30 July 2003

The Singing Detective is a TV series (6 one hour episodes) produced by the BBC in the 1980's. Many people, including me, consider it the finest piece of television they've ever seen. It's a complex piece, possibly one of the most original pieces of art ever made for television. As such it isn't everybody's cup of tea, but I've watched it many times. It's most noticeably associated with the writer Dennis Potter, who made many challenging television programs. It's recently become available on DVD.

There are many things about the Singing Detective that make me enjoy it so much. The first thing I'll mention is the plot. Potter packs the six hours with a dense plot that doesn't waste a scene. It's also a complex plot as Philip lies in hospital crippled by a skin disease, four story lines of present, memory, and fantasy unfurl - frequently overlapping. But although the first couple of hours is prone to leave you confused, you come to realize that all of it is about a psychological journey that Philip must make to recover his health. (The complexity of the plot is one reason that I often describe this show to Americans as one that appeals to people who found Twin Peaks too straightforward.)

Not just is this multi-layered plot fascinating to watch unfurling, I've come to really appreciate what Potter does in the final episode as he brings all the various threads together to achieve a remarkable closure to it all. Not just does he pull this off, he pulls it off with a string of surprising plot twists that never allow you to catch your breath. It's only after three or four viewings that I've really appreciated how well he does it.

My second highlight is the dialog and detail of scene setting. Not just the is Potter's writing wonderful in the large scale plot, it's every bit as good in little things. Everyone has their favorite bits, but like many I can mention Philip's soliloquy on thinking of something boring, the film noir fantasy voice over, the word association sequence, and Philip's savagery towards the doctors. Perhaps my favorite scenes are around how Potter very quickly illustrates family dynamics with a short but so complete scene in Philip's home, or the tiny piece as an elderly fellow patient is brought in by his wife - and a whole marriage is suggested with just a short bit of dialog.

Being a Brit, I have the habit of being nationalistic about acting - and given a script like this the acting is memorable. The most obvious triumph is Michael Gambon as Philip - who has to make his character both dislikeable and yet gain our compassion. If that challenge is not enough, he has to do this for the first two hours by only moving his eyes and mouth. Behind this we have Patrick Malahide playing three different yet same characters and Joanne Whalley as everyone's dream nurse. But my favorite is the schoolteacher who, if my memory of Jon Amiel's commentary serves, is the schoolteacher who begins where our nightmares end. She succeeds in being both captivating and frightening.

The direction, by Jon Amiel, is also worthy of the script. The show is full of memorable images: Philip's father and Raymond singing, the boy in the trees, the train in the underground with the cries for Philip, the soldiers in the train.

So if all this fulsome praise isn't enough, I'll add something more - the music. The Singing Detective contains quite a few song and dance numbers, and the way that this is done is perhaps Potter's most original triumph. The classic American musical just liked to shoot out musical numbers in a very incongruous way. This approach sat very awkwardly with serious drama. Cabaret found a solution by putting the musical numbers on a stage and timing them to comment on the serious story. It's probably the most successful film to mix serious drama and music.

Potter's approach is to revel in the incongruity. Characters, usually miming to thirties style recordings, break out in song in the most ridiculous places - and the incongruities provide a lot of deliberate humor. But as well as the humor there is a dark commentary between many of the songs and the action - something that again picks up with repeated viewings. The only one I've seen try something similar is Baz Luhrman in Moulin Rouge.

So don't try to watch this unless you enjoy something that exercises the brain well and carries multiple layers of meaning. Some may not like the dark association of sexuality and death that's a large part of the brew. But this is a program that is a world beyond anything that usually graces television screens - am I right or am I right?