Is it the "greatest production in the history of television"? The Chicago Sun-Times thought so. Philip Marlow, a mystery writer stricken with a crippling skin disease, interweaves hallucinations with memories of his past with the murder mystery in his tale of a suave sleuth who sings when not solving cases.
Stars Michael Gambon, Janet Suzman and Joanne Whalle.
Reviewed by Noel Murray.
The first two discs of The Singing Detective's three-DVD set contain the entirety of the six-part, seven-hour 1986 BBC miniseries, with optional commentary by director Jon Amiel.
But the series' legion of cultists will likely head straight for the third disc, which features a small sampling of interviews with late screenwriter Dennis Potter, as well as a 45-minute BBC biography that explores the connections between Potter's life and more than 30 years worth of his BBC teleplays. Publicly, Potter dismissed such endeavors, but privately he acknowledged that he used writing as a substitute for psychotherapy, and, in the case of The Singing Detective, he made the search for life-explicating clues a major theme.
Michael Gambon plays a bedridden crank who shares the same profession as Potter, suffers from the same debilitating skin-and-bone disease, grapples with the same embarrassment over his upbringing in a working-class coal-mining community, and shares his creator's tortured ambivalence toward women. As he lies scabbed-over and virtually immobile in a London hospital, Gambon tries to remember the plot of one of his own books, a WWII detective/espionage pulp.
The story's dark sexuality and misogynist violence remind him of childhood, when he caught his mother having sex with a neighbor in the woods, shortly before she drowned herself. Amiel concocts indelible images to accompany Potter's script, which has the hero circling the same fragments of fiction and nonfiction, trying to determine exactly when he became such a miserable bastard. He recalls himself as a boy, undergoing the humiliations of primary school and escaping into tall trees, and he conjures up his made-up detective, a part-time nightclub crooner hired to untangle a plot involving Nazis, communists, prostitutes, and a dead woman in a river.
The Singing Detective employs one of Potter's common structural tricks, using corny old popular songs to mirror the emotions of the characters, who lip-synch along. The musical interludes and genre trappings make the series one of Potter's most accessible projects, but it's a still a strikingly elliptical and abstract piece, defying easy comprehension. Potter resides in a line of popular postmodernists that includes the likes of Italo Calvino and Alan Moore, and, like their work, his is best enjoyed not as a complicated contraption that reveals itself only on deep study, but as an inspired assemblage of personal and pop reveries, intersecting in fleeting moments of breathtaking clarity.
The Singing Detective's impact lies in its vision of how the incomprehensibilities and cruelties of youth still unsettle a middle-aged man, leaving him staring blankly ahead as his guilt and sins manifest in an eruptive, body-encompassing rash.