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Unraveling The Mystery And Talent Of Dennis Potter

Late in Dennis Potter's greatest and most famous work, The Singing Detective, the mystery-writer hero Philip Marlow is grumbling about the public's desire for art that offers easy answers: "People want all solutions and no clues," he says. "What I want is all clues and no solutions."

The same is clearly true of Potter, whose gripping, enigmatic, controversial writing for TV made him one of British culture's defining figures from the 1960s through the 1980s. Mixing ferocious reality and game-playing fantasy, guilty regret and acid-bath nastiness, his work pushed the limits of what television can do farther than anyone since.

Not all of Potter's work was great, of course — he was too unstoppably prolific for that. But even his routine work is worth seeing. I was reminded of this as I watched the new DVD collection Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember. It brings together three television dramas that showed on successive November Sundays in 1980, plus the unforgettable 1994 interview he gave in the brief weeks between learning he had incurable cancer and actually passing away.

On the face of it, the three tele-films could hardly be more different. Blade on the Feather is a psychological chess game about espionage. Rain on the Roof shows a 30-something wife beginning a flirtation with a disturbed, Bible-obsessed young man. Cream in My Coffee presents the anatomy of a marriage, from randy young love to bickering old age.

These stories are united by their common themes — I'm tempted to say obsessions. Each film features a power struggle, illicit sex, violent death and the haunting memory of a dead father. Each bristles with Potter's trademark rawness — he's great at showing how people are soiled — and suffers from the ugly, bleached-out cinematography that marred English television back then. And each boasts unforgettable moments, like the scene in Blade on the Feather when a monologue about watching someone eat a fast-food hamburger turns into the most lacerating sexual putdown in history.

If you only knew Potter from these three films, you might think him the most corrosively cynical man who ever lived. That's why the real revelation of this boxed set is his dying interview, which, endowed with the authority of death, is astonishing for its peaceful, even beatific lucidity.

Potter always believed that our lives are largely unconscious performances. We act out scripts written by childhood family dynamics, pop culture cliches and the class-defined realities of the workplace. In contrast, this interview is a highly self-conscious performance by a man who, in talking to us, is forcibly pulling himself away from the work he desperately wants to finish before he dies. Dramatically drinking morphine on camera to fight the pain, he tries to make sense of his life, private and public — everything from his failure to enough show love to his coalminer father to his insistence that Rupert Murdoch's media empire was destroying British culture. He even jokingly nicknamed his cancer "Rupert."

For much of his life, Potter had a reputation as an angry, difficult man whose mind was writhing with snakes. This wasn't wrong, but in later years it became clear that the underlying theme of his work was actually the search for health and transcendence, the attempt to recognize and eventually get beyond the crippling effects of regret, anger, self-pity — of all of life's inescapable wounds. That's what happens in The Singing Detective — whose haunted, skin-ravaged hero walks out of the hospital a wiser man. And to judge from that final interview — which was a final attempt to write his own story — that's what happened in Potter's life as well.

As he sips his morphine and chain smokes his cigarettes — no reason to quit now — Potter seems to be surrounded by light, as if the acceptance of death has miraculously purged him of darkness and left him transfigured. He's become his dream version of himself, and if he hasn't yet found the solution to life, he at least knows, he's followed its clues.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.