1945 general election, and then one of the great governments of British history - those five, six years of creating what is now being so brutally and wantonly and callously dismantled was actually a period to be proud of, and I'm proud of it.

You don't mind this cigarette? I mean, I always have smoked, but...

Why should I mind?

Well, people do nowadays. You get so bloody nervous smoking.

It's all right, I'm a very passive smoker.

Thank God I don't have to go to America any more. It's easier to pull a gun in America than a cigarette out of your pocket. Now I'm just virtually chain-smoking, because there's no point in ... There's so many things, like I can't keep food down any more. I can't have a meal, my digestive system's gone, but I can drink things, and those prepared, those horrible chemical things with all the minerals and stuff in them, but I can add a dash of this and that to it, which I do, and ... like cholesterol, aawww! I can break any rule now, you know, I can do it. But the cigarette, well, I love stroking this lovely tube of delight. Look at it (laughter).

I've packed in. Now stop, or I'll be smoking again in a minute, Dennis, with you. It's been written about so much and derided so much, people from working-class backgrounds getting to Oxford ... Do you think the driving themes in your work have come from your childhood or did they come from what happened after the break to university and the first few years' university journalism?

Dunno, Melvyn. They come as you grow, and your childhood remains. I mean, I forget, I've forgotten who said it, but I remember reading some essay by some writer saying that for any writer, the first 14 years of his or her life are the crucible anyway, no matter what you do. But of course you add on and you use your experiences and I, I've always deliberately, as a device, used the equivalent of a novelist's first-person narrative. You know when the novelist says I, he doesn't mean I, and yet you want him to mean I, and I've used, for example in The Singing Detective, I used the Forest of Dean, I used the physical circumstances of psoriatic arthropathy, which, you know, I've still got bloody psoriasis itching away at me, which is a bugger. You'd think that would lay off now, wouldn't you, but it won't! But I used that, and geographical realities, and it seemed so personal then, but I often do that. It isn't. I make it up, the story. You know the wife thing? The whole inner structure of that man is different to me. Now he was a man, the Singing Detective, Michael Gambon character, the Philip Marlow in a hospital bed at the beginning who had nothing. He was stripped of everything. He had no faith in himself, no belief in any political, religious or social system. He was full of a witty despair and cynicism. Now I have never been like that, and the dramatic story was very simple. It was simply seeing a man pick up his bed and walk. It's interesting, I always fall back into biblical language, but that again, you see, is part of my heritage, which I, in a sense, am grateful for.

Do you feel you were thought of at one stage as a political writer, at a very early stage? Your first appearance on television was talking about class to some in some documentary programme.

Yes, that's right.

And then Stand Up, Nigel Barton, you stood as a Labour candidate, you worked with the Daily Herald and so on. Where does that figure now, Dennis, and when did it figure? Was it a ...

I realised that somewhere along the line my pen was actually going to provide me with a living. Politics seemed the gateway. My very first book I wrote as an undergraduate, although a printing strike delayed it until a year after I left Oxford - it came out in 1960.

The Glittering Coffin?

... called The Glittering Coffin, yes, which was a kind of metaphor for the condition of England. Typical young man's title, you see, typical piece of that sort of humbugging, canting rhetoric, which young men - bless their hearts - specialise in. We should always look back on our own past with a sort of tender contempt. As long as the tenderness is there, but please let some of the contempt be there, because we know what we are like, we know how we hustle and bustle and shove and push and sometimes use grand words to cloak it; one does. I'm not looking at you specifically, so don't squirm [laughter].

Just associating bodily there.

Politics was - seemed - the door, until I actually stood as a candidate. By then, of course, illness had descended and I had a walking stick and I was drowning actually, drowning, felt that I was ... On the Daily Herald I hated every second of it. And that world of popular journalism, as I saw it then, and the Herald eventually mutated through the mismanagement of the Mirror Group, its eventual owners, into ... There's an interesting thing: one of the favourite fantasy plots of a writer is a character is told "You've got three months to live" and - which is what I was told - and you, who would you kill? (laughs). I call my cancer, the main one, the pancreas one, I call it Rupert, so I can get close to it, because the man Murdoch is the one who, if I had the time - in fact I've got too much writing to do and I haven't got the energy - but I would shoot the bugger if I could. There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press, and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life.

In your own writing, there was a time when it seemed to me, and to a lot of people, that there were novels being written and plays being put on on stage and films being made, but the power of very good writers, directors, cameramen talking to a large public was on television and you were pushing it again and again. You were bringing up ideas of the devil, you were bringing up ideas of dialogue turning into singing. You were bringing up ideas of memory matching with fantasy and so on. Did you ... you obviously found television available to everything you wanted to do, and you made it available for a lot of other people.

It could be, and can be, and I reached a stage and I've written so many things down over so many years of working for television - obviously, I'm 58. I might reach my ... 59 on May 17. I might get there. It'd look neater, wouldn't it, to die 59? But technique, I don't think about any more. It's just natural to me, I don't even ... it's like with a musician ...

What about subject matter? Was there anything ... did you feel that you were being daring doing any of the things you did in it? Did you think, I am going to be ...

That's the only thing I really resent, that's the only thing I would stamp my foot about. I never have ... This is, I was going to say the gospel truth, here I go again, but this is the truth, Melvyn, that I have never felt the need to do that. It has come, the mould, if broken on any one point, has come out of the need to do what I was doing. Not, "How do I break the mould?" It's the other way round, so things have happened. The way they come, I remember, it's ... it always sounds so mundane but, for example, the use of adults to play children in Blue Remembered Hills was, is just ... I was starting to write about children and I wanted to write something difficult because children don't have long speeches; you can't have flashbacks to nonexistent memories. You can't have certain rhetorical devices. You have to have a continual twitchy action because that's how children move. And these were a group of seven seven-year-olds, and the only, ultimately the only, way I could see, while keeping exactly to the language of childhood and the movements of childhood and the constant present-tense preoccupations of childhood, to show it without that filter coming in the way, which an audience going "Ah, children" and immediately pushing it back to childhood, was by using adults, seven adult actors. Once you get over the panic of the first five minutes, when I think, my God, is this ... ? Colin Welland's great fat arse and great shorts addling, sploshing through mud, making aeroplane noises, and chewing on an apple, and I thought, oh, you know, it's going to be one of those dire, dread embarrassments, because it ain't gonna work. And yet after a while people could see obviously that these were adults. But they also saw that they were children, so it worked. It wasn't because I was trying - do you see what I'm getting at? I was trying to show childhood not at one remove but straight on.

What about bringing in popular songs, as you did, say, with Pennies from Heaven?

That, I wanted to write about - in a sense it sounds condescending, and I don't mean it quite this way - I wanted to write about the way popular culture is an inheritor of something else. You know that cheap songs so-called actually do have something of the Psalms of David about them. They do say the world is other than it is. They do illuminate. This is why people say, "Listen, they're playing our song", or whatever. It's not because that particular song actually expressed the depth of the feelings that they felt when they met each other and heard it. It is that somehow it re-evokes and pours out of them yet again, but with a different coating of irony and selfknowledge. Those feelings come bubbling back. So I wanted to write about popular songs in a direct way. It became just a technical problem for me. Not interested in writing a musical. A musical has a different grammar: the action builds to a song and then a song caps it and then it moves on. Then I thought, well, they lip-synch things now and again. You know, like sometimes there's a bad performance or they dub from one language to another. Why don't I just try making the actor move his lips to the words of the song? Then I tried it a bit, I tried it with myself in a mirror, and that was fun. I mean, I was pre-karaoke and I wasn't breaking a mould as such. I just found the ideal way of making these songs so real.

[I] dislike, and I can understand it, the use of this word controversial, but there were many times when you really seemed to bump into opinion in this country. Can we talk about Brimstone and Treacle, the vision of a devil ...

Ah, Brimstone and Treacle was ... Can I break off for a second? I need a swig of that - there's liquid morphine in that thing. I'll keep going but I ... Can you unscrew that cap? I ... this is not agitation about Brimstone and Treacle by the way.

Are you feeling OK? How much ... how much time?

It's better to go on.

Why do you think you got so much resistance in Brimstone and Treacle?

It's a very complicated story, but if I could put in essence what I saw I was trying to do: it's ... in a way it's a simple flip-over of an ordinary sentimental religiose, rather than religious, parable, in that there is an afflicted house - variously afflicted, but in particular with a crippled, seemingly mindless, struck girl, young girl. And there is a visitor, and the visitor brings her to life and makes her speak. Now, if that visitor were an angel, then all you would have is sanctimoniousness, you would learn nothing about anything. What if it were the devil? Instead of making that easy distinction which, on the whole, only the blasphemous make - non-religious people make this distinction very easily, between so-called good and so-called evil, when of course they are interrelated, and one is defined in terms of the other. So instead of the angel coming and rescuing the cripple and the dumb and the afflicted, I had the devil do it. The evil act can lead to good consequences; a good act can lead to evil consequences. This is often the case, and it is ... it is incomprehensible. It is as though, you know, the rain falls on the just and upon the unjust. It is so. Now, it appeared disgusting because it was a devil, and because it was a rape, or the beginnings of a rape, that made her cry out; and interestingly, the cry out was actually an accusation against her father. That complexity is, as I say, simply a reversal of what would have been sanctimonious and sentimental.

Thanks a lot.

That'll have to do. I'm done. I need that thing again, I'm sorry. I felt OK, you see. At certain points, I felt I was flying with it.

You were.

And so ... I'm grateful for the chance. This is my chance to say my last words. So, thanks.

· Interview reproduced by permission of ITN Source/Channel 4.

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