The Singing Detective

The Singing Detective is a BBC television serial drama, written by Dennis Potter, which stars Michael Gambon and was directed by Jon Amiel. The six episodes were “Skin”, “Heat”, “Lovely Days”, “Clues”, “Pitter Patter” and “Who Done It”.

The serial was broadcast in the United Kingdom on BBC1 in 1986 on Sunday nights from 16 November to 21 December with later PBS and cable television showings in the United States. It won a Peabody Award in 1989. It ranks 20th on the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, as voted by industry professionals in 2000. It was included in the 1992 Dennis Potter retrospective at the Museum of Television & Radio and became a permanent addition to the Museum’s collections in New York and Los Angeles. There was co-production funding from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It was released on DVD in the US on 15 April 2003 and in the UK on 8 March 2004.

Mystery writer Philip E. Marlow is suffering writer’s block and is hospitalised because his psoriatic arthropathy, a chronic skin and joint disease, is at an acute stage forming lesions and sores over his entire body, and partially cripples his hands and feet. (Dennis Potter suffered from this disease himself, and he wrote with a pen tied to his fist in much the same fashion Marlow does in the last episode. Although severe, Marlow’s condition was intentionally understated compared to Potter’s whose skin would sometimes crack and bleed.)

As a result of constant pain, a fever caused by the condition, and his refusal to take medication, Marlow falls into a fantasy world involving his Chandleresque novel, The Singing Detective, an escapist adventure about a detective (also named “Philip Marlow”) who sings at a dance hall and takes the jobs “the guys who don’t sing” won’t take. Marlow is “plot-dreaming,” trying out various solutions to a working plot in his head, deciding as he goes what plot element works best with what character or situation, interspersed with bits of ideas that occur to him off the wall, and discarding (with some afterthoughts) parts of his story that no longer work when other changes have been made.

The real Marlow also experiences flashbacks to his childhood in rural England, and his mother’s life in wartime London. The rural location is presumably the Forest of Dean, Potter’s birthplace and the location for filming, but this is never stated explicitly (though the young Philip’s references to his home in “the Forest” come close). The suicide of his mother is one of several recurring images in the series; Marlow uses it (whether subconsciously or not) in his murder mystery, and sometimes replaces her face with different women in his life, real and imaginary. The noir mystery, however, is never actually solved; all that is ultimately revealed is an intentionally vague plot involving smuggled Nazi war criminals being protected by the Allies and Soviet agents attempting to stop them. This perhaps reflects Marlow’s view that fiction should be “all clues and no solutions”.

The three worlds of the hospital, the noir thriller, and wartime England often merge in Marlow’s mind, resulting in a fourth layer, in which character interactions that would otherwise be impossible (e.g. fictional characters interacting with non-fictional characters) occur. This is evident in that many of Marlow’s friends and enemies (perceived or otherwise) are represented by characters in the novel: particularly, Raymond, Marlow’s mother’s lover, appears as the central antagonist in the “real” and noir worlds (although the “real” Binney/Finney is ultimately a fantasy as well). The use of Binney as a villain stems from the fact that Binney committed adultery with Marlow’s mum and simultaneously (and perhaps publicly) cuckolded Marlow’s dad, whom Marlow loved. Marlow’s own guilt at his apparent belief that he caused his parents’ separation and even his mother’s suicide is exacerbated by his early childhood memory when he framed young Mark Binney for defecating on the desk of a disciplinarian elementary teacher (Janet Henfrey). The innocent Binney is brutally beaten in front of the classroom, and Marlow is lauded for telling the “truth”. All of these events haunt Marlow, and one of the shadowy villains who apparently is determined to kill Marlow looks very much like an adult version of the real child, Mark Binney. The real Mark Binney eventually ends up in a mental institution, as Marlow confesses later to the psychiatrist. The villainous Binney/Finney character is killed off in both realities. It is suggested that in each reality, the guilt of Binney/Finney/Mark is entirely the product of Marlow’s imagination as in one case, Finney the wife’s lover does not exist, in the other it is the name of the character Marlow chooses as the guilty party and the boy’s guilt is a lie told by Marlow to his teacher. However, in the end, Marlow chooses a killer, who looks more like adult Binney, to live, and himself to die, thus showing growth. Janet Henfrey has previously played the same character in Potter’s earlier TV play Stand Up, Nigel Barton.

Some members of the cast play multiple roles. Marlow and his alter-ego, the singing detective, are both played by Gambon. Marlow as a boy is played by Lyndon Davies. Mark Binney (schoolboy) is played by William Speakman. Davies and Speakman were contemporaries at Chosen Hill school in Gloucestershire, close to Potter’s birthplace of the Forest of Dean. Patrick Malahide plays three central characters—the contemporary Finney, who Marlow thinks is having an affair with his ex-wife Nicola, played by Janet Suzman; the imaginary Binney, a central character in the murder plot; and Raymond, a friend of Marlow’s father who has an affair with his mother (Alison Steadman). Steadman plays both Marlow’s mother, and the mysterious “Lili”, one of the murder victims. At the end of the serial Marlow and Nicola appear to have repaired their relationship.

In Potter’s original script, the hospital scenes and noir scenes were to be shot with television (video) and film cameras respectively, with the period material (Marlow’s childhood) filmed in black-and-white. However, all scenes were ultimately shot on film, over Potter’s objections. Potter wanted the hospital scenes to maintain the sensibility of sitcom conventions. Although this was tempered in the final script, some character interactions retain this concept. For example, Mr. Hall and Reginald, who are also intended to serve as a mock chorus for the main action occurring in the hospital.

Originally, the title of the series was “Smoke Rings”, and the Singing Detective noir thriller was to be dropped after the first episode; Potter felt it would not hold the audience’s attention. The title may have referred to a particular monologue Marlow has in the first episode, referring to the fact that, despite everything else, the one thing he really wants is a cigarette. Marlow’s medical and mental progress is subtly gauged by his ability to reach over to his dresser and get his cigarettes.

Borrowing portions of his first novel, Hide and Seek (1973), Potter added autobiographical aspects (or, as he put it, deeply “personal” aspects), along with 1940s popular music and the aforementioned film noir stylistics. The result is regarded by some as one of the peaks of 20th-century drama. Marlow’s hallucinations are not far from the Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, the 1944 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, with Dick Powell as Marlowe. Powell himself would later portray a “singing detective” on radio’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective, serenading his girlfriend, Helen Asher (Virginia Gregg), at the end of each episode.

A reference is made in the last episode to a novel by Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This may be meant to suggest that Marlow is an unreliable narrator.

Although The Singing Detective did not meet with spectacular viewing figures, it proved influential within the television industry. The serial met with considerable critical praise in America. Steven Bochco has credited the serial as the chief inspiration for Cop Rock (1990), although unlike The Singing Detective, Bochco’s drama features specially recorded musical numbers rather than pre-existing work.

The serial was adapted into a 2003 American film featuring Robert Downey, Jr. and Mel Gibson, with the locations changed to the United States.

The British rock band Elbow took their name from a line in the series that declared elbow the “loveliest word in the English language”.


As well as its dark themes, the series is notable for its use of 1940s-era music, often incorporated into surreal musical numbers. This is a device Potter used in his earlier miniseries Pennies from Heaven. The main theme music is the classic “Peg o’ My Heart”, of Ziegfeld Follies fame. The upbeat music as the theme for such a dark story is perhaps a reference to Carol Reed’s The Third Man, with a harmonica in the place of a zither (The Third Man is indeed referenced in a number of camera shots, according to DVD commentary). Director Jon Amiel compiled and spliced the generic thriller music used throughout the series from 60 library tapes he had brought together.

The following is a chronological soundtrack listing:

  • “Peg o’ My Heart” – Max Harris & his Novelty Trio (theme song; instrumental)
  • “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” – The BBC Dance Orchestra directed by Henry Hall
  • “Blues in the Night” – Anne Shelton
  • “Dry Bones” – Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians
  • “Rockin’ in Rhythm” – The Jungle Band (Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra)
  • “Cruising Down the River” – Lou Preager Orchestra
  • “Don’t Fence Me In” – Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters
  • “It Might as Well Be Spring” – Dick Haymes
  • “Frühlingsrauschen (Rustle of Spring) Op. 32 No. 3” – Sinding
  • “Bird Song at Eventide” – Ronnie Ronalde with Robert Farnon and his Orchestra
  • “Paper Doll” – The Mills Brothers
  • “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” – Al Bowlly with The Ray Noble Orchestra
  • “Lili Marlene” – Lale Andersen
  • “I Get Along Without You Very Well” – Lew Stone Band
  • “Do I Worry?” – The Ink Spots
  • “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” – Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters
  • “The Umbrella Man” – Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra
  • “You Always Hurt the One You Love” – The Mills Brothers
  • “After You’ve Gone” – Al Jolson with Matty Malneck’s Orchestra and The Four Hits and a Miss
  • “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow” – Jack Payne and his Orchestra
  • “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” – Ella Fitzgerald & The Ink Spots
  • “The Very Thought of You” – Al Bowlly & The Ray Noble Orchestra
  • “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” – The Henry Hall Orchestra
  • “We’ll Meet Again” – Vera Lynn

The Singing Detective soundtrack was released on vinyl in two different forms:

  • 1986The Singing Detective (BBC Records CD 608)
  • 1988The Other Side of the Singing Detective (BBC Records and Tapes BBC CD 708)

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