1 9 8 6 (UK)
6 x 60 minute episodes
One of the few saving graces of the 2003 movie version of The Singing Detective (aside from Robert Downey Jr’s credible performance in the title role) was that it retained much of Dennis Potter’s dialogue, giving it some much-needed substance.
For all the film’s good intentions, however, it still didn’t hold a candle to Potter’s compelling original version which first graced British television screens on 16 November 1986.
The six-part BBC serial revolved around the personal entanglements (real, remembered, and imagined) of crime writer Philip Marlow, who is hospitalised, suffering from psoriatic arthropathy – the same condition that affected Potter – and from the side-effects associated with its treatment.
The result was a complex, multi-layered series which overlaid the varied interests and themes of the detective thriller, the hospital drama, the musical and the autobiography.
Michael Gambon – who won a BAFTA for his troubles – was simply superb as Marlow, who chooses to escape the agony of his illness and the mind-numbing bleakness of his hospital ward by imagining himself as the Singing Detective, the crooning, crime-fighting hero of one of his novels.
Interspersed with his fantasies are less than pleasant memories of his wartime childhood, to say nothing of some bizarre but toe-tapping 1940s musical numbers.
The Singing Detective was not only the serial that the TV viewer was watching but the book that Marlow was rewriting in his head.
This added to the intricacy (and confusion) as the same characters would appear in different narratives, played by the same actor, and at times characters from one narrative would appear in another, or a character would lip-synch the lines of another character from a different narrative, and characters would even comment on their role, and speak directly to the camera.
Questions of time past and present were also rendered complex. In narrative 1, in the present, Marlow was reconstructing two pasts: the book he wrote a long time ago, which was itself set in the past, and a part of his childhood, also set in 1945.
The main enigmas in his text are set in that year. In the second narrative, who killed the busker, Sonia, Amanda, Lilli and Mark Binney? And why? In narrative 3, who shat on the table? Why did Mrs Marlow commit suicide? Although narratives 1 and 2 usually (but not always) followed story chronology, in narrative 3, it was not really clear what the actual chronology of the young Philip’s life actually was.
There were obvious parallels between the story and Potter’s own personal history. Like Marlow, Potter was born and brought up in the Forest of Dean at about the same time as Philip was a wartime evacuee and, like Philip, he stayed in Hammersmith with relations who had difficulty with his strong Gloucestershire accent.
Two key incidents in The Singing Detective were based on real-life incidents in Potter’s childhood – His mother, a pub pianist, being kissed by a man; and Potter’s writing a four-letter word on the blackboard when his precocious facility as a young writer made him unpopular with other schoolchildren.
Director Jon Amiel did a terrific job of creating three very different worlds while the acting was consistently brilliant across the cast (right down to Lyndon Davies as the young Marlow and Imelda Staunton as one of the scariest nurses ever put on camera).
The serial was explicitly concerned with psychoanalysis – the text rich in Freudian imagery and symbolism, and Marlow’s neurosis and paranoia are explicitly linked to his repression of painful childhood memories, notably his mother’s adultery, her eventual suicide and the mental breakdown of a fellow pupil after a beating by a teacher.
The ”explicit” content of the show seems pretty tame with the benefit of 20+ years hindsight – it’s hard to believe that the brief sex scenes or the sight of Joanne Whalley’s Nurse Mills greasing up Gambon had Angry of Tunbridge Wells fuming so much in 1986.
Philip Marlow aged 10
Mark Binney aged 10