THE SINGING DETECTIVE - The Dennis Potter Collection

"The Singing Detective is a summation of Potterana. It is his Hamlet, his Ulysses ... his White Album. It is a vade mecum of his themes and concerns and characters and techniques"
W. Stephen Gilbert
Fight and Kick and Bite: The Life and Work of Dennis Potter (1995)

Originally broadcast in November 1986, The Singing Detective might well be considered one of the last, great original works for television. It also forms part of what would become a loose trilogy with Pennies From Heaven (BBC 1978) and Lipstick On Your Collar (Channel 4 1993) with each one, respectively, using popular music from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, as a way of emotionally underlining the internal dramas of characters in each story, especially in the case of the first two serials and the use of the then innovative lip-sync techniques with characters bursting into song as part of the narrative.

Much as Potter would deny it, The Singing Detective is part autobiographical and part a recycling and refining of past material, the ultimate synthesis of themes he had been writing about since his television drama breakthrough with Stand Up Nigel Barton (BBC 1965). The serial is a meta-textual dramatisation of his own remote, God-fearing working class upbringing in the Forest Of Dean, focusing on the schism between childhood and adulthood complete with an obsession about sexuality and violence; his often antagonistic fascination with pulp and popular cultural forms, particularly B movies and popular music; and his suffering through a debilitating psoriatic arthropathy that he may well have literally connected with the Old Testament narrative about sins of the flesh.

You can also track The Singing Detective’s lineage back to the views expressed on childhood betrayal in Stand Up Nigel Barton (the headmistress played by Janet Henfrey reappears in much the same role in this serial) and Blue Remembered Hills (BBC 1979); the lip sync musical format of Pennies From Heaven (1978); the narrator/author as a fiction in reality of Follow The Yellow Brick Road (BBC 1972); the examination of sexuality in Casanova (BBC 1971); abuse and therapy at the centre of Moonlight On The Highway (ITV 1969) as well as the 1973 novel Hide And Seek in which a desperately ill man, a writer, announces to his psychotherapist that he is a character in a novel (themes that would also later emerge in Karaoke) and includes much of the conversation between Marlow and Dr. Gibbon that would find its way into the 1986 serial. Similarly the novel, like The Singing Detective, examines the nature of fiction and the relationship between the author, reality and fantasy.
...we learn to forgive ourselves for our inhuman, and conversely human, indiscretions

The opening narrative in The Singing Detective is relatively linear. A writer of detective pulp fiction, Philip Marlow, is seriously ill in hospital. As he succumbs to the grip of fever dreams, he decides to rewrite the narrative of one of his old novels in his head as a therapeutic aid towards his physical and mental recovery. As this process begins, the events on the ward, the novel’s pulp detective narrative, his childhood memories, the suicide of his mother and the fear of his wife’s sexual betrayal begin to merge. It becomes a psychological detective story where one man gradually sifts through the debris of his life in order to reconstruct it. It is by no means a depressing story; rather it is a triumphant one where the damaged Marlow conquers his guilt, fears, prejudices, inadequacies and illness to re-emerge as a better man. Like many Potter dramas, it is a reaffirmation of faith; that some good will emerge from the darkest, bleakest moments of our past and that we learn to forgive ourselves for our inhuman, and conversely human, indiscretions. Each man kills the thing he loves and in The Singing Detective the denouement sees a fictional Marlow shoot the bed ridden Marlow through the head as a triumph of the realised man over the doubling and debilitated fictional man.
it is a dizzying array of non-naturalistic, non-chronological tropes

This complex slippage between narrative forms is conveyed through the noir stylings of a Chandler-esque pulp novel where a detective, who happens to be a night club singer, solves a wartime spy plot involving Russian agents; the Carry On tragi-comedy and Busby Berkeley musical tropes of the activity in the hospital ward; the searing portrait of a childhood seen through the prism of school friend rivalry, a parent’s sexual infidelity, the tragic relationship with his mother set amidst the juxtaposition of the urban sprawl of London and the greenery of the Forest Of Dean; and finally the alignment with Reagan era neo-noir that can be found in Blue Velvet (1986) and Manhunter (1986) where Marlow’s wife, Nicola, plots to sell the rights of his novel to a big Hollywood studio and is the victim of a grisly murder. The serial becomes not only the narrative that you are watching, that Potter is writing and putting on the page, but also the narrative being constructed in Marlow’s head and consequently the same actors, including Michael Gambon, Alison Steadman and Patrick Malahide play variations of the main characters in the film noir of 1940, the social realist drama in 1930 and the thriller in 1986. This overlap, and Marlow’s psychological break-through, culminates with the gangsters featured in the film noir sub-plot, attempting to track down the ‘singing detective’, emerging into both the subplots based in 1986 and 1930 as the story liberates Marlow from his guilt. In the end, the serial is as much about the power of narrative to shape, inform and heal us as individuals as it is a dizzying array of non-naturalistic, non-chronological tropes, symbols, songs, parables and pastiches to deconstruct Marlow, as ‘he casts his private eye inwards’, as an author and also as a man, to delineate between the realities and the fictions of the self.

He sees sex and death as complicit with dirt and money
Through the entire six episodes there is also the self-reflexive theme of 'doubling', not only where the main cast play a number of roles in each of the period narratives but also symbolically where Marlow's wife Nicola substitutes for Marlow's mother; Binney as the lover of Nicola and Marlow's mother; patient and therapist as client and detective; therapist and head mistress; the Rosencrantz and Guildernstern of ward patients Mr. Hall and Reginald coupled with the two bumbling private agents; the significance of the female characters (Sonia, Marlow's mother and Nicola) all drowning themselves by jumping from Hammersmith Bridge (ironically a location that crops up in many Potter dramas) as well as the indication that the narrator's voice is speaking from a position on high in the same way that young Philip observes the corrosive events of his childhood from the branches of a tree. He sees sex and death as complicit with dirt and money (filthy lucre) and this binary opposition is also part of the therapy Dr. Gibbon conducts ('Passion/Pretence. Woman/Fuck. Fuck/Dirt. Dirt/Death'). The way sound and dialogue itself is mimicked and overlapped is integral to this 'doubling' in the narrative with the noise of a train bleeding into the squeak of Marlow's wheelchair, footsteps of young Philip running from 1945 into the ward of the hospital, Binney's dialogue turning into Marlow's.

At the centre of the serial is an astonishing performance by Michael Gambon. He beautifully conveys the anger and bitterness of the bed-ridden author, who is often savage and brutal in his cynical attack on fellow patients, doctors, his wife and the world at large, but he also reveals the extreme vulnerability that comes from seeing his own life laid out as an open wound, physically and mentally, that reduces him and, by extension, the audience to tears. Gambon, Steadman and Malahide had the most difficult task as actors because they play characters that slip across all three narratives with Steadman as Mrs Marlow and Lilli, and Malahide as Raymond Binney, Mark Binney and Finney. Young Lyndon Davies is also superb as Marlow at the age of ten, confronting God in his heaven by climbing up into the trees and dealing with the earthly disintegration of his parents’ marriage. Their ability to control these characterisations throughout the fractured narratives clearly owes much to the way director Jon Amiel worked closely with Potter on the structuring of the six part serial. I have huge admiration for the way Amiel and Potter constructed the multi-levels of narrative, using dialogue and sound, slow dissolves, brief inter-cutting, to overlap the strands of the various stories.

Looking at the drama now, it clearly was a spectacular breakthrough not just for Potter as a writer but also in the way that television drama could be shaped, moulded and adjusted to tell complex stories about the inner turmoil of damaged human beings. It achieved a benchmark in British television production and direction that I would argue still hasn't been bettered today and is full of memorable images and dialogue. The anarchic Dem Bones song and dance number by the nurses and consultants on the ward as Marlow's anger at their patronising attitudes boils over, the now infamous 'greasing' scene where Nurse Mills ("the girl in all those songs" and a performance that put Joanne Whalley-Kilmer on the map) elicits an internal monologue from Marlow about the most boring things he can think of ("a speech by Ted Heath, a long sentence from Bernard Levin, a Welsh male-voice choir") to prevent a severe case of over-excitement and little details like the fellow patients lined up on Hammersmith Bridge, the Russian call girl Sonia peeping over the heads of the consultants in the ward as Marlow endures his hallucinations. And again, the death of fellow patient Ali is still as heartbreaking as ever as Nurse Mills unwraps a sweet, offered by the now dead Ali, and Marlow consumes it in a flood of tears.
...a struggle for self-integration and self discovery and a restoration of the object of his affections
The cut and thrust of the therapy session between Gibbon (Bill Paterson) and Marlow outlines Potter's examination of the struggle between creativity and destruction with Gibbon using Marlow's pulp novel to define his real ambitions as a writer and the true colours of his vulnerability. We are introduced to young Philip's family dynamic where the more refined Mrs. Marlow is aghast at the primitivism of the grandparents Forest Of Dean home life. Philip is caught in a world of ineffectual male parenting with attendant feelings of jealousy, frustration and he implicates himself as the cause of family arguments and breakdown. The younger Marlow's guilt is projected onto the narrative and all of Marlow's disgust at the world stems from these patterns of domesticity, including the pub sing-songs. This self-disgust materialises as a struggle for self-integration and self discovery and a restoration of the object(s) of his affections - his mother and his wife - that then spirals through the rest of the series and this is further confirmed when in his hallucinations he imagines his own wife in the forest having sex with Binney/Finney.

The young Philip exists in a world where the impulses of the natural world hold sway (the headmistress figure is another symbol of the birth/death cycle of nature when she is transmogrified into a scarecrow) and he's infinitely curious about nature. He takes a ladybird, places it on a branch to observe it but when he bears witness to his mother and Binney in the forest he squashes it and sees it as an emblem of all that is dirty in the world. "I can't abide things that creep and crawl. They got to be got rid of an, um? I can't abide dirt. It'd get everybloodywhere, doun it?" This dissolves into the adult Marlow witnessing the attempted resuscitation of George, the leering old patient in the next bed. The representation of the sexual act is suffused with violence, horror and disgust, the grunts and groans of Raymond Binney overlapping with the hiss of George's oxygen bag being inflated and deflated.
Guilt is dissolved
Potter’s The Singing Detective also angered campaigner Mary Whitehouse who claimed that Potter’s mind had been warped by the memory of catching his own mother inflagrante delicto. It is actually the spectre of child abuse that looms large across Potter’s work and the scene where Mrs. Marlow is more or less raped by Raymond Binney was, not as Whitehouse believed, a moment of Potter’s own guilt but a further prompt in the debate about Potter’s attitude towards women in his work that, judging by Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, was also less than enlightened or completely healthy. This problematic objectification of women and exploitation of sexuality was bravely tackled by Potter in the later Blackeyes (BBC 1989) that, although it attracted the opprobrium of the tabloids of the time, is now long overdue for a critical re-evaluation. As The Singing Detective reaches its final episode, Marlow's condition improves both physically and psychically as a result of his ability to differentiate between fiction and reality, between internal and external reality. Not only does he repair the relationship with his wife but he faces and recognises his mother's suicide, dealing with the pain and the scars it has left. Guilt is dissolved: guilt over her suicide, his betrayal of his classmate and his own self-humiliation. Marlow, who has been killed by his alter ego, also announces: "I suppose you could say we'd been partners, him and me. Like Laurel and Hardy or Fortnum and Mason. But, hell, this was one sick fellow, from way back when. And I reckon I'm man enough to tie my own shoe laces now". And with that Vera Lynn's 'We'll Meet Again' swells onto the soundtrack and Marlow is rebuilt.

A 2003 film version of The Singing Detective, with Robert Downey Jnr, received very mixed reviews and so it is the six part BBC serial that remains as Potter’s magnum opus and a career high that would never be repeated in the later, flawed works such as Lipstick On Your Collar (Channel 4 1993), Karaoke (Channel 4/BBC 1996) and Cold Lazarus (Channel 4/BBC 1996). At number 20 in the BFI TV 100, The Singing Detective remains as a seminal television work, stretching the possibilities of the medium in its defiance to tell a story in non-linear, non-naturalistic and boldly cinematic ways. The six-part serial has been released by BBC DVD and features a commentary by director Jon Amiel and producer Kenith Trodd on all six episodes. It also has a number of special features, including short clips from Points of View and an Arena profile plus the documentary Close Up: Dennis Potter.


BFI Television Classics – The Singing Detective
Glen Creeber (BFI Publishing 2007)

Dennis Potter – The Authorised Biography
Humphrey Carpenter (Faber & Faber 1999)

Fight And Kick And Bite – The Life And Work Of Dennis Potter
W. Stephen Gilbert (Hodder & Stoughton 1995)

Museum Of Broadcast Communications – The Singing Detective
Accessed 05/05/09

The Singing Detective – Wikipedia
Accessed 05/05/09

The British Film Resource: Dennis Potter
Accessed 05/05/09

BFI Screen Online: The Singing Detective
Accessed 05/05/09

BFI Screen Online: Dennis Potter
Accessed 05/05/09

BFI Screen Online: Blackeyes
Accessed 05/05/09

THE SINGING DETECTIVE - The Dennis Potter Collection (BBCDVD1222 - Region 2 - Released 8th March 2004 - Cert 15)

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2 Responses to “THE SINGING DETECTIVE - The Dennis Potter Collection”
  1. Really interesting review Frank.

    I'm glad you mention the young Marlow. What a performance - and pivotal to the series.

    Hide and Seek would really be of interest to you. If you can't get hold of it - DM me on twitter and I'll see if I can get something to you. The central character begins by saying that he's a character in a novel - the following section then contextualises it with the "writer" revealing differences between his central character and himself, and then there are further revelations later (I'm trying to avoid spoilers). That this coincides timing wise with the drama where Denholm Elliot plays the guy working in advertising where similar themes are explored is quite interesting (and I think Double Dare with the spookily Potter-like performance against Kika MArkham's dual role is much the same time too).

    I also feel that Blackeyes is long overdue reappraisal. It might be saying too much to call it a neglected classic but there is a lot more going on than the critics acknowledged at the time, with the voiceover making him complicit in the story (and the hints as to what Maurice did to Jessica in the past tying in with his own experiences, which had been hinted at in his work but not I think at that point explicit (I can't recall off hand when Waiting for the Boat with its autobiographical essay was published)).

    Do you have Jon Cook's critical study of Potter? If not - well worht getting hold of as is a nice little critical study by Peter Stead.

    I'm not a fan of the Carpenter biography (I feel that he doesn't "get" the work) and much prefer Gilbert's book.

    It was really pleasant to read this when otherwise I'm marking first year LLB exams and slowly losing my sanity.

    Best wishes


  2. Cheers, Scott.

    I too am not a fan of the Carpenter book. I much enjoyed the Gilbert book and the Potter on Potter edited by Graham Fuller. Glen Creeber's book on The Singing Detective is also very interesting too. Haven't read the John Cook but will certainly aim to track it down.

    I'll see if I can also track down Hide And Seek (unlikely). If not I will DM you and perhaps I can borrow it?

    I am hoping to review more Potter soon so stay tuned! Thanks for reading.

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