by Philip Concannon
It is often said that we are currently living through a golden age of television, but for all of our contemporary small screen achievements has anything been created in this period that can match The Singing Detective? In fact, as I watched Dennis Potter’s miniseries for the first time this weekend (at an all-day ICA screening hosted by the Institute of Psychoanalysis) I wondered how the show would fare today. Who would commission a multilayered tale of sex, guilt and debilitating skin conditions, in which scenes of psychological realism are augmented by film noir pastiche and musical interludes? The show is so complex and unconventional in its storytelling techniques that it still feels astonishingly modern. The Singing Detective was ahead of its time. It may still be ahead of ours.
Potter’s protagonist is Philip E. Marlow, and he’s played by Michael Gambon. The character’s name instantly recalls the hero of Chandler’s detective stories, and Marlow once wrote such pulp tales, but when we meet the man he hardly cuts a dashing or heroic figure. He’s languishing in a hospital bed, covered from head to toe with horribly peeling skin, the result of an intense attack of psoriatic arthritis that has also seized up his joints. In his current state, Marlow can only find liberty from the pain and humiliation of his condition by allowing his imagination to wander. He begins rewriting the plot of his first novel The Singing Detective in his head, casting himself as the wisecracking private eye who has a sideline as a club singer. This version of Marlow has a style and confidence his creator lacks; “Am I right or am I right?” is his oft-repeated catchphrase.
The Singing Detective operates on multiple levels of reality at all times. There’s the mundane realism of Marlow’s extended stay in hospital and his more glamorous alternate existence as a 40s gumshoe. Then there are the memories that flood back unbidden into Marlow’s consciousness; repressed recollections of a traumatic childhood that may have externalised as the psoriasis covering his body. Finally, there are the hallucinations, which involve characters breaking into lip-synched performances of old songs, in a reprisal of the technique Potter pioneered with Pennies From Heaven. One of the most remarkable moments in the first episode sees a group of doctors and consultants standing around Marlow’s bed and discussing his condition, before they suddenly break into a Busby Berkeley-style performance of Dem Bones. It has been a long time since I have seen a television series that is as consistently surprising as The Singing Detective. From scene to scene, it’s impossible to predict where it’s going to go next.
And yet, for all of that unpredictability, The Singing Detective is extraordinarily tight in its construction. Everything is connected, and the series itself works like a detective story, unearthing clues early on and then gradually piecing them together to form a complete picture. One of the most striking aspects of The Singing Detective is the pacing of it, and the way Potter uses the miniseries form to tell his story. There are repeated images and scenes littered throughout that don’t immediately make complete sense – a young boy running across a tube platform; a naked woman fished out of the river – but as they are replayed from different angles, and with greater context, they gradually fit neatly into Potter’s puzzle. “‘I know all the clues are supposed to point in the direction of the murderer,” the psychotherapist Dr Gibbon (Bill Paterson) says, “but what if they also reveal the victim a little more clearly?” Potter’s skill in peeling back layer upon layer to burrow down into the tumultuous psychological core of this man is astonishing.
We find two key incidents at the heart of Marlow’s pain, both of which occurred during his childhood. One is an act that he committed at school and blamed on an innocent pupil, who was severely beaten by their teacher for his crime. The weight of this betrayal still sits inside Marlow, who breaks down in tears when he recounts it to Dr Gibbon in one of the show’s most moving scenes. The other turning point in his life is his mother’s infidelity, which he witnessed while hiding in the woods; an event he tries to control by utilising it in his fiction. The man she had an affair with is played by Patrick Malahide, and he reappears both as a treacherous spy in Marlow’s novel and as a modern-day character whom Marlow suspects of plotting against him with his estranged wife (Janet Suzman). As The Singing Detective progresses, the lines between reality and fiction, memory and fantasy, become increasingly disordered, and the author’s fictional creations begin to break through into his real life. One of Potter’s most inspired creations is the pair of mysterious agents who come looking for Marlow having suffered their own existential crisis over the lack of names or backstories he has given them.
The Singing Detective may sound like a bleak and unsettling journey into a disturbed psyche (and it often is), but we shouldn’t forget the fact that Potter’s caustic writing is also frequently hilarious, with John Amiel’s sharp, economical direction expertly handling the shifts into more comical territory. The bickering patients played by David Ryall and Gerard Horan could have stepped out of any hospital-based sitcom of the era, while Joanne Whalley’s kind and beautiful nurse is the catalyst for big laughs when she greases down Marlow’s flaking skin and prompts a priceless, erection-stifling inner monologue (“Speeches by Ted Heath…the plastic pitch at QPR…a Welsh male-voice choir…”). The whole ensemble excels, but The Singing Detective rests on a titanic central performance from Michael Gambon. As both the misanthropic writer, trapped within his own decaying body, and the suave fictional detective, the physicality and emotional dexterity of Gambon’s work here is astounding. He is the spine of the series; the riveting presence that keeps us engrossed in the narrative as it gets darker and increasingly surreal.
The Singing Detective has been described as the Citizen Kane of television, and such a description feels exactly right. The influence of its formally daring storytelling can be felt throughout the following decades of television – most notably in The Sopranos – but few programmes can claim to have pushed boundaries or upended storytelling convention in quite the same way. Even when Potter gives us what appears to be a satisfying conclusion straight out of Marlow’s fiction – with the hero and his dame walking off into the sunset – he subtly complicates it by suggesting that the author’s demons haven’t entirely gone away, as We’ll Meet Again plays over the final scene. One viewing may not be enough to comprehend the labyrinthine construction of this brilliant piece of work, or to fully appreciate how deep the rabbit hole goes, but it certainly is enough to recognise The Singing Detective as one of the medium’s enduring masterpieces.
Philip Concannon writes about film at Phil on Film.