Singing Detective, The: Dennis Potter Series

The BBC TV serial drama, written by Dennis Potter,  directed by Jon Amiel, and starring Mchael Gambon, was broadcast in the UK on Sunday nights in November and December.

There were later PBS and TV showings in the U.S. Its six episodes were: “Skin”, “Heat”, “Lovely Days”, “Clues”, “Pitter Patter” and “Who Done It”.

Mystery writer Philip E. Marlow, suffering writer’s block, is hospitalized due to his psoriatic arthritis, a chronic skin and joint disease.  This acute stage forms lesions and sores over his entire body, and partially cripples his hands and feet.

Potter suffered from this disease himself.  He wrote with a pen tied to his fist, just as Marlow does in the last episode. The pain, the fever and his refusal to take medication cause Marlow to enter a fantasy world, inspired by his Chandleresque novel, The Singing Detective, an escapist adventure about a detective named “Philip Marlow,” who sings at a dance hall.

There are flashbacks to his childhood in rural country, and his mother’s life in wartime London. The suicide of his mother is one of the series’ recurring images. Marlow sometimes replaces her face with different women in his life, real and imaginary.

The noir mystery, a vague plot about smuggled Nazi war criminals, protected by the Allies and Soviet agents attempting to stop them, is not resolved, based on Marlow’s view that fiction should be “all clues and no solutions”.

The tale’s three worlds of the hospital, the noir thriller, and wartime England often merge in Marlow’s mind, resulting in a fourth layer, in which there are interactions between fictional and non-fictional characters. Some of Marlow’s friends and enemies (perceived or not) are represented by characters in the novel.  Marlow’s mother’s lover, Raymond, appears as the antagonist in the “real” and noir worlds (though the “real” Binney/Finney is a fantasy as well). Binney’s villain committed fornication with Marlow’s mum and cuckolded Marlow’s dad, who Marlow loved.

Marlow’s guilt that he caused his parent’s separation and his mother’s suicide is exacerbated by early childhood memory when he framed young Mark Binney for defecating on the desk of a rigid elementary teacher (Janet Henfrey). The innocent Binney is brutally beaten in the classroom, and Marlow is lauded for telling the “truth.”

Various events haunt Marlow. The real Mark Binney ends up in a mental institution, as Marlow confesses to the psychiatrist. The villainous Binney/Finney character is killed off in both realities. In each reality, the guilt of Binney/Finney/Mark is entirely the product of Marlow’s imagination.  However, the killer, who looks more like adult Binney, lives, and he dies.

Some members of the cast play multiple roles. Marlow and his alter-ego, the singing detective, are both played by Gambon. Marlow as a boy is played by Lyndon Davies. Mark Binney (schoolboy) is played by William Speakman. Davies and Speakman were contemporaries at Chosen Hill school in Gloucestershire, near Potter’s birthplace. Patrick Malahide plays three central characters: the contemporary Finney, who Marlow thinks is having an affair with his ex-wife Nicola (played by Janet Suzman); the imaginary Binney, a central character in the murder plot; and Raymond, a friend of Marlow’s father who has an affair with his mother (Alison Steadman). Steadman plays both Marlow’s mother, and the mysterious “Lili,” one of the victims. At the end of the serial, Marlow and Nicola repair their relationship.

In Potter’s original script, the hospital scenes and noir scenes were to be shot with video and film cameras respectively, with the period material (Marlow’s childhood) filmed in black-and-white. However, all scenes were shot on film, despite objections from Potter, who wanted the hospital scenes to display the tone of sitcoms.

Initially, the series’ title was “Smoke Rings,” and the Singing Detective noir thriller was to be dropped after the first episode, because Potter feared that it would not hold attention. The title may have referred to a particular monologue Marlow has in the first episode, referring to the fact that, despite everything else, the one thing he really wants is a cigarette. Marlow’s medical and mental progress is subtly gauged by his ability to reach over to his dresser and get his cigarettes.

Borrowing portions of his first novel, Hide and Seek (1973), Potter added autobiographical and deeply “personal” aspects, along with 1940s popular music and the film noir stylistics.

Marlow’s hallucinations bear some resemblance to Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, the 1944 film of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, with Dick Powell as Marlowe.  (Incidentally, Powell himself portrayed a “singing detective” on radio’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective, serenading girlfriend Helen Asher (Virginia Gregg), at the end of each episode.

The Singing Detective was not a huge success but it was influential and critically acclaimed.  Steven Bochco has credited the series as chief inspiration for Cop Rock (1990), though unlike The Singing Detective, Bochco’s drama features specially recorded musical numbers rather than pre-existing work.

The serial was adapted, with a new America setting, into a very bad American film, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Mel Gibson.