Final Gifts From a TV Master

As if his own brain were as cryonically frozen as that of his final protagonist, famed British dramatist Dennis Potter resonates posthumously in "Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus," the two provocative TV works that he outraced death to complete.

Set in contemporary London, the first is about a seriously ill TV writer who thinks he's seeing fictional characters from his latest screenplay in his daily life and hearing them speak his lines. The second is a sequel set in a futuristic society where a team of scientists probes the brain of the same writer, now dead for more than three centuries and about to be exploited by a ruthless TV mogul.

Cancer ended Potter's own life in 1994, but these two 3 1/2-hour miniseries prove that his mind retained potency even as his body eroded. Bolstered by some nifty acting by Albert Finney and others, they're now being screened at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills, having already been seen in Britain on the BBC and Channel 4.

Their future in the United States remains blurry. Especially given the general mousiness of TV here and the spotty record of PBS in extending its Anglophilia to the unconventional mind leaps of Potter, whose small-screen writing ("Pennies From Heaven" and "The Singing Detective" are his best-known works) challenged viewers even when not always pleasing them.

Will PBS be humming Potter this time?

"Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus" were offered to "Masterpiece Theatre," a PBS spokesman confirmed, but he refused to elaborate on their status with public TV's fading Sunday night institution.

That offer was made three months ago, said Stephen Mobray, head of distribution for Britain's Channel 4. "I'm assuming that it's not going to happen," Mobray added from London, "and I'm not waiting to hear, if you know what I mean."

Mobray said a consortium of PBS stations (including KCET in Los Angeles) is interested in the Potter finales and that he's also had an offer to show them from a U.S. cable network, one he wouldn't identify.

"I'm sure it will get a U.S. broadcast," he said. It deserves it.

As do Potter followers and other viewers who value TV that's more stimulating and less commonplace than now available in the United States, where movies and miniseries have become prime time's largest underclass, cable's HBO being about the only exception.

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Potter himself resented the commercial values he saw seeping into and lowering the standards of the once-pristine BBC, and he takes a massive swipe at broadcast profiteering in "Cold Lazarus." Ever the eclectic messenger, he also swings hard at technocracies, even though the technology displayed by the future folks in "Cold Lazarus" is as frosty as the brain of Potter's central character, showing how hard it is to create the 24th century on a TV budget.

Potter's screenwriter in these dramas is named Daniel Feeld (Finney), whom we meet as a cesspool of raging torments, a self-destructive boozer increasingly immobilized by crescendos of physical pain. His life shifts dramatically after he meets a working-class charmer (Saffron Burrows) who, along with the petty thug (Hywel Bennett) employing her as a karaoke bar hostess, appears to be living the violent script that Feeld created for TV.

Is Feeld delusional or really witnessing his creations springing to life? Just what is imaginary and what isn't? In "Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus," Potter again turns inward, overlapping fantasy, memory and reality, and once more examining mysteries deep within the brain.

His brain, perhaps, for, typically, he and his writer protagonist appear to merge. Potter was rushing to complete his final project under a death sentence while writing about a man doing the same thing, just as he endured the same scabby psoriasis that disabled his central character in "The Singing Detective."

Also typically, there's no silver-spooning of plots here. Potter is demanding, making you tough it out at times, with "Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus" each especially tricky at the outset. Yet both are striking enough to easily hold your interest, with Potter stripping back his layers of enigma in time to reward inquiring minds, although some may still be inquiring as the final credits roll.

"Cold Lazarus" takes place in 2368 in an austere realm where traditional governments have been supplanted by global corporations that impose their wills through violence. One of these operates a research center where Feeld is nothing more than an oozing, seemingly lifeless head behind glass, attached to tubes through which his flickering memories of the 20th century--some chaotic, some achingly poignant--are projected onto a large screen for analysis by an idealistic scientist (Frances de la Tour) and her associates. Is there agony or even a glint of awareness in his eyes, or merely emptiness?

The answer is crucial, for the ethical argument raised by "Cold Lazarus" indirectly relates to a controversy in Britain today over plans to destroy several thousand unclaimed frozen human embryos from fertility clinics.

Potter is somehow serious without being solemn. "Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus" are also evidence that he lost neither his dark satirical wit nor his nose for absurdity in his waning days. Among the twisted characters in "Karaoke" is a cackling old witch who punishes her gray-haired son by slipping her armpit hairs into his food. And especially comical in "Cold Lazarus" is a rigidly composed network technocrat whose field of expertise is TV sex.

Meanwhile, Diane Ladd arrives in "Cold Lazarus" as the highly sexed owner of the research center, and Henry Goodman is the global TV baron whose own eyes glow like Roman candles at the prospect of turning Feeld's brain pictures into a blockbuster weekly series.

Ho hum, just another new season.

* "Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus" screen on alternate weeks on Thursdays at 5:15 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. through Oct. 6 at the Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. Information: (310) 786-1000.

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