The Singing Detective (1986) has just finished re-airing on BBC Four, temporarily raising the iPlayer’s overall quality considerably. It was one of the best from Dennis Potter (1935-1994), author of several dramas so fiercely brilliant it’s hard to believe they were allowed on 1980s British television. He is also probably the reason you know who “Bob Hoskins” is, in case you’ve been wondering.
Like most of Potter’s work, The Singing Detective is a surreal, semi-autobiographical genre mash-up, which shows us several layers of fantasy and reality before poking them all full of holes, and inviting us to watch as they bleed to death. It was produced shortly before John Birt came into power and set about trying to turn the BBC into a polished-turd factory managed by accountants, a legacy still alive and well as was proven by the channel’s attempt to weasel out of re-airing the show at all. Their reluctance to cough up £5,000 for the writer’s estate is understandable – apparently Russell Howard isn’t as cheap as his terrible, terrible jokes.
Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon) lies in his hospital bed with a crippling skin disease. Not that Philip Marlowe – this one’s an author of detective novels who hates his own work, and apparently everyone in the world. He is in great pain, hallucinating song-and-dance numbers, and slowly going insane.
The series follows the course of his illness, both physical and mental. The real agony of psoriasis at its peak is captured by Potter, who suffered from the disease throughout his life. Meanwhile Marlow’s mental disintegration drags him and us back and forth between a grimly authentic hospital ward, the lurid world of his pulp fictions, and memories of his childhood. These last are drawn out by a rather idealised NHS psychiatrist (Bill Paterson) – Potter had little time for the real thing.
The show’s real aim isn’t to analyse Potter’s own personal neuroses, but rather those of mass culture; specifically the mess of immature impulses that passes for the hard-boiled/noir genre we still seem to be so addicted to. The fantasy of a solitary, righteous figure standing against a world of corruption shows no signs of going out of style, and is embodied in Marlow’s fictional detective – a manlier, more able, stylishly moustachioed version of himself in a big coat, a childish fantasy through which to escape his pitiful reality.
Since he dismissed real autobiography as “an inherently dishonest category of mislabelled fiction,” it’s fitting that a work of fiction is the closest Potter ever came. The scenes of Marlow’s boyhood in Gloucestershire are the show’s closest to the writer’s own life, and furthest from typical noir conventions – though they are the core of its dissection of the genre.
In The Singing Detective a child’s experience of betrayal by those in authority, and punishment falling on the innocent rather than the guilty, are found at the root of a vengeful bitterness channeled into his stories and his adult life. Even devoted fans of noir and its modern descendants would have to admit that this is an accurate, if not terribly flattering, summary of its appeal. Under all that bluster and toughness is a child’s fear of and hatred for the big, mean world, articulated and justified with the eloquence of adulthood.
There have been two attempted US remakes of Potter’s dramas, including a version of The Singing Detective with Robert Downey Jr. which is currently lowering the iPlayer’s overall quality considerably. It’s as if Hollywood, where the European embryo of noir had its proper birth, realises there’s an important message in there somewhere but can’t quite decipher it. Watching either of them would be a waste of valuable time, which could be better spent ordering this.