Thursday, 8 December 2011

Voices from beyond

Good morning. (That was my Alistair Cook introduction).

I had to down tools yesterday afternoon to properly listen to Peter Tinniswood telling us his innermost thoughts and torments from the grave and through the radio. Various Beckett-like and mundanely day to day snippets of phrases and conversation were repeated during the play, and each time the same words were spoken by the main character (played by the wonderful Roy Hudd), sense of anxiety and angst became increasingly obvious in the tone of his voice - you know when people laugh with their voices, but their eyes betray pure panic?

Then when the character (an old man on the point of his admission to hospital with a terminal disease) exposes his true identity as Tinniswood (who else could it be?) by shouting, "Go away! All these WORDS! What do they mean?!", you realise that this is - indeed - Peter Tinniswood sending us messages from the beyond.

Another playwright - Dennis Potter - did just the same thing when he was commissioned to write a trilogy for T.V. a few months before his death. He knew he would never see the finished plays, and insisted that they should be shown on both ITV and the BBC at the same time, otherwise no deal. In those far-off, analogue days, that meant that the entire, British T.V. watching population were forced to watch them, or switch off and read a book. How he swung that deal is an indication of the esteem in which he was held by the powers which controlled the media, and this concession has never been granted to a playwright before or since.

They begin with the main character who - whilst sitting in a restaurant - overhears the exact same dialogue as he has just written for his last play (the character knows he is dying), but being spoken - verbatim - by a couple sitting at a nearby table. He becomes obsessed with the beautiful young woman who is talking his lines to a sinister figure who sits with her, and switches between sanity and insanity as he attempts to save her life, knowing - because he wrote the script - that she was about to be murdered by the sinister man. No problem, he just changes the script, then leaves her all his money in his will.

The final play - 'Dead Lazarus' - is set in the distant future, and the dead playwright's head has been cut off and preserved for several hundred years in a large tank of preservative. A team of scientists are experimenting with extracting the memories from the playwright's head (they no nothing about his former life) and after a while, images of his childhood in the Forest of Dean (where Potter did, indeed, grow up) begin to flicker on a three-dimensional screen. They are of the strongest experiences that the dead man endured, and include a scene where he he - as a young boy - was raped by a tramp in the woods, and struggles into a methodist chapel for help afterwards, right in the middle of a ceremony.

Soon it becomes evident that the head in the tank is aware of it's situation, and a moral argument ensues as to whether or not it is ethical to keep it 'alive', for fear of committing unwitting torture.

In one of the last scenes, a 'memory' comes up on the screen which turns out to be a psychic prediction in which the playwright communicates to the scientists who have not yet been born, at the same time as communicating with anyone watching the play, after his death.

The playwright sits at his desk, and our viewpoint is of his back. He is scribbling something onto a piece of paper. He slowly turns to face the 'camera' and holds up the piece of paper, a desperate and pleading look on his face. On it is written, "Let me die."

This is where your (and the cast of characters) blood starts to run cold.

The scientists have been trying to prevent a large American corporation from getting hold of the head in order to exploit the commercial potential contained within it, and in the end, one of the team destroys the tank and it's contents by smashing it to bits, releasing the fluid in a great rush. The head - which is covered in wires and sensors - shows a feint smile, and the virtual screen in the room explodes with images of a 1950s childhood in the summer countryside of a 1950s Britain, then fades out to a brilliant, all-encompassing whiteness before going blank.


  1. I remember "Cold Lazarus" - it was intricate and powerful and beyond the norm. Perhaps it's time to screen those plays again.

    (And I'm honoured to be considered your friend, even though my central heating boiler has stopped working which means that I don't have much time to sit round feeling honoured)

  2. Love Dennis Potters work ..... I often wonder why Cold Lazarus seems to get more acclaim than Karaoke ?

  3. I've got the set on DVD, Mise. As for the boiler, you can dance around feeling honoured then.

    I think it's because of the above, Jack@.