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the Complete Review
the complete review - television



Dennis Potter

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To purchase Karaoke

Title: Karaoke
Author: Dennis Potter
Genre: TV script
Written: 1994
Length: 192 pages
Availability: Karaoke and Cold Lazarus - US
Karaoke and Cold Lazarus - UK
Karaoke and Cold Lazarus - Canada
  • Published in one volume with Cold Lazarus
  • First broadcast on BBC I (28 April- 19 May, 1996), in a production directed by Renny Rye and starring Albert Finney, Richard E. Grant, Julie Christie, Roy Hudd, Safron Burrows, and Ewan McGregor
  • With an Introduction by the Author

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Our Assessment:

A- : clever and nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard . 29/4/1996 A.N.Wilson
The Guardian B- 15/4/1996 Mark Lawson
The Guardian C 29/4/1996 Stuart Jeffries
The Independent . 26/5/1996 Lucy Ellmann
The LA Times A 7/8/1996 Howard Rosenberg
New Statesman A+ 3/5/1996 Fay Weldon
The NY Times . 20/6/1996 John J. O'Connor
The NY Times . 30/5/1997 Caryn James
The Sunday Times . 28/4/1996 A.A.Gill
The Washington Post . 2/6/1997 Tom Shales
  Please note that most of these reviews refer to the television broadcasts, and not the actual script itself.

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus whatsoever.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(O)ne of the worst plays ever screened." - A.N.Wilson, Evening Standard

  • "Karaoke, it is true, holds an appealing irony, signalled by its title, that Potter's favourite metaphorical gimmick -- people miming to songs -- has become, by the 90s, a lucrative branch of British popular culture. Beyond that, though, the first serial consists of (...) themes which, rather worryingly, featured in at least half of all Potter's writing projects in the last 10 years of his life, including the creepy Blackeyes." - Mark Lawson, The Guardian

  • "(T)he characteristically colourless invective and the lack of poetry in Potter's language are inscribed on every speech that Albert Finney's Feeld utters. (...) Worse, much worse, is Roy Hudd's spoonerising literary agent, a running gag in search of a decent punchline." - Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian

  • "In Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, Potter again turns inward, overlapping fantasy, memory and reality, and once more examining mysteries deep within the brain." - Howard Rosenberg, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The posthumous Potter plays, brilliant, imperfect, tricksy, unreformed and neurotic, give TV drama a shot in the arm which might even enable it to get up off its deathbed and walk." - Fay Weldon, New Statesman

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As Dennis Potter describes in his introduction, he had been working on Karaoke for months before learning he was fatally ill. Upon learning the grim prognosis (a few months to live) he plunged back into the work, casting adrift all he had written until then and starting "as from new, scene one, page one." Impressively, he managed to complete both this four-part TV series, and a companion piece, Cold Lazarus (see our review).
       Karaoke centers around a Dennis Potter-like figure, Daniel Feeld. A film he wrote called Karaoke is in the process of being edited and cut into shape, and Feeld unsettlingly begins to (over)hear snatches of dialogue from this work in the world at large. Mirroring Potter's own medical difficulties Feeld is also suffering from some ailment that is, initially, misdiagnosed but will, eventually, be recognized as advanced pancreatic cancer. Feeld is also toying with a script based on joining "two things that are sort of in the air at the moment": virtual reality and cryogenics -- hinting at Potter's own interest (which would result in Cold Lazarus, in which Feeld also (unwittingly) plays a prominent part).
       There are a number of story lines in Karaoke, all juxtaposed and flowing into (and out of) one another: Feeld's illness, Feeld witnessing scenes that seem taken from his film, scenes from the actual film itself, the editing of the actual film, Feeld's infatuation with a young woman named Sandra Sollars, a brutal, crooked club owner named Arthur ('Pig') Mailion, and more.
       The use of karaoke allows one of Potter's favourite devices to be woven into the piece -- the singing of popular old tunes. Here it is Why must I be a Teenager in Love ?, Hank Williams' Your cheatin' Heart, and the reprised Pennies from Heaven that are the most significant songs. Potter (and Feeld) have also chosen the title "Karaoke" because that is what their scripts are about:

Karaoke ! As a metaphor, I mean. The music's written and performed by someone else, and there's this piddling little space left for you to sing yourself, but only to their lyrics, their timing.
       Potter manages this concept brilliantly. The writer is helpless against fate -- his illness -- but he does not give into it entirely, continuing to shape reality, even if only in that "piddling little space". Feeld forces at least a small happy ending, reshaping the reality he is partially responsible for by helping the young woman he is infatuated with, Sandra Sollars. Feeld realizes that he was literally consumed by his own work -- "I've been on the wrong diet. Eating and drinking my own thoughts." -- and chooses to act (rather than just write) and effect change in this way.
       Potter's characters are an interesting lot. Feeld is unapologetic, strong-willed, and opinionated -- and clearly hard to work with: the director of his film, Nick Balmer, is almost disappointed when his driver narrowly misses running over Feeld:
Well, it so happens that that particular lunatic was My Writer. I would have given you a bonus if you had flattened the cocky little bugger -- (Laughs.) And I'd have doubled it had you reversed back over whatever was left of him !
       Feeld consumes too much alcohol, accentuating the confusion in his mind between reality and his script. However, his apparent derangement is only superficially mental; it is his physical disorder that is truly debilitating.
       There are many interesting characters surrounding Feeld, each with their own little stories that contribute to the larger one. Feeld's factotum is Ben Baglin, a "literary agent of narrow tastes but limitless shrewdness" who is prone to spoonerisms (employed to good comic effect), lives with his slightly over the hill mum, and is constructing a huge model of Notre Dame out of matchsticks.
       Director Nick Balmer (who married very well) and those involved in the film struggle with shaping Feeld's work (and avoiding Feeld's wrath). Fact and fiction also mix here as a character from the film -- 'Pig' Mailion -- turns out to have a real-life counterpart who is less than enthusiastic about being depicted on screen. Balmer winds up paying for his sins (both the intentional and the incidental ones), but even he stumbles to a happy end.
       'Pig' Mailion is an exaggerated obnoxious, brutal London crook, but he too gets his comeuppance. Sandra Sollars is a too simple and too good to be true angelic little creature, reminding Feeld of an old, lost love. Kept on a platonic pedestal, Feeld ultimately saves her. Unfortunately, almost everything about that part of the story is too melodramatic, and it is the least authentic sounding part of the piece.
       Weaving back and forth among the stories, shifting from questions of artistic integrity to fatal illness, addressing adultery and all variations of love, showing life at its most brutal and unfair, superimposing coincidence and fate, Karaoke is a fast-paced and consistently entertaining work. Potter's writing is very good, and there is great pleasure to be had in the small details -- some of which work better on the page than on the screen.
       Potter shows a fine touch in handling difficult subjects, such as Feeld's (and his) illness. Feeld realizes that he is probably seriously ill when a doctor explains that there is a blockage in his pancreas. "An obstruction," he says. "Well. That's what I've always wanted to be." Later he considers it again in the eerie silent ward:
Blockage. (Tiny pause.) Writer's block. (Tinier pause.) I remember when I could make a whole ward sing.
       Wondering whether he can complete his work in the time left Feeld speaks with the consultant, who clinically asks: "And how long does it take you ? This scribble-scribble-scribble ?"
       Fortunately, there was sufficient time for Potter to complete this work. Much of it is quite remarkable, and on the whole it is certainly a success. Aspects of it are not entirely successful -- primarily parts of the Sandra Sollars story -- but there is so much here that the small missteps don't do great harm to the larger picture. Highly recommended.

       The television version, which is true to the script, is also impressive. Albert Finney is a compelling Feeld, Roy Hudd bumbles about perfectly as Ben Baglin, and Saffron Burrows convinces in the unconvincing role of Sandra (originally written for Louise Germaine). The entire cast (which also includes Julie Christie, Ewan McGregor, and Richard E. Grant) is very solid. Visually much of the film is stunning: well directed, shot, and edited it shows glimpses of the possibilities of the medium and towers above most TV productions.

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Karaoke: Reviews: Dennis Potter: Other books by Dennis Potter under review: Books about Dennis Potter under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Dennis Potter (1935-1994) is best known for his television scripts Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective.

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