Interview with Kenith Trodd for Vertigo July 1996

By Vertigo

Kenith Trodd is currently producing The Fix for the BBC and Maybe for Years for the cinema.

Vertigo: Were you surprised by the reaction to the Potter plays Karaoke and Cold Lazarus?

Kenith Trodd: Yes, I was. And I think we were all naïvely surprised, and a bit hurt too. I had assumed that the goodwill that Dennis had created when he did the Bragg interview would carry over, and that those pieces would be seen, not in any particularly indulgent light, but would be received as important new works and then would sink or swim on their merits. But I don’t think that’s what happened. There was clearly a critical agenda set by one or two individuals, well in advance of transmission, which meant that people – and here I include both ‘name’ journalists and the larger audience – didn’t feel they had to take it seriously and that there was a get-out, an excuse, a way of saying, ‘Well, we’ve had too much Potter; he’s been indulged too much, he’s passed his sell-by date.’ So there was a kind of cop-out whereas, in the past, people didn’t feel that so readily or so conveniently. Now of course, in the past – although I think it’s easy to overestimate this factor – Dennis himself was around to bring people into order, because he was obviously a formidable advocate and defender of his work. And with that voice missing, it made some, although not a huge difference.

V: How would you explain this climate, of opinion?

KT: Compared with when, say, The Singing Detective or Pennies from Heaven came out, politically there’s clearly a quite different climate, quite a different history. People who have never had anything but this kind of Conservative government are now a large part of the viewing public. And the broadcasting culture itself has been semi-transformed. Of course, there is still the BBC, and if there weren’t still the BBC and Channel 4, those pieces of work wouldn’t have got made, or got made on that scale, but clearly, the willingness of the constituency – and again I use that term to include everyone from the audience en masse to particular ‘name’ journalists – to take seriously and respect a voice like that of a Dennis Potter, has obviously changed in that decade. And proof of it is the rather poor reception given to Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. Just as I assumed that the generosity and the awe which greeted the Bragg interview would carry over into people’s receptivity of these last eight hours of Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, so I also assumed that people were still perceiving or awaiting Dennis Potter as the writer of those giant pieces like Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. What I didn’t allow for – and I’ve been very aware of it, of course – is that there’s been another Dennis Potter in between, who was the author of a series of pieces, from Black-Eyes onwards, which undoubtedly, whatever their defenders or makers may say, whatever the loyalists in their extreme form might say, were of an inferior order. And so there certainly was, in the sort of niche perception of Dennis Potter, and again perhaps particularly in the case of younger viewers, a sense that this was somebody who’d made some not particularly memorable pieces of work on the larger scale, and maybe this was just going to be more of the same. Although Potter has never had a huge audience in TV terms he’s been a figure who was extremely well known, a figure who was awaited with some enthusiasm and expectation. But that core audience has clearly diminished. It is no longer there in the kind of numbers which would regard Dennis Potter as important in a way in which 10 years ago people did. The climate has altered, and it’s made it draughtier for somebody like Potter to be given at least a neutral environment in which his pieces can come forth.

V: Do you think that, if you had the opportunity, it would be possible to repeat the experience that you had with Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective? Is the audience as sensitive, as desiring of those kind of images and words, as they were then?

KT: It’s very hard to know. One only has random and subjective responses to that, because there’s no reliable feedback. All you can say is that today, less people are willing to take seriously what comes at them out of the TV set. You could also say that perhaps the status of the BBC is much less revered than it was in the past, because don’t forget it wasn’t just Dennis Potter – it was Dennis Potter on the BBC, and Dennis Potter being accommodated in a barbed and often mutually suspicious way by that particular national institution, which has also now changed. So I don’t think that there could be conditions that would be more favourable than those we were given for Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, unless those conditions were too favourable. I mean, there was certainly one respect in which I think they were too favourable, in that because of the circumstances of Dennis’ death and because of his taste and talent for orchestrating very effectively his posthumous career, the resulting atmosphere of awe and the willingness to bend over backwards to do what he wanted, I think performed some disservice. I mean, I’m certainly on record, and I remain on the record, as saying that the director that Dennis wanted for the piece was not the best director available. I do think that what the climate of the making of those pieces lacked, as compared with the climate of Pennies from Heaven or The Singing Detective or Blue Remembered Hills, was a degree of critical and personal distance in the interpretation of the text. Not that anyone ever tried, or would even have been allowed – particularly by me – to behave like a competing auteur on a piece of Dennis Potter work; but if what the director brings is a perception that he has his own agenda, part of which is to want to do the best for that text, then you will get something which is, I think, more effective, or likely to be more effective, than someone who is slavishly and loyally and admirably saying, ‘I want to do the best for Dennis.’ The director of Cold Lazarus and Karaoke, Rennie Rye, when pressed by a journalist (and he was pressed) about what he wanted from these films said, ‘All I want is to feel that Dennis would have liked what I did.’ That seems to me to be building in a condition, to start with, by which you’re not going to get the best out of a piece of work. Now how much less than the best, I don’t know. But I certainly do know that, in the case of those other pieces that I was involved with, there was something I can only call a degree of creative critical distance which produced its own embellishments. A prime example of this was The Singing Detective, where Jon Amiel managed to achieve with Dennis – and without much help from me, because Dennis and I were going through one of our rather stupid spats at this time – more development and change in how that story and those characters developed than anybody else had ever done. So that a lot of the best in the final version of The Singing Detective, which most people I think would now regard as the best of Dennis Potter, is down to the efforts and the courage of Jon Amiel. Now I don’t think such a contribution would necessarily have transformed Karaoke and Cold Lazarus into pieces on the scale of brilliance of The Singing Detective, because maybe they weren’t that to start with, but it would have got them somewhere closer. And so there is a personal frustration there for me because, in the immediate posthumous aftermath, everybody from Michael Grade downwards was very, very determined to believe that what Dennis wanted was what should happen, regardless of the fact that life with Dennis was always a life – professionally, I mean – of negotiation, of sparring and of dialectic. I suppose we also have to concede that there was some difference of quality in the text that Dennis left. One obvious factor was that there was no opportunity for him to do any re-writing, let alone the really important kind of re-writing that can take place only in the heat and pressure and hysteria of being in production. You know, the most important event, as far as I’m concerned, in any piece of work that I’ve been involved with is the first read-through. The people who are going to be trusted to bring it alive, the actors, start speaking it. Then you begin to realise… as long as it’s not too late in the day, but it can only be that late… what you have to do. That stage we were denied because Dennis wasn’t there and wasn’t able to hear that. So there were those peculiarities. But I have one conviction which I maintain with a sense of both achievement and belief, and that is that what he managed to do at the end of his life, by a tremendous effort of discipline and burst of inspiration, was to come back to something like form, and to actually obliterate the rather sad memory of the previous five years. I certainly think that Potter, with these pieces of work, sustained the right, at the end of his life, to be regarded in the topmost bracket. Because who else is there? And yet, even at the end, he wasn’t given that small degree of generosity or recognition, which is quite extraordinary.

V: Do you think Mark Lawson’s piece in the Guardian set the agenda?

KT: Yes, and he wrote that piece solely on the basis of reading the scripts and seeing a video of the first episode of Karaoke. And that was all about that awful business of everyone wanting to get in first. Lawson was able to file that piece two or three weeks before anybody else. What you’re dealing with here is much more the jungle of columnists competing with each other in some dreadful deadline-driven purgatory than any concerted agenda against Dennis Potter. But certainly that piece set a tone, and I think that because it came from someone as high-profile as Lawson, it gave other people an excuse to be shits in their own turn.

V: If Potter were to write The Singing Detective and so on now, would he be treated with the respect that he once was?

KT: As I said earlier there has been a change, and that it’s quite likely that, even with Dennis present and able to be as vociferous and salty and attacking in defence of his works, they probably wouldn’t get as interesting, fair and expectant a hearing as they once did. Now there are various background things which have affected that, one of which is very, very pervasive, and that is that all of the newspapers, including the Guardian, now have their own TV interests. The press and the screen media always were competitive, but not in the interlocking way that they are now. I also think that the awe with which Dennis laid waste his own death in the Bragg programme, silenced virtually every critic, and this meant that in some unconscious way they waited two years and then they felt they could go for him and accuse him of power tripping and so on.

V: In Karaoke, one of the things that struck me was that it was actually an examination of the role of the artist, in the sense of someone who has these visions and is unable to act on them.

KT: That was something that clearly did fascinate him. Which visions are authentic, and which a kind of neurotic hysteria? I’ve seen Dennis actually traumatised in front of his own work. I was present once at a series of seminars in New York, where I showed clips from programmes and at the end of which Dennis and I and some other people went on to the platform to talk. The final clip of the session was from The Singing Detective. At the end of the clip, Dennis managed to get on the platform, but he couldn’t speak. And when we finally unravelled what the matter was, he said, ‘I haven’t seen it for three or four years, and I had no idea what it was going to do to me.’ So I think that notion of your creating something and it coming back to hit you and coming alive all around you, is something which obviously fascinated him, and Karaoke or The Singing Detective were not the first time he’d explored those notions, which are anyway interesting per se. To say that this is just somebody whose head is too big, which was the level of some of the criticism, just seems to me very sad. There’s an essay in one of the prefaces to some of the published plays where he talks in a very positive way about the way writers till the same field, and that everybody has only a limited field, and that limited field is your life and your experience, and you go back to it all the time. And the notion that there was something illegitimate or tired about that would have appalled him, as it certainly appalled me. The notion that there was something wrong in Karaoke returning to some of those preoccupations, and in a very witty way being an allusive summation of things he’d done in other pieces, seems to me just amazing. But I suppose that they exposed themselves to this kind of thing, because again, if you couple their intrinsic ambition with all the paraphernalia and atmosphere of the Melvyn Bragg interview, and then Potter’s actual death, they certainly weren’t under-claiming or undervaluing themselves; they were saying: this is important stuff, it’ll reward your attention.

V: Cold Lazarus made me think of the terrible, frustrating feeling that one has when one sees things so clearly and yet one can’t act on any of them; one is imprisoned by one’s own vision, as it were. Bearing in mind his Edinburgh lecture on Murdoch and so on, did he feel frustrated by things, especially the state of the media, and was he able to live with his own clarity?

KT: No, I don’t think he was. And you can see an analogy in the situation of the frozen head in Cold Lazarus, where the whole drive of the baddies is to achieve control of this power and make it work entirely for their purposes and without the volition of the being itself. That notion isn’t so distant from somebody like Dennis Potter in 10 years’ time, under exclusive contract to Dream Works or Murdoch or whoever, being a kind of prisoner – you’re frozen, they can bleed you, they can do what they like, and you’re actually silent. That analogy was quite clearly there, and Dennis was, in a different way in Cold Lazarus as compared to Karaoke, seeing what grasp or influence people like him had been able to have during the past 20 or 30 years in the media, which were now slipping away from him just as his own life was slipping away. So I think there certainly was a sense of frustration in that respect. But again, to turn to the positive aspect of Dennis, he was unique, not just in the size of his talent, but in having the ability polemically and intellectually to argue his own corner. And that’s the game he played all the time, so that you did have, allied to the literary talent or the dramatic talent, this other strategic, tactical and political ability to manipulate. And he was, both in those respects and in personal ways, quite a manipulator. He was someone who did play a power game in his own life, and very successfully too, right up to the very climax – because certainly that Melvyn Bragg performance has never been excelled, and won’t be, in terms of somebody ordering the world for himself for when he’ll no longer be around to guarantee that it’ll be done that way. So there was certainly, in the dominating images in both Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, a sense of Dennis etching a rather black picture of the world in which he’d operated, and being both sardonic and a bit despairing about where it was going and what he was leaving. I don’t know whether there’s a sense of frustration about what he’d been able to achieve, because I don’t think that he hankered after changing the world. I think he was happy to be a writer, until he was hit by the frustration of any kind of success which is confined to the UK and then failed really to make it in his own terms in Hollywood. I think there was some element of frustration there, but I think he also knew quite cannily and clearly who he was and what he had achieved.

V: Is an author possible in this day and age? If Potter started his career now would it be possible for him to create such achievements?

KT: Dennis wrote Pennies from Heaven in 1978. He started as a TV dramatist in 1965, and between 1965 and 1978 he had something like 23 original plays transmitted. So his ability to be a practising presence, and to be able to fail as well as succeed, was very, very important in the conditions which made Dennis Potter. He was quite canny, but yet was never that demanding, and the climate was permissive, if you created the conditions of permissiveness – by which I mean you had to be opportunistic and feisty enough to deal with what was even then a philistine and consensus-inclined establishment; the golden age was never that golden, but it could be different enough or canny enough to its own wider interests to allow certain things to happen. So the conditions that Dennis operated on were sufficient regularity of commissions to support him financially, and enough outlets for him to become a recognisable force and to hone his craft, so that by the time he got to Pennies from Heaven (and the immediate preamble to Pennies from Heaven was, of course, the banning of Brimstone and Treacle, so we always have to remember that it was never that easy: it always had to be fought for and was always liable to be taken away) he’d occupied a lot of territory. But I don’t think it was automatic, and it certainly wasn’t offered; it wasn’t as if the BBC, in some five-year plan, had the notion that ‘we’ve got to have some of these bolshie left-wingers writing plays’. It’s just that given that Dennis was inclined to be committed to TV and the conditions allowed him to be so. Now, the first difference there would be if a Potter appeared now, is that there aren’t enough outlets and opportunities other than in a formulaic context like East Enders and Casualty. Even in the 80s, as the number of slots declined, it became harder for people like Jack Rosenthal and Simon Gray to get on to TV, because it was felt to be unfair that they’d occupied, within living memory, perhaps too much space in what was a generous availability. Now that the availability was much more confined and limited, it was felt that it wasn’t right that they should be given that attention. Now Potter had none of those problems; Potter was allowed, on the whole, the space that he wanted. And given, as I said earlier, that he had this whole alternative polemical talent which was able to tell people that they should do his works, and to defend them when they were inclined to suppress them, he operated in conditions which were intrinsically favourable; and by being the kind of person and the kind of talent that he was, made the best of them. And I don’t know what the best would be if somebody came along now. Because there’s something freakish about indigenous, purely-for-TV single drama. There were two things about the development of single drama in the later 70s and the 80s that Dennis disliked. One was that it went more and more to film, and from that followed something else: it became director-led, and where the directors wanted to lead, and that also included people like me, was to the movies. So the focus of attention became less upon the commitment to the box in the corner, which was something that Dennis never stopped talking about, never stopped believing in, never stopped enthusing about, to a much more careerist or, if you like, auteurist-related ambition, which gradually, but not with any particular imagination, the TV companies followed. When Channel 4 began in 1980-81, it started a different tradition which was largely aimed at the movies, and where the writer’s pre-eminence was by definition less important. Because, again, one of the things you have to remember about all of Dennis’ good material is that it’s actually intransigently and doggedly British. The field that Dennis trawled across again and again is not even metropolitan English culture, it’s something rather specific and private and almost nostalgic. So, where the priorities of the industry are not the domestic TV consumer, not even the domestic movie-goer, but the international market, it’s obvious that the possibility of a voice like Potter’s, even one which could get hip to those conditions, wouldn’t have very much chance of coming through with the persistence and the volubility and the sheer quantity that he managed to achieve in the 60s and 70s.

V: As a producer, are you still looking for visions that sustain the possibility of a dialogue with the audience, or have you broken with the idea that there could be such a thing? Is there a poet that could speak of all those changes – because so far those changes have not been delineated, marked and shaped.

KT: If there were such a person, and I felt a conviction about them, there would still be the possibility of trying to fight for the right to have that person heard. When I say that conditions institutionally in TV have changed, they’ve changed and they’re semi-transformed, but they haven’t been annihilated since the so-called vintage days. If they’d been annihilated, then we couldn’t have had Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. But what was very interesting, and indeed heartening, was that it was quite easy for Dennis to make that appeal, to say publicly on TV to Yentob and Grade: ‘I want you to do this,’ and for them to do it. Although of course it’s also true that it would have been much harder to say ‘no’. It wasn’t exactly hard to say ‘yes’… Even if you detach it from the fact that the man was dying, the fact that only two years ago that appeal could be heard and could be answered has to be interpreted positively rather than just apocalyptically. Now, of course it’s a very different thing to do that for a dying Dennis Potter to say, ‘Here is my last work, and I want to die trusting that you’ll do this,’ than it would be for a new voice which might be uttering in quite a strange and different way. And of course, when Dennis began he was one of many. When Dennis started out to write he didn’t have to be visible at all; he wasn’t that peculiar, he was systematic. There were people like me and Tony Garnett in those enabling, gate-keeping positions in which we were able to find him the money to write, and he could have gone on being invisible. It’s just that he struck the mark, and continued to do it. But there was no difficulty in getting the wherewithal to make those first productions. They then needed to be defended, because they turned out to be controversial; but just as there was no difficulty in finding the wherewithal to get them made, because they were part of a system and a desirable part of an expanding industry, so there was generally no active attempt at suppression when things became difficult. But it all could have wilted, I think, had Dennis not been feisty, had there not been a few people like us around to carry on that battle, and to carry it on without having to fight or even circumvent purely commercial considerations. That’s what is different now, that whether it’s a cheap proposition or an expensive proposition, the first questions about anything now made on British TV are financial ones.

V: Does your fight have a future? At the end of the day, do you feel exhausted, because you’ve been through all these changes at the BBC, or do you feel that actually the breath may be coming back?

KT: Well, I suppose personally I feel less enthusiasm about things like the George Eliot or Jane Austen series, but the fact that those could be made, and that they could be acclaimed and find a chord, is very important and very heartening, as is the fact that they go on making them. But again, they go on making them partly because they are commercially successful. Nobody would be allowed to carry a torch for George Eliot or Jane Austen, or Our Friends in the North-type material, had they achieved just 70% of the success that they did. But the fact that they got audiences, they got critical approval, and they sold, so justifying themselves on all the prevalent criteria, means that’s fine. But that’s quite different from the mish-mash of the past, when you did have something of a collegiate profession where, at the pivot of decision-making between the talent outside and the bureaucrats and controllers inside, there was this cadre called the producers, which has now been effectively abolished in that producers are no longer in a position where they can be, on a small but vital scale, important patrons. The decision-making process concerning what is made has now drifted upwards and upwards, and therefore the decision isn’t taken in the old, relatively protected circumstances. What you now have is a situation where the criteria are commercial, all very bright-eyed and brisk and bushy-tailed. It doesn’t mean – and the evidence of Our Friends in the North and the classic series proves it – that things can’t be made under those conditions, but they can’t be made despite those conditions. So that if a Potter came along and managed to compel for his first production quite extraordinary, jealousy-and-envy-inspiring amounts of money, and then that didn’t quite hit it, I don’t think the investment would go on happening there, however positive the immediate aficionado response. Of course even in the 60s it wasn’t all that sunny and easy, and the BBC was constantly under threat from politicians, but on the whole there was a security about it. Nobody thought then that the licence fee was actually going to be taken away, it wasn’t under really serious threat as it was in the 80s and, of course, it wasn’t under wider global and technological threat either. So the conditions have been transformed, and I don’t think that there does remain within those transformed conditions any protective opt-out which would enable a talent to survive that happened not to satisfy fairly easily and readily the now dominant commercial criteria. Things are not done for their own sake, in the way that they were in the past. And of course, what underpins that comes back to the inconvenient Britishness, certainly of a Potter or perhaps of a future Potter, that the BBC can no longer afford, or chooses not to afford, to wholly finance. For single dramas, what the BBC has done systematically over the past two years is just to cut budgets as a matter of course – 8%, followed by 5%, followed by another 8%, and there’s always more you can squeeze. So the pressure that puts on producers or heads of department is that they have to find other sources, or else a cheap and ingeniously cost-nothing pieces, which are very hard to come across. And if you’re bound to find other partners, which are more likely to be theatrical than other TV organisations, you’re going to have to negotiate or compromise with them in what it is that you actually make, and their interests become as important as yours. In this situation it’s the raw, contemporary, difficult pieces which are under threat, because by what criterion do you support them? Because they’re never going to be so cheap that it doesn’t matter, and they’re never going to be supported internationally in advance. When Americans or Australians have bought Potters, they’ve never been networked, they’ve always been shown on a niche of some kind, cable or PBS, but always after the event, always after the BBC has taken the original risk and when the niche channel has been able to inherit the security of the reputation they’ve already garnered here, so the real work and the real risk has always been taken by the BBC. And I think that’s what wouldn’t happen now. What will be interesting to see is whether the BBC goes on making the single drama, whose inherent problem is that it has always been very difficult to launch and to sustain: it’s there for one week, and that’s that, it’s gone. So the single film and single drama, when it hasn’t already garnered a reputation in the cinema like Four Weddings, is a very unattractive proposition, particularly when the environment is so commercial.