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the Complete Review
the complete review - television



The Singing Detective

by
Dennis Potter


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Singing Detective



Title: The Singing Detective
Author: Dennis Potter
Genre: TV script
Written: 1986
Length: 249 pages
Availability: The Singing Detective - US
The Singing Detective - UK
The Singing Detective - Canada
DVD: The Singing Detective - US
The Singing Detective - Canada
Video: Volume 1 and Volume 2 - UK
  • First broadcast on BBC in 1986.
  • Directed by Jon Amiel, The Singing Detective starred Michael Gambon
  • Re-made as a film, to be released in 2003, directed by Keith Gordon and starring Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson, and Katie Holmes

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Our Assessment:

A : a remarkable achievement and a fine read

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Television scripts often do not read particularly well -- the writing tends not to be very good in the first place, and much of what makes a good TV piece (the acting, the camerawork, the music) is missing. Dennis Potter's six-part piece, The Singing Detective, which famously uses the lip-synching of old classics (a favoured Potter-technique), seems a particularly unlikely candidate to work well on the page. In fact, however, it works particularly well. Make no mistake, Potter was first and foremost a writer for the small screen and The Singing Detective is best enjoyed in that form (rent the video) -- but Potter was the rare TV writer who actually could write.
       Potter's sense of words and his literary instincts are just one facet of his TV success, but they are a major one. Many of his TV plays are, indeed, so well-written that they are fine reads all on their own, and The Singing Detective stands alongside Karaoke (see our review) as one of the most convincing examples.
       From the opening scene Potter keeps the piece grounded in the literary. It is the dialogue that is the greatest strength of the piece, but Potter also is careful in the descriptions of the scenes, giving a reader (and a director) as much information as possible without focussing on technical precision. Thus the first scene opens:

A misty, moody, highly atmospheric 'thrillerish', winter's evening in London, 1943. Cold and forlorn, near a lamp-post which dimly shows wisps of mist, a pathetic old busker is playing an achingly melancholy 'Peg o' My Heart' on a mouth-organ.
       Later descriptions are similarly evocative rather than usefully descriptive:
(I)t is the dead of night, with fleeting silver from glimpses of moon through low, moody, scudding clouds. And the strange, multi-harmonica beat of 'Peg o' My Heart' swelling --
       The Singing Detective centers around the unfortunately named Philip Marlow, a contemporary writer of cheap (and, for the most part, out of print) detective novels -- including one titled The Singing Detective. Marlow suffers from the same debilitating disease as Potter himself did, psoriatic arthropathy. He has been in hospital for some three months and he is still a mess: "an example of extreme psoriasis at its worst (...) cracked, scabbed, scaled, swollen, scarlet and snowy white, and boiling with pain." Not a pretty picture.
       Marlow's fevers take him to different worlds, as there are flashbacks throughout the play to his childhood, as well as to scenes from what appears to be his detective novel (set during World War II), in which he appears as the "singing detective". His disease is a horrible one: he is in great pain for much of the time, and unable to do practically anything for himself, from getting a cigarette to writing. He is greased and oiled regularly, a painful and embarrassing procedure, and he escapes the pain by trying to imagine his book. He finds himself a character in it, with healthy skin (but not much less troubled for that).
       Various stories overlap and intersect. There are the scenes from the hospital, where Marlow lies in a large ward and those in the bed next to his keep dying. Another patient is reading his book, while one of the doctors takes an almost sadistic interest in Marlow. Hollywood is also apparently interested in making a film out of The Singing Detective, and Marlow's estranged wife is trying to take advantage of him regarding this project.
       Marlow also relives his childhood traumas, from a betrayal that still weighs heavily on him ("I've never doubted since what people are really made of. We all have blood on our teeth.") to his difficult and ultimately tragic relationship with his mother.
       The third strand of the story is also set in the past, a typical Chandleresque P.I. yarn with Marlow as the singing detective. That Marlow describes himself:
I get the cases the polite guys pass over. I get the jobs the guys who don't sing don't get. I'm the piano tuner who's heavy on the pedal.
       The stories overlap, and Potter presents them in a way that they work well on the page -- though the shifting of scenes is an aspect of the play that is obviously more effective on the screen. Similarly, the characters breaking out into song loses something on the page (except for those able to hear the music in their minds as they read). Nevertheless, the play is an exciting and entertaining read.
       Potter's dialogue is excellent throughout, his ear adapting to the various situations he puts his characters in. Always sharp, there are passages that are veritable fireworks displays -- so, for example, a word-association game Marlow plays with Dr. Gibbon, with a brilliant rapid-fire back and forth between the two.
       The Singing Detective is also a profound play, a deep and touching meditation on life and art. Writers are suspect -- "cannibals", Marlow calls them at one point -- but there is also redemption to be found in art, and Potter finds it in his intensely personal play. The Singing Detective is a modern masterpiece, not only as a TV-play but as a literary work. Highly recommended, on video or in book form.

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Links:

The Singing Detective: Reviews: The Singing Detective - the film (2003): Dennis Potter: Other books by Dennis Potter under review: Books about Dennis Potter under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Film-related books

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About the Author:

       English author Dennis Potter (1935-1994) is best known for his television scripts Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective.

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