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Singing Detective, The (1986)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Singing Detective, The (1986)
BBC/Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 16/11-21/12/1986
6 x 70 minutes, colour
DirectorJon Amiel
ProducerJohn Harris
 Kenith Trodd
ScriptDennis Potter

Cast: Michael Gambon (Philip Marlow); Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (Nurse Mills); Bill Paterson (Dr Gibbon); Janet Suzman (Nicola); Patrick Malahide (Mark Binney/Raymond)

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A writer with a terrible skin disease lies in hospital, remembering his childhood and hallucinating scenes from his own pulp detective novel, as he attempts to find a psychological cure for his illness.

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Written by Dennis Potter and directed by Jon Amiel, the six-part serial The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986). is widely regarded as Potter's television masterpiece: a distillation and summation of all the writer's key themes and techniques.

Conceived in his fiftieth year, The Singing Detective marked Potter's return to original writing for television after a mixed time writing screenplays for Hollywood. The drama itself spans forty years of British post-war history, with memory, imagination and hallucination cohering in the form of the central character, Marlow (Michael Gambon), as he lies in his hospital bed, flashing backwards and forwards in his mind between wartime childhood in 1945 and cynicism and diseased decline in his 1980s present.

In so doing, the drama provides a showcase for Potter's trademark non-naturalistic style - a series of highly striking visual techniques which the writer had developed over the course of his career to represent, as he put it, what most other television drama, being naturalistic, could not: "what goes on inside people's heads." The most famous of these is Potter's device of having characters in the drama suddenly burst into song, lip-synching to old dance band tunes of the 1930s and 1940s.

In The Singing Detective, this is carefully refined so that the songs of the 1940s which Marlow imagines characters around him singing become clues to his own psychic state, revealing things to himself that he had previously repressed, in a manner akin to a detective unravelling a mystery. If this is the ultimate metaphor of The Singing Detective - the unravelling of the mystery of self - it is one which is extended to the plethora of other non-naturalistic techniques in the drama, including flashback, fantasy and non-chronological story-telling, which combine to provide perhaps the most vivid representation of the workings of the human mind ever realised on screen.

To achieve these effects, Potter worked closely with the director Jon Amiel, particularly in terms of accentuating the free associative style whereby the drama switched effortlessly between fantasy and reality. The finished production received huge critical acclaim when it was first aired in Britain and numerous awards.

In 2003, a Hollywood feature film version, starring Robert Downey Jr., was premiered, though whether it will ever surpass the British TV version remains doubtful. The original's place as one of the all-time great television works seems assured.

John Cook

*This programme is the subject of a BFI TV Classics book by Glen Creeber.

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Video Clips
1. Falsely accused (5:56)
2. Finney and Nicola (2:27)
3.'Where bist?' (3:17)
4. End of a partnership (5:39)
Complete episode: 'Who Done It' (1:16:27)
Double Dare (1976)
Gambon, Sir Michael (1940-)
Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)
Thewlis, David (1963-)
Trodd, Kenith (1936-)
Whalley, Joanne (1964-)
TV Sleuths