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Reworking material from his first novel, "Hide and Seek" (1973), and folding this into a prismatic blend of autobiographical details, popular music and 1940s film noir, Dennis Potter delivered a drama now regarded as a 20th-century masterwork. Detective novelist Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon) suffers from the crippling disease of psoriatic arthritis. Confined to a hospital bed, Marlow mentally rewrites his early Chandleresque thriller, "The Singing Detective," with himself in the title role, drifting into a surreal 1945 fantasy of spies and criminals, along with vivid memories of a childhood in the Forest of Dean. As past events and 1940s songs surface in his subconscious, Marlow's voyage of self-discovery provides a key to conquering his illness, while his noir-styled hallucinations evoke the Philip Marlowe of Chandler's "Murder, My Sweet" (1944), starring Dick Powell, who later became a "singing detective" on radio's "Richard Diamond, Private Detective" (1949), crooning to ... Written by
Bhob Stewart <email@example.com>
About to watch the 'The Singing Detective' in its entirity for the first time in 18 years, one is filled with anticipation but also anxiety. Supposing it's dated, or that its once revolutionary nature has been so widely copied (one thinks here of its multi-layered structure, or the scene where Michael Gambon tries to avoid having an erection) that it will be impossible to remember quite how fresh it seemed on first viewing. Worst of all, perhaps it's simply not as good as remembered? When the piece started slowly, I feared that disappointment indeed awaited. But soon I fell again into its magical rhythmns, and, mesmerised, have just (with the aid of DVD) consumed the final five hours in a single weekend. Mesmerised but not surprised - the power of the piece is such that almost every scene, almost every line of dialogue seemed familiar. The last film I saw I had in fact seen previously, and much less than 18 years before, but I had forgotten it entirely and would not have even realised except for a one memorable detail. By contrast, in Dennis Potter's masterpiece, when a single scene failed to trigger recognition, it seemed horribly wrong, as every other incident was written on my brain.
For those who don't know, 'The Singing Detective' is an offbeat musical about a writer in hospital, that weaves effortlessly his present experiences, his past fictions, his paranoid imaginings and, above all else, the memories of a childhood that to this day still dominates his life. Wildly imaginative, but grounded in Potter's own autobiography, it constitutes an enormously rich and vivid telling of a fundamentally very simple story. Potter celebrates life, but refuses to assign it any false dignity. The extent to which he strips away the cant that helps make life bearable is truly disturbing, and perhaps explains the reason the religious right wanted it banned. The cover of my DVD says 'moderate nudity; mild language; no violence' and by modern standards this is correct. Which only damns the moderns; but Potter knew truly how to shock.
Put simply, everything is right about this series. The dialogue is caustic and hilarious; the direction spot on; the acting brilliant. The song and dance routines are coreographed precisely, economically, but to devastating effect. In fact, the construction of the whole work has the feel of jazz to it, the same themes repeated with minor variation, building to a whole that exceeds the mere parts. And the faces in this drama are the most wonderfully expressive faces you will ever see. I was going to call their expressiveness stylised, in that no-one's real face ever really gives away so much. But these, of course, are the faces of the memory, a lifetime's trauma captured in a single tearful eye.
The cast clearly rose to the material. Gambon gives a virtuoso acting masterclass, supreme in both his roles (he plays both the writer and his creation); and though the writer undergoes a major personal journey during the course of this story, Gambon is as good at the end as at the start. While Joanne Whalley, Bill Paterson (with his beard and accent, he makes me think of Robin Cook!) and (in a virtually silent role) Jim Carter have never done anything better. Often overlooked, meanwhile, is the stunning performance from (the subsequently obscure) Lyndon Davies from as Gambon's younger self.
Potter spent his entire career trying new ways of writing screenplays. It didn't always come off and after this work, little he produced was of merit. But 'The Singing Detective' hits no false notes. If there's been a better series made for television, I haven't seen it.
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