Dennis Potter was obsessed with tarts with hearts. Stephen McGinty looks at the role models who got to smudge their lipstick

VIEWERS may be shocked to see Dennis Potter walk into a bar two years after his death and begin staring obsessionally at a beautiful woman. But fans will not be surprised. In Karaoke, the writer's penultimate script, he created a character, a fictional man inside a fictional film, who stalks an actress, Linda Langer. In a brasserie, there is a disturbing confrontation.

Linda screams: ``Hey. You! Keep yer eyes in yer bleed'n head! Right!''

Oliver: ``Oh. my dear, dear one.''

Linda: ``Don't look at me like that! You dirty old sod!''

She throws wine in his face.

Oliver: ``You always were such a passionate young woman. Don't worry about it, my dear. The wine is really poor. Certainly not up to the Gevrey Chambertin we used to enjoy, mmm?''

Linda: ``You're a nutter.''

Producer Kenith Trodd, described the decision to cast the look-alike actor, Ian McDiarmid, in the role as a tribute to the memory and work of the writer, as the character reflects and defines Potter, a man obsessed with the redemption of men through female victims, femmes fatales and dim dames. The latest in a long line of leading ladies to play a tart with a heart is Saffron Burrows, who appears as Sandra Sollars.

It is to Sollars that Daniel Feeld, the writer who is played by Albert Finney, turns to for help when he believes the words from his film have entered the real world, slipping from the lips of ordinary people. Fact then begins to mirror fiction for Sollars works in a seedy karaoke bar and just as in Feeld's script, she wants revenge on her gangster boss, Arthur ``Pig'' Malion.

At the London launch Burrows, who previously worked as a model, was revealed to be around 6ft tall and towered over Finney. ``Albert Finney joked that he'd have to put wedges in his slippers to play opposite me!'' It was a role she felt she could not refuse. ``I felt so lucky to be working with words of that quality. I thought the script was moving and witty and evocative. At the readings you could have heard a pin-drop.''

But didn't she feel the women in Potter's dramas were simply gorgeous dolls placed high on a pedestal, while the men circle and whine? ``Far from being the passive girlfriend or wife on the sidelines, the women in Karaoke are real people who have deeply affected the men. Sandra's relationship with Daniel represents a meeting of minds, although they come from different worlds.

``It is a sign of the richness of the society which Potter creates that the barriers have been broken down between them. There's nothing crass about Sandra's relationship with Daniel - it's very pure and very poignant.''

Burrows, now 22, had limited experience, though recently appeared in both Circle of Friends and In the Name of the Father.

As the plot unspools a deep relationship with Sandra's mother is revealed, an idea Burrows enjoyed developing. ``Sandra has a fierce almost protective love for her mother and a burning anger at the world. I adored her straightforwardness and her inability to be coquettish when it mattered. She uses sexuality in her work, but never in her own life.''

So did Potter. The majority of his canon deals with the shreds sex can make of people's lives, yet he remained married for 36 years to Margaret Morgan, the women he adored. However, the women in his dramas can be slotted into categories; Potter either wrote femme fatales or dim victims. Or he would mix the two. Kika Markham in Double Dare, Cheryl Campbell in Pennies from Heaven and Gina Bellman in Blackeyes were all archetypal Potter women.

His relationship during his directorial debut on Blackeyes with Bellman can best be described as strange. He plucked the 20-year-old from obscurity and insisted she dine with him every night during shooting. He also talked in over-the-top terms of his feelings for her. Based on his book, Blackeyes, the tale of the beautiful but abused model, was condemned for its voyeurism and abuse of women.

Bellman was quoted in W Stephen Gilbert's biography of Potter, Fight & Kick & Bite saying Potter was a nasty bully at times. ``I think now, a lot of the nudity was unnecessary, but at the time I trusted him implicitly . . . He was a contradiction . . . there was a part of him that was a dirty old man, and another part that was honourable.''

Joanne Whalley-Kilmer who played the ultimate fantasy nurse in The Singing Detective praised his work. ``Give me the inspired imagination of Dennis Potter any day.'' However, it was Alison Steadman who appeared in the series's most controversial sex scene, when Marlow as boy spies on his mother's adultery deep in the woods. On the morning of its screening her face was splashed over the tabloids.

``I kept thinking, `how explicit can it be?' So I phoned Jon Amiel in the editing room and he put a tape straight in a taxi. While I waited, I phoned my parents and said, `don't invite the neighbours in and keep a low profile'. Then I sat and watched it and of course it was fine. Far from being embarrassed about it, I was proud of it.''

Campbell played two roles for Potter. In Pennies From Heaven, she played a schoolmistress who turns into a murderous whore, while in Rain On The Roof her character, Janet, is an abused wife, who seduces a backward boy whom she is teaching to read. During filming of the latter, she refused to say one line she felt was ridiculous.

``Janet was supposed to get out of the bath, admire herself in this full-length mirror and, expecting him to knock at the door, utter the immortal line: `Have I got a surprise for you, Bill boy!' I said: `I'm sorry, no way!' It's just got nothing to do with real women . . . I think people had begun to regard his work as too sacred to tackle and they weren't tough enough with him.''

It is ironic that Burrow's role was the result of a Potter wish which went unheeded. Louise Germaine, the ex-glamour model, who appeared in Potter's Lipstick On Your Collar and Midnight Movie was the inspiration for Karaoke. She was working in a karaoke bar, when she landed the part of Sylvia in Lipstick. However, a pregnancy prevented her taking up the role of Sollars as Potter had intended.

And so the opportunity presented itself for another young lady to repeat, for the final time, a popular Potter role, the girl whose slash of red lipstick forms into a perfect pout. After more than 20 years writing such roles Potter's collar must have been stained with scarlet smudges. But still Mary Whitehouse never managed to clean him up.

n Karaoke begins on BBC1 on Sunday night, and is repeated on Channel 4 on Monday.