The Singing Detective (1986) Directed by Jon Amiel

Illness has been prelevant in the household this week. Stomach Flu for me, severe fever, coughing, more of the same for Astrid. To feel empathy or possibly not to feel as ill as the people on-screen, Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective has been keeping our concentration levels up. This isn't the awful Hollywood remake from a few years back (Hollywood always pisses on Potter) but the original 6 part TV series made for the BBC. In the Holy Grail of TV shows this is up there with Twin Peaks, The Prisoner and The Sopranos. Am I right, or am i right?

Philip Marlow (the brilliant Michael Gambon) is in a NHS Hospital ward suffering from a severe skin disorder (psoriasis) which renders him virtually paralyzed. He's a detective novel writer who relives his first novel whilst lying in bed, medication creating hallucinations and wild imaginations, mixing fictional events with his real childhood years. As the action in his mind shifts from the film noir world of his 40's spy novel (Marlow being the Singing Detective of the title) to the Forest Of Dean of his childhood, Marlow works out key incidents of his life in his head with a view to curing his illness and his own psychological hang-ups. All the characters burst into song at unexpected times, in various scenarios, typical of Potter's previous Pennies From Heaven and the earlier Blue Remembered Hills. You never know what's really happening, happened, or going to happen, or what's real or fiction. The influence of Raymond Chandler is never far, especially with the various deathly, dangerous women and twisting plot lines.

This is Potter in semi-autobiographical mode, raging at the world. He ruminates with rage on sex/death, the NHS, Guardian reading liberals, Thatcher, racism, Murdoch, alter ego's, politics, well everything actually. Marlow is an unpleasant, ranting, misogynist, yet our hero. Very great support comes from Alison Steadman as his mother, Joanne Whalley as the nurse and Patrick Malahide as arch nemesis Mark Binney.

I haven't seen this for over 20 years, so you're never sure how this would hold up. But Dennis Potter was always controversial, always writing for British TV, so therefore part of the culture of my growing up. He was a voice you listened to, with an opinion worth hearing, his work was intelligent. This is wildly original material for any medium, be it cinema or TV. The Singing Detective was his peak, and is still essential viewing, as potent today as ever. When I grow up, I'm going to be a Detective, I am, I bloody well am!

There has been a growing sense in me that what a child figures out and understands about the world by the time she is ten years old, is fundamental to her personality forever. This is a scary thought, because what it really means is that the misunderstanding and bafflement of experience had as a child forms us. The Singing Detective is a study of this claim. It is almost seven hours of
looking into the sediments of one man's mind as he heals from crippling psoriasis.

The mind moves in layers of past, present and future. Or it just moves in undefinable territory. This series depicts a writer, whose one layer is the creative, continually evolving imagined reality. I have never seen as good a visualization of how these element blend and become indistinguishable as this TV series. Philip Marlow's imagination is his tool, his curse and finally what sets him free (or is it the other way in the end?).

But there is a serious core here. Something very alarming. It relates to experiencing life through feeling, which is probably the only way to experience, thus to live.
The misunderstood or the mysterious can make us so unbalanced and distort our experiences so much that it makes living a hell. In the Singing Detective this is illustrated in Philip's relationship to his mother and later to any women in his life. Unfortunately, it seems that sexuality often becomes the corner of experience where this early bafflement manifests itself. The fact that parents forbid and deny it, and yet it exists like water and air between us.

This is a gem. The musical numbers are genius.


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