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.
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.
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.
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".
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Drummond and Jane Revel
Marlow .......................................Michael Gambon
Raymond Binney/Mark Binney/Finney ....Patrick Malahide
Nurse Mills/Carlotta ...............................Joanne
Dr. Gibbon ................................................Bill
Philip Marlow at Ten................................ Lyndon
Mrs. Marlow/Lili................................... Alison
Schoolteacher/Scarecrow ..........................Janet Henfrey
Mark Binney at Ten.......................... William Speakman
John Harris, Kenith Trodd
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.
Richard. "Notes from The Singing Detective: Dennis Potter Makes
Beautiful Music from Painful Lives." Time (New York), 19 December
Graham. "Dennis Potter." American Film (Washington, D.C.),
editor. Potter on Potter. London; Boston: Faber and Faber,
W. Stephen. Fight and Kick and Bite: The Life and Work of Dennis
Potter. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995.
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.
Peter. Dennis Potter. Bridgend, England: Seren, 1993.
Wyver, John. "Arrows of Desire" (interview). New Statesman
and Society (London), 24 November 1989.
from Heaven; Potter,