British Serial Drama

The Singing Detective (1986) is a six-part serial by one of British television's great experimental dramatists, Dennis Potter. Produced for the BBC by Kenith Trodd and directed by Jon Amiel, it revolves around the personal entanglements--real, remembered, and imagined--of the thriller author, Philip Marlow (played by Michael Gambon), who is suffering from acute psoriasis and from the side-effects associated with its treatment. The result is a complex, multi-layered text which weaves together, in heightened, anti-realist form, the varied interests and themes of the detective thriller, the hospital drama, the musical and the autobiography.

A first level of narrative centres on Marlow in his hospital bed. Set in the present, this narrative includes his fantasies and hallucinations. The second narrative is played out in Marlow's mind as he mentally re-writes his story The Singing Detective, with himself as hero, set in 1945. The third narrative, also set in 1945, consists of memories from his childhood as a nine-year-old boy in the Forest of Dean and in London, told through a series of flashbacks. The fourth area of narrative involves Marlow's fantasy about a conspiracy between his wife, Nicola, and a supposed lover, set in the present.

There are 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 are based on real-life incidents in 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.

The serial is explicitly concerned with psychoanalysis: the spectator is constructed both as detective and as psychoanalyst in a drama which Potter saw as "a detective story about how you find out about yourself." The text is rich in Freudian imagery and symbolism, and also deals with psychoanalytical technique as Dr. Gibbons attempts to involve a linguistically skeptical Marlow in the talking cure. 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. At this level, for Potter the story was about paranoia "one man's paranoia and the ending of it".

But The Singing Detective does not offer a straightforward case of autobiographical drama--for Potter, the serial was "one of the least autobiographical pieces of work I've ever attempted"--nor does it lead to conventional psychological or psychoanalytical resolution. He translates basic concerns, instead, to a more complex level where the narrative and generic dimensions of the text endlessly merge and overlap, fusing past and present, fantasy and "reality", challenging the organic conventions of realist drama and mixing the stabilities of popular television with the textual instabilities of modernism and postmodernism.

The Singing Detective is thus not only the serial that the TV viewer is watching, but the fiction that Marlow is rewriting in his head. Although his name is not unfamiliar in the genre, Marlow is no conventional focus for identification: he is obstreperously unlikeable and contradictory and his illness has been hideously disfiguring. More important, he is sometimes not the major "focaliser" of the narrative at all, but is repeatedly displaced by other themes and discourses in the process of a drama in which "character" itself rapidly becomes an unstable entity. The same character, for example, can appear in different narratives, played by the same actor; characters from one narrative can appear in another, or a character may lip-synch the lines of another character from a different narrative, or, in true Brechtian-Godardian style, characters may feel free to comment on their role, or to speak directly to the camera.

Questions of time and its enigmas, past and present, are also rendered complex. In narrative 1, in the present, Marlow is 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) follow story chronology, in narrative 3, it is not really clear what the actual chronology of the young Philip's life might be. In terms of narrative frequency, The Singing Detective is further marked by a high degree of repetition--of words, events, and visual images--as the same event, or part of it, is retold, re-worked, or recontextualised.

The final shoot-out in the hospital thus merges narratives 1 and 2 by uniting past (l945) with the present time of its reconstruction (1986), i.e. its reconstruction in Marlow's head rather than in his book itself. The "villain" who is killed is not just one of the characters but also the sick author himself, thus liberating the singing detective and ensuing an ending for narrative 2. Although it does not resolve any of the enigmas posed by this second narrative, the "dream" of the "sick" Marlow allows the Marlow who is "well" to get up and walk out of the hospital, concluding narrative 1. As he walks away down a long corridor on Nicola's arm, bird sounds from the Forest of Dean (narrative 3) are heard; past and present are again combined, if, typically, not reconciled.

The Singing Detective thus refuses any simple reading, even contests the traditional definition of television "reading" altogether. It is witty, comic, and salacious, and yet also savage, bleak and nihilistic. It is blunt and populist, and yet arcane and abstruse. Its key themes are language and communication, memory and representation, sexual and familial betrayal and guilt, the transition from childhood to adulthood, the relationships between religion, knowledge and belief, the processes of illness and of dying. Whilst its themes are resonant, its main enduring claim on critical attention lies in its thoroughgoing engagement with the textual politics of modernism. Its swirl of meanings and enigmas render it British prime time television's most sustained experiment with classic post-Brechtian strategies for anti-realism, reflexivity, textual deconstruction, and for the encouragement of new reading practices on the part of the TV spectator.

-Phillip Drummond and Jane Revel


Philip Marlow .......................................Michael Gambon
Raymond Binney/Mark Binney/Finney ....Patrick Malahide
Nurse Mills/Carlotta ...............................Joanne Whalley
Dr. Gibbon ................................................Bill Paterson
Philip Marlow at Ten................................ Lyndon Davies
Nicola ....................................................Janet Suzman
Mrs. Marlow/Lili................................... Alison Steadman
Mr. Marlow.................................................... Jim Carter
Schoolteacher/Scarecrow ..........................Janet Henfrey
Mark Binney at Ten.......................... William Speakman

PRODUCERS John Harris, Kenith Trodd

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 6 episodes of 60-80 minutes

16 November 1986-21 December 1986


Cook, John R. Dennis Potter: a Life on Screen. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Corliss, Richard. "Notes from The Singing Detective: Dennis Potter Makes Beautiful Music from Painful Lives." Time (New York), 19 December 1988.

Fuller, Graham. "Dennis Potter." American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1989.

_______________, editor. Potter on Potter. London; Boston: Faber and Faber, 1993.

Gilbert, W. Stephen. Fight and Kick and Bite: The Life and Work of Dennis Potter. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995.

Potter, Dennis. Seeing the Blossom: Two Interviews and a Lecture. London; Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994.

_______________. "An Interview with Dennis Potter: An Edited Transcript of Melvyn Bragg's Interview with Dennis Potter, Broadcast on the 5th of April, 1994." London: Channel 4 Television, 1994.

Stead, Peter. Dennis Potter. Bridgend, England: Seren, 1993.

Wyver, John. "Arrows of Desire" (interview). New Statesman and Society (London), 24 November 1989.


See also British Programming; Pennies from Heaven; Potter, Dennis; Trodd, Kenith