Arranged in six hour-long episodes, this miniseries is considered one of the highlights of English television. Dennis Potter's earlier Pennies from Heaven is more popular, but the bizarre The Singing Detective is more central to Potter-philes - no matter how much Potter denied it, it's deeply autobiographical.
It takes an hour or so to get a purchase on what The Singing Detective is even about. It starts as a medical horror film and dives headlong into various kinds of fantasy. A fictional detective story dovetails into musical hallucinations, and finally into paranoid delusions about real life.
Film critic Robin Wood described a number of Alfred Hitchcock films as being essentially theraputic - with heroes who start off sick and slowly work their way back to health. Potter's story is an ultimate extension of that idea. Philip Marlow's grotesque situation (hopefully an exaggeration of what Potter himself endured) is only the physical side of the mess that his whole life has become. 'Figuring it all out' is a process of self-examination that Marlow approaches in the persona of his own detective hero.
Sophisticated and pulpy, The Singing Detective is an entertainment made for television. The story is far too complex for a shorter format, and the long-form of the miniseries allows the multiple levels of Philip Marlow's mental reality to interact, one level against another. Events in his hospital ward do not merely intercut with other 'realities'. School memories, home memories, the fantasy of his novel, musical reveries and paranoid suspicions about his ex-wife interlock, creating a puzzle that provides the clues to Marlow's antisocial outlook.
An intellectual with a marked difficulty communicating with people, Marlow becomes a kind of monster. He's unable to move from his bed because his joints have locked up (he can't even enjoy candy, because his jaw hurts) and, with an entire body as sensitive as an open wound, he's in constant pain. His frustration is natural, but his rage goes deeper. We're intrigued by his acid response to the world - it's hard to fault his rudeness and crudity when nobody can fathom what he must be going through. His fantasies and memories have made him suspicious of women and convinced of the existence of secret plots against him. He invents crimes for the people in his life, the same way he concocts his detective mysteries.
The telling of the story is everything, and although Potter's hardboiled patter and colorful characters are interesting, it's his weave of the levels of reality that keeps The Singing Detective hopping. Marlow stares, and we see bits of his novel and memories of his childhood. He searches for clues in both of them. The time-dislocation effects introduced in films like Hiroshima mon amour (yes, honest) have by 1986 become so basic to the movie-watching experience that we wait patiently to figure out what each story 'level' means and how its interrelates. This kind of structure can be pointless and frustrating when used to complicate a basically simple story, but The Singing Detective rewards close inspection. Philip Marlow's world is a compelling one.
As a miniseries, The Singing Detective keeps things at an even boil almost all of the time. Each new episode gets us closer to people we care about, like dedicated nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley), who understands Marlow's humiliations. We also like Nicola (Janet Suzman of Nicholas and Alexandra), because our knowledge of Marlow enables us to guess that her activities away from him are all his paranoid imaginings. The Singing Detective jumps back 35 years and leaps into pulpy detective fantasies, but we never really leave Marlow's bedside. Michael Gambon gives an amazing performance as both the deranged monster-in-the-bed, and the slick operator in the detective fantasy. With his face reduced to a pulpy mask, he still has no trouble grabbing our attention and keeping our sympathy.
The high quality of the show is maintained almost all the way through. The musical numbers that intrude into reality are the only repetitive aspect; unlike the songs of Pennies from Heaven, their novelty fades after a while. Two bungling hit men, quasi-comic relief versions of the killers from The Killers, also get a bit tired. The story's only pretentious moments come when these hit men start acting like second-rate Luis Borges characters, complaining because they're under-written 'padding' who haven't even been given names. (spoiler) The final shoot-out in the hospital ward, at a time when Marlow is almost cured, is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is.
But that's not what one remembers. Young Marlow's farewell to his father (Jim Carter) is repeated several times; director Jon Amiel uses many Fritz Lang-like associative cuts to link Marlow's story levels. Someone raises their hand to wave, and we jump to dad, arm upraised, on a train platform. The sad ordeal of Marlow's mother (Alison Steadman) is observed through levels of distorted memory - the stylized behaviors of the soldiers sharing her train compartment, etc.. The various fictional villains in Marlow's fantasy worlds, named Mark Binney or Mark Finney, are all rooted in a kid Marlow once knew, who was not a villain, but Marlow's victim.
I think the key to The Singing Detective is Marlowe's recognition of his victimization of the poor kid Mark Binney. The troublesome psychiatrist Dr. Gibbon (Bill Paterson of the English Traffik) becomes a heroic figure when he helps Marlow see how he uses invented villains to cover his own weaknesses and transgressions. Patrick Malahide plays two adult versions of Mark Binney that are evil personified, projections of Marlow's own shortcomings. 1 The 'sick' Marlow is a dangerous man, as he's perfectly capable of genuine malice. We see this in his callous treatment of two luckless ward neighbors.
(spoiler) Another redeeming factor in the miniseries is the effect of Marlow's slow physical recovery. The excellent makeup recedes in stages, causing us to be delighted when his appearance improves. At one point Marlow can actually talk pleasantly to another patient, a juvenile delinquent who's reading The Singing Detective. When an ending wrap-up shows us a flashback to the earlier Marlow covered from head to toe with ruptured, oozing skin, we're surprised - the five episodes have allowed us to gradually recover with him.
BBC / Warner's DVD set of The Singing Detective is given the kind of careful consideration we wish ALL our favorite shows could receive. The six episodes are spread across two discs, with a third disc set aside for the extras. The flat transfers are gorgeous, with rich color; the audio is deep and mellow, especially the organ-based title tune. The entire show has a full commentary by director Amiel (of this year's The Core - what a contrast) and producer Kenneth Trodd.
The third disc has several excellent resources for understanding The Singing Detective, and learning more about the strange life of its author. Dennis Potter: Under the Skin is a docu on Potter's life and career told in sometimes painfully intimate reminiscences by his collaborators and actors. Most of them subscribe to the hard-to-dispute idea that Potter's many telefilms were an elaborate working-out of his life traumas and problematical sexual fantasies. It's illustrated with interesting clips from his other work.
There's an extended interview with Potter, in which the Oxford-educated writer skilfully interprets his own work, and cagily refutes the idea that any of it is directly autobiographical. Combined with the testimony in the earlier docu, this encourages us to read between the lines and fashion a mental image of an extremely strange man. Potter's IMDB filmography is a list of impressive titles, all with bizarre concepts to advance: Brimstone and Treacle, Dreamchild, Pennies from Heaven, and Track 29. After this docu, his Gorky Park takes on new meanings. it's really all about skin - pelts taken from sables, victims with their faces cut away. Dennis Potter would surely have had a unique interpretation of Eyes Without a Face.
Disc three also has a photo gallery, and a set of BBC clips called Points of View that serve as both feedback and promos for the controversial series.
The Singing Detective got shown only sporadically on American televison because Potter refused to allow it to be censored. It's really worth catching up with, and this new DVD is a wonderful way to experience it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
"The Singing Detective" rates:
1. It makes us want to
revisit biographies of famous hardboiled novelists James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, to think about
the relationship between their literary fantasies and their private lives.