Dennis Potter and Jade Goody

Posted March 5th, 2009 by Jane

It feels a different age ago that Melvyn Bragg interviewed dying playright Dennis Potter in a last appearance on Channel 4. Potter, drawn, in pain, and clearly dying, ruminated on the blossomy blossom he stared at through the window, smoked unapologetically, and swigged liquid morphine from a hip flask. It was a daring interview for the chattering classes with Potter requesting, and posthumously being granted, that his two final plays be shown on alternate weeks on BBC1 and Channel 4 respectively.

So what are we to make of the very different dying wishes of Jade Goody? And the very different kind of media coverage?

I have no simple answers. I read all the articles which the Guardian and the Observer throw up, and listen attentively to radio 4 comment. But I also confess to buying OK magazine and to reading the red top tabloids in the newsagents. I change my mind all the time.

A few weeks ago pieces by Jenni Murray and Libby Brooks convinced me that that we should no more criticise Jade Goody than John Diamond…though indeed John Diamond was criticised in some quarters for using his Times column as a public cancer confessional. They say that Jady Goody knows what she is doing and good on her for publicising cervical cancer and encouraging more women to take up cervical screening, and for wanting to leave financial sceurity for her sons. I agree though I find myself hoping that those poor boys won’t be forced into some dreadful public school for relentless bullying. What irony that would be given Jade’s wish that they get the ‘good’ education she never had.

Yesterday I picked up a Daily Mail at the hospital and read a piece by BBC journalist Janes Landale who is undergoing treatment for Hodgins lymphoma (do those of us with cancer have a special right to be heard on the subject of Jade Goody I ponder?). He queries the British obsession with cancer and the fear and mythology about the diversity of cancer which Goody’s so rapid decline disguises. He argues that far from bringing talk about death into ‘ordinary life’ the media frensy surrounding Goody’s last weeks turns death into a form of ghoulish entertainment, a modern eqivalent of eating sandwiches while watching public hangings.

I don’t know- and opinion in breatcancerworld is divided. A part of me argues that reports of Goody’s so desperate ‘Give me an injection’ might bring the issue of assisted dying to a wider audience, and the pictures and reports of her terrible pain throw into question the claims of the hospice movement to be able to get pain control right. It’s evident that they sometimes don’t and can’t.

On a breast cancer forum I frequent, a mother of a 14 year old boy says that the tabloid coverage has enabled him at last to talk to her about her own primary breast cancer diagnosis and what it means. Another woman replies angrily that her teenage daugther is now terrified and won’t talk about it.

This is 10 years plus on from Princess Diana except that this time the raw and unreal public emotions include anger and nastiness.

My hospice nurse asks me how the Jade Goody story is affecting me. I tell her it interests me rather than emotionally engages me..but that’s not quite true. I am fearful about how my own cancer will progress. I am also sad for all the young women who die so young, so prematurely. This is what is at the heart of the Jade Goody story..the tragedy of a young mother dying prematurely of cancer..only she happens to be a media created reality TV star. And she’ll do reality TV till her death.

In 15 years from Dennis Potter and Melvyn Bragg to Jade Goody and Piers Morgan is the furore about media coverage as much about class as about cancer or death? Potter called his pancreatic cancer ‘Rupert’ in his castigation of the Murdoch dominated media. What would he say now?

Thanks to Clive Seale(1998) Constructing Death for reminding me of the Potter interview and for his brilliant analysis which I can’t do justice to here.