1 9 9 6 (UK)
4 x 60 minute episodes
Obsessive, self-destructive London television scriptwriter Daniel Feeld (Albert Finney) – a hard-drinking heavy smoker – is in much physical pain as he struggles with terminal pancreatic cancer while working on the post-production on his new TV drama, Karaoke and battling with the director, Nick Balmer (Richard E. Grant).
He suddenly finds life imitating art as his fictional creations begin erupting into real life. He overhears people speaking scraps of his own dialogue including pretty young Sandra Sollars (Saffron Burrows), a hostess at a karaoke club run by cheap crook and bully Arthur “Pig” Mallion (Hywel Bennett).
Sandra is desperate to escape Pig’s clutches and avenge her mother (Alison Steadman) for the wrong Pig did her 20 years ago.
Daniel falls in love with Sandra – when she asks him what kind of writing he does, he says, “television for when children have gone to bed, movies that hardly ever get made, books with paper covers, obituaries and greeting cards” – and he vows to help her as his memory, fantasy, and reality overlap and interweave into a complex mental tapestry.
Other major characters are Daniel’s gentle, befuddled agent, Ben Baglin (Roy Hudd), who is obsessed with building models and has a speech impediment that causes him to invert the consonants of successive words; Ben’s loopy mother (Liz Smith), who is fond of yanking hairs from her shoulder and placing them between Ben’s toast and eggs; director Nick Balmer’s wife, Lady Ruth (Julie Christie), a member of the royal family; and his mistress and lead actress (Keely Hawes), who gets involved in the blackmail plot against him with “Pig”.
Writer Dennis Potter was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas on Valentine’s Day 1994 and told he had just months to live. He was writing Karaoke as a six-part drama serial for the BBC at the time, and concurrently developing an unrelated six-parter called Cold Lazarus for Channel 4.
Already stricken with psoriatic arthropathy, a crippling disease of the skin and joints, and with Margaret, his wife of 35 years, also terminally ill with breast cancer, Potter realised he could not complete the two separate projects in the time he had left.
So he created two thematically-linked four-part serials and set himself a punishing schedule to fulfil his commitments. He delivered both scripts by mid-April.
He died in early June, just 10 days after his wife, but not before he boldly issued a challenge – on air while being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg – to the BBC and Channel 4. He asked that they not only co-finance both projects but also transmit them simultaneously.
Almost two years to the day of his death and after an unprecedented £10.3 million collaboration, the two broadcasters honoured Potter’s dying wish.
Richard E. Grant
Arthur ‘Pig’ Mallion
Lady Ruth Balmer