There is a lot of wishful thinking about the quality of British television, but some truth. The principal truth is that actors, directors, cameramen, producers, researchers and above all writers of quality have worked for British television to the top of their ability. I say ‘above all writers’ because they have been the dynamo of the best work, and work that has drawn this nation to have a unique, cross-class, often astonishingly comprehensive conversation with itself. Television drama has been our true national theatre and many would say that its leader has been Dennis Potter. He has poured his talent into television, beginning at a time when the consoling video possibilities for posterity were not there. He took the democratic path and made it work gloriously. His work has chal-lenged the best work of contemporary novelists and stage playwrights. There was the political ‘Nigel Barton’ in the sixties; the contemporary-religious ‘Son of Man’; the controversial ‘Brimstone and Treacle’; the sharp and charming ‘Blue Remembered Hills’; the originality of ‘Pennies from Heaven’; ‘The Sing-ing Detective’ of course, now—accurately for once—called a ‘classic’; ‘Lipstick On Your Collar’ and, astonishingly, more to come, still being written.

Melvyn Bragg

April 1994

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 suspected—I’d had a lot of pain before then, and there was a quite accidental misdiagnosis of the condition in London. (. . .) It can’t be treated—neither chemotherapy nor surgery are appropriate, it’s just analgesic care until, you know, ‘Goodnight Vienna’, as they say in football I believe nowadays. I’ve been working since then flat out at strange hours, because I’m done in the evenings, mostly because of the morphine, also the pain is very energy-sapping. But I do find that 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. Obviously, I had to attend to my affairs as well. I remember reading that phrase when I was a kid: ‘He had time to tend to his affairs.’ (. . .)

I’ve discovered also what you always know to be true, but you never know it ’til you know it, if you follow. I remember Martin Amis saying something about how when you reach your forties, middle age, nobody has ever told you what it’s like. Well it’s the same with knowing about death. 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 tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense, it is, and it is now only. As much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed ache to, sometimes, we can’t. It’s in us, but it’s not there in front of us. And 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—no matter how predictable it is, there’s the element of the unpredictable. You don’t know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense.

That nowness becomes so vivid to me now, that in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene, I can celebrate life. Below my window in Ross, for example, the blossom is out in full. It’s a plum tree—it looks like apple blossom, but it’s white. And instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s nice blossom’, looking at it through the window when I’m writing it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomiest blossom that there ever could be.

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—there’s no way of telling you, you have to experience it—the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance. . .Not that I’m interested in reassuring people you know—bugger that. The fact is, that if you see the present tense, boy do you see it, and boy can you celebrate it!