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Classic TV Revisited: The 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.



Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess




Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife




McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal




The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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