Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective

Written by:
Tom Block
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The rain falls. The sun shines. The wind blows. And that’s what it’s like. You’re buffeted by this, by that, and it is nothing to do with you. Someone you love dies, or leaves. You get ill or you get better. You grow old and you remember, or you forget. And all the time, everywhere, there is this canopy stretching over you…

The speaker of this lament is named Philip Marlow, and he is a man both miserable and brilliant. Indeed, he is that rarity in fiction, the supposedly brilliant character who really is quicker than we are. He is the author of several detective novels, all of which, he would be quick to remind us, are out of print. When we meet him, he is hospitalized with a disease that has turned his skin appalling shades of white and brown and purple, a sight that repels even the medical staff.

Marlow is rotting on the inside as well. His mind festers with the memories of a tormented childhood, and treachery – especially of the sexual variety – is the only thing he expects from people. He is a wildly funny man but his humor is laced with arsenic. ("Go on, be a critic," he tells his psychiatrist. "You have the face for it.") Hypersensitive to nuance and mood, he is easily bored, eager to take offense, and adroit at sniffing out betrayal. He is a nightmare, this man; he is the human being that we never want to become. Only in rare and shadowy moments do his emotions unclench themselves enough that we can see what fine stuff he is molded from. Asked how he would have liked to spend his life, he responds for once with neither hostility nor sarcasm: "I would have liked to use my pen to praise a loving God and all his loving creation."

Frightening, boisterous, caustic, obsessive, despairing, exhilarating – all these adjectives apply equally to Marlow and to his story, The Singing Detective, a six-hour miniseries released by the BBC in 1986. Despite the fluid, resourceful direction of Jon Amiel and a monumental lead performance by Michael Gambon, The Singing Detective is clearly the brainchild of British dramatist Dennis Potter. Potter, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, himself suffered from Marlow’s condition, a rare disease called psoriatic arthropathy that attacks the skin and joints. Potter wrote several dramas for television, but The Singing Detective (which he had to write with a pen strapped to his hand) was the pinnacle of his long career.

Incapacitated both physically and emotionally, and waiting for a healing process that stubbornly refuses to begin, Marlow begins mapping out a screenplay based on one of his old novels, a spy thriller set in post-World War II London. Because he cannot hold a pen, he must compose it in his mind, and it is there – behind his glittering, baleful eyes – that we see it acted out draft by draft. As it unfolds, we cannot help but notice that it contains certain incongruities, certain characters, events, and images that seem to have oozed in from another work entirely. Something more than simple fever is warping Marlow’s soul, and herein lies the real mystery of The Singing Detective

The Singing Detective is a modern pilgrim’s progress in which three narratives – Marlow’s hospital experiences, the pulp fiction that he is half-composing and half-hallucinating, and the boyhood memories that percolate into both his reality and his fiction – are braided together. Some of Marlow’s reveries enter on soft opiated footsteps while others come at us like shards of glass, yet they’re woven together so seamlessly with his hospital stay that we initially have trouble navigating the course Potter has set for us. And because some of the visual "clues" – such as a woman’s nude body as it is fished out of the Thames – are repeated in a variety of permutations, we’re sometimes at a loss to understand even what we are seeing. Potter clearly enjoyed pulling the rug out from under his viewers, but like all good mysteries, The Singing Detective has a solution that weaves all of its disparate strands into a single length of rope.

Potter illuminates Marlow’s emotional state, and adds an invigorating dimension to The Singing Detective, by incorporating the original recordings of popular music from the 1930s and 1940s – the period of Marlow’s boyhood – into the story. At points the music is grafted directly onto the narrative, as when Marlow’s father "sings" Dick Haymes’ beautiful rendition of "It Might As Well Be Spring" in a country pub. Elsewhere, the music provides a backdrop for Marlow’s busiest hallucinations, as when the entire hospital ward acts out a morbid and frenetic parody of movie musicals to "Dry Bones." (Marlow blinks with disbelief at the spectacle, unsure whether he’s seeing a manifestation of his own delirium or a final outbreak of madness among the medical staff that he despises.) These eruptions in the narrative fabric are a perfect reflection of Marlow’s careening, tipsy mental condition, and the lyrics of heartbreak and regret – from such old gems as "I Get Along Without You Very Well," "You Always Hurt the One You Love," and "Lili Marlene" – give nostalgic voice to his ambivalence and yearning.

The Singing Detective is rife with classic set pieces. When an attractive nurse greases down his loins, Marlow tries to stave off his imminent orgasm by taking mental inventory of the world’s most boring subjects: "A Welsh male-voice choir, wage rates in Peru, Elvis’ birthday, the Fifth Beatle, how-we-yomped-across-the-Falklands." The long scene in which Marlow’s schoolteacher employs a vicious brand of psychological warfare against him is a portrait of sadism that’s detailed and potent enough to revive the sting of our own childhood tortures. And in Potter’s hands even that hoariest chestnut of therapeutic dramas, the word-association game, comes to crackling life and finally becomes the battlefield of Joycean wordplay that so many writers have tried to find in it.

Michael Gambon gives the Jupiter Symphony of televised performances, and one of the great performances of our age. Marlow’s condition would straightjacket most actors and leave them nothing to work with, but Gambon’s eyes and voice are the tools of a Houdini. His Marlow is a full-blooded man, as capable of whimpering as blustering, and Gambon is careful to salt the character out so that even after the full six hours, we want more of him, not less. At the end, when Marlow is finally able to amble about with a clear and sunny complexion, it feels like Gambon’s triumph also – both men deserve to be whole and free.

Potter’s genius lay in finding a form elastic enough to unify his various themes: the living quality of memory, the awful zing that sexual desire can give to the games we play with each other, the crosscurrents flowing between pop culture and our emotional lives, and human resilience in the face of the past’s relentless hold over us. And in concert with Amiel and Gambon, he proved for all time that television can produce mature and visually complex work that’s equally rich for the heart and mind. Sing praise for his loving creation.

– Tom Block

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