London club owner Arthur "Pig" Mailion (Hywel Bennett) regales his customers with a rendition of "Teenager in Love", a golden oldie that could not be less appropriate. As his employees look on secretly disdaining him, at that moment writer Daniel Feeld (Albert Finney) is enduring a barium enema in hospital to work out what is wrong with his insides; as if that were not uncomfortable enough when he turns to look at the screen showing his guts, he sees the words to "Teenager in Love" appear there, much to his confusion. But this is happening more and more often: he will overhear people in the street relating passages of the dialogue for his latest television series, and wonder if he has some control over their lives...
When Dennis Potter was nearing death, such was his esteem within the television industry that he had made his name in, quite often controversially, that his proposal for a linked pair of series that he wrote to be shown on both the BBC and Channel 4 was accepted by both parties. They were called Karaoke, which was broadcast first on the BBC, and Cold Lazarus, a science fiction work for Channel 4, although each channel showed them both after a fashion. Taking pride of place in the schedule on a Sunday night, they were to be the last works Potter ever produced, as he died of cancer soon after completing them, so audiences were expecting something special, after all they were presented as true event television.
Karaoke was first up, and in typical Potter syle contained elements of autobiography, with Finney essaying a Potter surrogate role as Feeld, who finds out he is dying of cancer before the series ends. The idea that writers should be responsible for their characters, and that having terrible things happen to them should not be taken lightly by their creators, is what weighed heavily on the themes of this as Feeld realises that a woman he has scripted may well be a real person and as he has also come up with a gruesome death for her, then maybe he should have been more careful, more compassionate, about what he has designed as her fate. Saffron Burrows played that role as hostess Sandra, on the face of it about as non-mysterious as they get.
She has a counterpart in Linda (Keeley Hawes), an actress who happens to be taking the role that mirrors Sandra in the television series Feeld has scripted. In these characters we can see Potter's sentimentalising and lust for young women, something that marked his later work and might have you wondering about his motives, especially as Feeld, representing him, turns knight in shining armour to Sandra even if he's growing too infirm to do anything about his passion. Like Potter, by the last episode he is facing the last few weeks of his life, although that doesn't stop him writing or taking more drastic action to ensure he has made his valuable mark on the world. For most, creating successful TV would be enough, but Feeld wants to make a bigger contribution.
In amongst all these gorblimey accents, with Bennett and Burrows really going into Cockney overdrive, you find you have to accept that the people populating the story verge upon, and in some instances crash right into, the realm of the grotesque. Even the "good" characters have their quirks, with Daniel's agent Ben Baglin (Roy Hudd), lumbered with a Spoonerist speech impediment, which gives Potter the chance to put more swearing in the programme but disguised as a joke. Ben has a mother (Liz Smith) who is no less eccentrically drawn, getting her petty revenge on his shouting frustration with her by placing hairs from her armpit in his poached egg on toast. If you can accept that the comedy is too brittle to be funny, then the suspense could be effective for you, although the whole "repeating Daniel's lines" part is explained away by the end, but at least Karaoke is unmistakably the work of Potter, whether you respond to that or not. Seeing a star in just about every role can be distracting, though.