Written by Films

The Singing Detective

I spent a large chunk of the weekend watching The Singing Detective for the first time since it was originally broadcast in 1986. Here’s an admission – I’ve still got the Radio Times from that week with a rather cool cover featuring the artwork from the series (think 1940s paperback pulp paperbacks).
The series has been available for years on video, but has just been released on DVD following the release of a Hollywood remake of the film which I think was released last year, but pretty much sank without a trace (talk about remaking the impossible. It’d be like remaking Citizen Kane or something).
Watching the DVDs, you realised that you were going back to a time where the writer had total control over a production. There’s no way that this story would get six hours these days. Four hours maybe. Actually it didn’t get six hours in 1986, it got more. The episodes run for random lengths of time, determined in the main by how much time it felt necessary to tell the story.
Should I attempt to summarise the story for any reader unfamiliar with it or who has hazy memories? Probably not. But Michael Gambon plays Philip Marlow (no “e”) a pulp fiction author who’s lying in bed in hospital with an especially acute case of psoriasis. He dreams alternately of his wartime childhood, and a story about a postwar “Singing Detective” of the title. This being written by Dennis Potter, there are musical interludes using old songs, as Marlow’s imagination runs away with itself. Everyone and everything is linked.
The series caused quite an outcry at the time with Gambon’s character being treated in hospital by a young Joanne Whalley who rubbed cream onto his skin-flaked body while he tried not to “embarrass” himself. And then there were Patrick Malahide’s heaving buttocks in the Forest of Dean. Extras on the DVD include excerpts from Points of View with Barry Took doing his best to defend the series from accusations of filth and obscenities.
As well as profiles and interviews with Potter, the DVD features a commentary through every episode from director Jon Amiel and series producer Kenneth Trodd. With the series approaching seven hours in total, this is quite a labour of love, although I must admit that I’ve only sampled it in a few places. I think I’d have to be studying it qutie seriously to work through the whole thing.
Overall, a landmark TV series from a writer that we’ll never see the likes of again, given a freer reign than anyone on television today. (OK Stephen Poliakoff doesn’t do too badly, and I daresay that Paul Abbott could get away with murder if he really wanted to).