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Classic TV Revisited: The Singing Detective



Singing Detective

Highly complex musical drama by Dennis Potter which was part autobiographical. A unique TV offering, compellingly brilliant to some but hugely confusing to many viewers. Originally airing on BBC One in 1986 and starring Michael Gambon, Patrick Malahide, Joanne Whalley, Bill Paterson, Janet Suzman, Alison Steadman, Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton.

Why was it so good?
It was the controversial Potter’s TV masterpiece. Michael Gambon was outstanding as the hero confined to bed with an extreme and debilitating form of the skin disease psoriasis.

What was it all about?
Basically it was a reflection of Dennis Potter’s real life battle with psoriasis arthopathy. Potter could live a relatively normal life until the condition flared up. Then he would spend months in hospital on drugs which gave him hallucinations.

The Singing Detective

How so?
The hero, trashy crime novel writer Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon), was being treated for the skin disease and while in hospital his feverish, drugged mind worked overtime.

Was it NHS?
It had an Emergency Ward 10 feel to it, doctors who sang “Dem bones” in dream sequences and a gorgeous nurse (Joanne Whalley).

Why was it so complex?
The six-parter had four different plots, which probably confused many viewers.

Pray tell?
The first centred on the hospital, the second was a detective story mentally created by the sickly Philip Marlow. The third was flashbacks to Marlow’s childhood in the Forest of Dean, and the last concerned Marlow’s ex-wife. Key incidents were based on writer Dennis Potter’s schooldays.

Was it any good?
Viewers thought it was brilliant, confusing or vile.

Writer Dennis Potter was nicknamed Dirty Den for including a bare-bottomed sex scene in the bracken.

Who else didn’t like it?
Mary Whitehouse complained to Mrs Thatcher, one MP dubbed it “upsetting and revolting”. The tabloids rebuked it for putting people off their Sunday night cocoa.

What were the best bits?
The musical segments were very memorable with tunes from the ’30s and ’40s, such as Cruising Down The River.

Singing Detective

What about the hospital scenes?
The best was where the psoriasis-stricken Philip Marlow had ointment rubbed all over his peeling skin by Joanne Whalley’s sexy nurse character.

How did he react?
As she reached his nether regions, he mused: “Think of something boring… QPR, QPR, QPR.”

Was it Dennis Potter’s finest hour?
In hindsight it’s seen as a unique drama.

Was it popular?
The ratings were indifferent and criticism meant that it missed out in that year’s Bafta awards.

What happened to Potter?
The innovative writer never matched The Singing Detective. His later work included the heavily criticised Blackeyes and Lipstick On Your Collar. He died from cancer at 59 in 1994, shortly after penning Karaoke and Cold Lazarus.

Could it be revived?
Repeats have been few but a film version starring Robert Downey Jr scarcely made a mark.

Distinguishing features?
A debilitated hero who was painful to look at; nostalgic music; flashbacks; dark secrets.

Do say:
“There’s never been a TV drama quite like it. Dennis Potter was a genius.”

Do not say:
“Ugh, it made my skin creep and I haven’t stopped itching since episode one.”

Not to be confused with:
Singalongamax, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Harry Potter, The Last Detective, Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.