In the 2020s, when streaming has turned the TV serial into a seamless whole, digestible like a novel, it prompts us to pinpoint yet another way in which The Singing Detective, from 1986, was so far ahead of its time.
It is being rescreened on BBC Four from 30th November 22, and will also be available on iPlayer.
Ask someone in the street if they could name a work by Dennis Potter, and if they could answer at all, they would most likely say The Singing Detective. In this case the man’s most well-known work is indeed his best: it represents the pinnacle of his achievement as a TV writer, and of innovation within the ‘art form’ of TV. In fact, it is one of the few works that makes us constantly aware that TV can actually be that — an art form.
One of its unique qualities is to use the much larger canvas afforded by the TV serial to build upwards as well as outwards, reaching heights of complex profundity that are usually denied to the two or even three-hour cinema film. Though divided into six episodes, it is not at all episodic; in truth it is really a totally unified seven-hour film, which, if you have the stomach for it, stands up to being viewed as a continuous piece — in fact in 1988, at Joseph Papps Public Theater in New York, they screened it that way, and every performance was a sell-out.
Many of the themes explored in Potter’s earlier works are revisited. There’s the daily grind of hospital life from Emergency Ward 9, the childhood trauma from Moonlight on the Highway, and the projection into a fantasy life from Lay Down Your Arms and Where the Buffalo Roam. Then there’s the idea of a writer’s real and fictional worlds synergising and blurring together from Double Dare and the novel Hide and Seek. The theme of forbidden sex in the Forest of Dean, leading to tragic consequences, has been used before too, in A Beast with Two Backs. And, most evidently, there’s Potter’s trademark device of having characters lip-synch and do routines to old songs from Pennies from Heaven.
In an exquisite blending of autobiographical and fictional elements, Potter uses his illness, psoriatic arthropathy, his Forest of Dean childhood and his life as a writer in order to construct a pan-dimensional detective story, where the ‘case’ is how the main character, author Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon), came to be so acutely ill, with the ‘clues’ lying in an analysis of his life, past and present, which, when assembled into a complete picture, will provide the ‘solution’, enabling him to be well again.
In screen terms the story occupies three formally separated strands or levels. In the centre is Marlow’s life as a hospital patient, bedridden and with his whole body devastated by the sores and lesions of psoriasis. Marlow is aggressive, misanthropic, and constantly railing against the world, his fellow patients and fighting the hospital staff in their efforts to help him. But he comes around, grudgingly at first, undergoing psychotherapy with Dr Gibbon (Bill Paterson), and finding the psoriasis and its attendant arthritic immobility improving by slow increments.
Whilst this is going on, Marlow occupies himself by mentally re-working one of his out-of-print detective novels, The Singing Detective, and this gives rise to the second strand of the piece. Set in London in 1945, it comes alive on screen as a vivid film noir, featuring the equivocal Mark Binney (Patrick Malahide) and his involvement with a plot by the British Government to give safe haven to Nazi rocket scientists in order to use their know-how in the newly established Cold War with Russia.
When Sonia, a Russian prostitute and agent, with whom Binney had sex, is found drowned, believed murdered, Binney becomes worried he will be implicated, so he turns for help to none other the eponymous Singing Detective, also called Marlow and played by Michael Gambon, a slick gumshoe with a side-of-mouth mid-Atlantic drawl and the spare-time occupation of crooning with a dance band. Detective and client form a relationship of mutual contempt and the case doesn’t proceed well. Also involved are two ‘Mysterious Men’, who have some kind of counter-intelligence function, working against both Binney and Marlow, and the Russian agents. The exact nature of what is happening in this strand remains vague, and its eventual resolution lies outside its boundaries.
This piece of pulp fiction isn’t Marlow’s only pre-occupation: he also re-visits a period from his childhood, when he was aged ten, a miner’s son living in the Forest of Dean. The year of this third strand is also 1945, with World War II just concluding and a mood of optimism prevailing. Young Philip (Lyndon Davies) hopes that the end of hostilities will bring better times, but actually events go drastically wrong for the boy.
Friction between his mother and father leads to a family break-up, with Philip and his mother (Alison Steadman) travelling to Hammersmith (the location of Marlow’s novel) on an ominous train journey. Philip is harbouring two terrible secrets, which emerge fragmentarily in the manner of an investigation. Firstly, he witnessed his mother committing adultery in the Forest with his father’s best friend, Raymond (Patrick Malahide again); and secondly, as a reaction to that, he defecated on his teacher’s desk at school, and was forced into a desperate act of betrayal in order to save himself from punishment. The dreadful denouement to these events is the death of Philip’s mother, probably by suicide, after the two have a row in an underground station.
But there is so much more to The Singing Detective than its narrative surface, for the three strands are not entirely self-contained, and start to leak into, counterpoint and mimic one another, so that the whole develops into a vast synaptic structure with linkages sprouting off everywhere, creating opportunities for twists in multiple dimensions. The mimed song-and-dance routines play a key part in this, binding the levels together with nostalgic associations, and reaching breathtaking peaks of dramatic sophistication. The sequence in Episode 1, where a distraught Marlow hallucinates his hospital ward transmogrify into the Skinscapes nightclub of his novel, with the assembled doctors and nurses performing a bravura rendition of Fred Waring’s ‘Dry Bones’, as Marlow himself is sucked back into childhood, hearing his mother calling his name, is as elaborate and gripping as anything comparable in cinema.
As the levels bleed into one another, hospital patients crop up in young Philip’s Forest world, and on stage playing instruments in the Singing Detective’s ’40s band; pretty Nurse Mills (Joana Whalley) becomes a singer in Skinscapes as she greases around Marlow’s private parts on the ward; and Philip’s flight from his mother, through a maze of tube train tunnels, leads him to run into the hospital of Marlow’s present.
When the noir thriller strand breaks apart in the later episodes, Binney becomes transformed into the contemporary villain Finney, the seducer of Marlow’s wife, Nicola (Janet Suzman) and thief of his literary property, The Singing Detective screenplay. Here the metafictional element in the drama-as-a-whole comes to the fore, with the ‘characters’ speaking the lines of the ‘author’ including punctuation, as in ‘Oh comma aren’t you the clever one dash exclamation mark’.
The Mysterious Men, in search of an explanation of events, conclude that they themselves lack three-dimensionality, and are in fact merely ‘padding’. They go in search of the culprit, their ‘creator’, the writer Marlow, and they enter his ‘real’ world of the hospital ward to have it out. But the other Marlow, the Singing Detective, is also on the case, and in the resulting pyrotechnic confrontation all the levels are resolved and the case is finally cracked.
There are many other ways in which detective work as a metaphor for self-discovery are laced through the structure. The editing in particular plays a very important role. Key shots are flashed-forwards, dangled tantalizingly as ‘clues’, their significance to be expanded on later. The presentation of many scenes is determinedly non-linear, with flashbacks-within-flashbacks, repetitions from the near past, and associative cuts to other parts of the story, creating the effect of visual stream-of-consciousness.
The device of fast associative cutting, building up quick successions of images, shuffled like a deck of cards, becomes more audacious as the piece progresses and there are more ‘clues’ to be pieced together. The way events in the childhood strand mirror those in the noir strand is thus underscored and works both as illustration of how Marlow’s creative mind works, and how he is becoming well by receiving psychological insights.
Therein lies the beauty and majesty of The Singing Detective as a whole. It functions perfectly as a piece of cinematic art, where drama and imagery are woven to wonderful effect, and also as an authentic study of clinical psychological analysis. Marlow’s problems with the psychosomatic disease psoriasis are shown to be linked to the traumatic events surrounding his witnessing of his mother’s adultery, and this knowledge becoming the catalyst for her suicide. The consequent sexual guilt and association of sex with death has burdened him with a lack of trust for all women, leading to a breakdown in his marriage and the characterisation of women as unreliable whores in his detective fiction. The disease is therefore a refuge — a cave into which he can crawl and hide. The ‘psychological’ side to The Singing Detective is as good as any other. The word-association scene in particular, where the wily Gibbon outflanks Marlow is his game of evasion, is in its own way quietly spectacular.
As TV drama serials go The Singing Detective is unique, incomparable; it breaks boundaries and re-defines what is possible within the medium. It has been dubbed ‘a masterpiece’, and seldom has that word seemed more appropriate. Certainly, it represents Potter’s highest achievement as a screen creative force, drawing together the threads of twenty years of previous work, and using his own life story to add that extra dimension, which propels it that vital bit further dramatically. Today, over three decades on from its production, it still beats everything else for screen artistry.
Originally published on The Digital Fix.