The Singing Detective

Hey y’all 🙂

Do you remember when I won those tickets for a Dennis Potter film screening of my choice at BFI Southbank? You know… the same day I ate a grasshopper. Well, I chose the July 26th screening of The Singing Detective. Not the 2003 film starring Robert Downey Jr; the original miniseries from 1986. As in all six episodes. Screened over the course of about 8 hours. Mmyep. The screening was followed by a Q&A with a panel that included director, Jon Amiel, and the star of the series, Michael Gambon. That’s right: Dumbledore #2 (for those of you who — like me — couldn’t remember him from anything but Harry Potter prior to this screening).


At the time of the prize drawing at London Review Bookshop, there were still a few screenings left for the Faith & Redemption portion of the BFI’s Dennis Potter retrospective. However, the words Sex & Death are f’n attention grabbers, amirite? And when I reviewed the descriptions of the remaining screenings (and my calendar to see when I’d reasonably be able to attend one), the Sex & Death programming beat out Faith & Redemption for me fair-n-square. The Singing Detective caught my eye in particular because, according to the BFI, it is widely thought to be Dennis Potter’s masterpiece. As a Dennis Potter n00b, I figured, why not start with his best work? The event began at 11AM and concluded at about 8:30PM (this includes the screening of the entire miniseries, a few intermissions, and the Q&A panel at the end). I was worried that the BFI wouldn’t let me use my free ticket for such a special screening. Luckily, it was no problem 😀

The Singing Detective follows a writer of Detective Fiction named Philip Marlow (sound familiar?) who has a chronic case of psoriasis as well as psoriatic arthritis. Psoriasis is a condition which causes extreme skin irritation. The arthritis that sometimes results from this is inflammatory and makes the joints immovable. Philip Marlow is bed-ridden, with fists clutched closed and skin that is boiling red and flakes painfully from his body. Moving in any way is ridiculously painful — at one point, he says that even the tears that run down his face when he cries hurt his skin. He’s also a very angry man who shouts abuse at most of the people he’s forced to interact with (some of whom are admittedly boneheaded), and whose only solace (now that he can no longer use his hands to write) is working out a new detective story in his mind.

Marlow’s present is intercut with the detective story he’s working on, flashbacks to his childhood, and hallucinations. Each story strand is propelled by musical scenes where characters lip-synch to old tunes that are eerily appropriate to the story. The Singing Detective is surreal, yet in certain, sharp moments, so emotionally honest it hurts. Michael Gambon is outstanding. His performance made me feel suuuper guilty about  thinking of him primarily as Richard Harris’s HP replacement up to now.

The surreal quality of TSD reminded me a lot of Jacob’s Ladder, and of David Lynch’s work, too (though Singing Detective predates most of what I’m thinking of). Dennis Potter himself had psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis (once, they had a dermatological expert visit the set to check the authenticity of Michael Gambon’s makeup; the dermatologist, not knowing who was who, instead headed straight for Dennis Potter) and said (and I’m paraphrasing) that The Singing Detective was like scraping his bone marrow out with a spoon and giving it to the world. Each story strand bleeds into and informs the other. Visually, you’re left with a whirlwind that makes it almost too easy to share Marlow’s feeling of helplessness — and to imagine how haunted and helpless Dennis Potter might have felt sometimes.


L to R: TV writer (but not for this series) Peter Bowker, Singing Detective producer Kenith Trodd, actors Janet Suzman and Michael Gambon. On screen above: series director, Jon Amiel.

The panel was interesting. Michael Gambon was hilarious, but he and Janet Suzman’s main contribution to the discussion was their insistence on how grateful they are to have been part of the series. Kenith Trodd shared memories of Dennis Potter — who mostly came on set whenever there was a problem to solve — and also reasons why Potter’s great talent still resonates today. Jon Amiel shared memories of and insights on the entire experience. Peter Bowker was basically there to give the perspective of someone who is both a writer in the business and a fan of Dennis Potter’s work. I really enjoyed hearing what everyone had to say. It was like hanging with friends in their living room.

Gambon and Suzman apparently didn’t interact with Dennis Potter often (he dealt more with the producer and director than the actors). In fact, as far as they could remember, he didn’t say much at all. But Michael Gambon did tell us that once when he and Potter chatted briefly, he told Potter that he liked cars. Every day after that, when Potter spotted Gambon on set he’d ask, “So what d’you think of the new Ferrari?” I just think that’s really sweet, haha. I know how hard it can be to talk to other people, so the fact that, even as a man of few words, he went out of his way to show he’d listened and to speak even when it wasn’t necessary is pretty cool 🙂

The Singing Detective is an epic emotional roller coaster. But as draining as it can be to watch (especially all in one go — yowza) it absolutely gives back as much as it takes out of you.

If you haven’t seen it, check it out!!!

2 thoughts on “The Singing Detective

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