The Singing Detective: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Singing Detective
Singing Detective Poster.jpg
Format Musical/Film Noir
Created by Dennis Potter
Starring Michael Gambon
Jim Carter
Lyndon Davies
Patrick Malahide
Bill Paterson
Alison Steadman
Janet Suzman
Joanne Whalley
Imelda Staunton
Country of origin UK
No. of episodes 6
Executive producer(s) Rick McCallum
Producer(s) Kenith Trodd
Running time 300 minutes
Original channel BBC1
Original run 16 November 1986 – 21 December 1986

The Singing Detective is a critically acclaimed BBC television serial, written by Dennis Potter, starring Michael Gambon. Jon Amiel directed. The episodes were "Skin", "Heat", "Lovely Days", "Clues", "Pitter Patter", and "Who Done It".

The serial was broadcast in the U.K. on BBC1 in 1986 on Sunday nights from November 16 to December 21 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. The DVD set was released 15 April 2003.

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



The story revolves around mystery writer Philip E. Marlow and his most recent hospital stay. Having reached its peak, his psoriatic arthropathy (a chronic skin and joint disease) forms lesions and sores covering his entire body, and partially cripples his hands and feet. Dennis Potter suffered from this disease himself, and wrote with a pen tied to his fist much in the same fashion Marlow does in the last episode. Although severe, Marlow's case was intentionally understated compared to Potter's real case: Potter's skin would sometimes crack and bleed.[1]

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.

The real Marlow also experiences flashbacks to his childhood in rural England, and his mother's suicide 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. The death 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 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 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, one of the boys from his childhood, Mark Binney, becomes conflated with Raymond, Marlow's mother's lover, and 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 an event in his early childhood where Marlow framed the young Binney for defecating on a disciplinarian elementary teacher's desk, a perverse act of vengeance for the affair Marlow has witnessed between his own mother and Binney's father. The innocent Binney is brutally beaten in front of the student body, and Marlow is lauded for telling the "truth". These events haunt Marlow, as it is revealed that the real Binney eventually ends up in a mental institution. The villainous Binney/Finney character is killed off in both realities.

Some members of the cast each play several different parts: Marlow and his alter-ego, the singing detective, are both played by Gambon. Marlow as a boy is played by Lyndon Davies. Patrick Malahide plays three central characters - the contemporary Finney, who Marlow thinks is having an affair with his ex-wife, 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.


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.[1] However, all scenes were ultimately shot on film, over Potter's objections. Potter wanted the hospital scenes to maintain the sensibility of sitcom conventions.[1] 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.[1]

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.[1] 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.[1] Marlow's medical and mental progress is subtley gauged by his ability to reach over to his dresser and get his cigarettes.[1]


Borrowing portions of his first novel, Hide and Seek (1973), Potter added autobiographical aspects (or, as he put it, deeply "personal" aspects),[1] 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.[2] 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.


Hammersmith Bridge appears to be the location used for the exterior of Mark Binney's home. It is used several times in Potter's work as a symbol of both death and rebirth. Eileen contemplates throwing herself from it in Pennies from Heaven (1978) before being reunited with Arthur, while in Follow the Yellow Brick Road (1972) Denholm Elliot's character threatens to run over his estranged wife before throwing himself off the bridge. The eponymous fictional heroine in Blackeyes (1989) does throw herself from it and drowns in the Thames, with a list of her former lovers in her vagina. In Karaoke (1996), Potter's last work, Sandra's horribly scarred mother is seen piecing together a jigsaw featuring an image of the landmark.


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.


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).[1] Director Jon Amiel compiled and spliced the generic thriller music used throughout the series from 60 library tapes he had brought together.[1]

The following is a chronological soundtrack listing:

Further reading

  • Mundy, John (2006). "Singing Detected: Blackpool and the Strange Case of the Missing Television Musical Dramas". Journal of British Cinema and Television (Edinburgh University Press) 3 (1): 59–71. doi:10.3366/JBCTV.2006.3.1.59.  


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j The Singing Detective (supplementary audio track by Jon Amiel and Kenith Trodd). DVD. Disc 1. Prod. BBC; dist. BBC Video, 2002.
  2. ^ Arena:Dennis Potter,

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010
(Redirected to Dennis Potter article)

From Wikiquote

Dennis Christopher George Potter (May 17, 1935June 7, 1994) was a controversial English dramatist who is best known for several widely acclaimed television dramas which mixed fantasy and reality, the personal and the social. Potter's plays were noted for their use of non-linear narratology and incorporating elements of popular culture (characters would sing popular songs); he also used adult actors to play child characters.



  • By the time I stood for Parliament I was already carrying a walking stick, and the combination of my illness and my sense of withdrawal from a belief in a kind of Britain I would have preferred to see meant that I was no longer satisfied with such a (political) role: it wasn't creative enough, it didn't satisfy me. I simply didn't fit the bill in the end. Although I was a Labour candidate I didn't even vote in that election. I was probably the only candidate who didn't vote for his party.
    • G. Fuller (ed.), Potter on Potter (Faber and Faber, 1993), p. 14
    • On his candidature in East Hertfordshire in the 1964 general election, which formed the basis of his play "Vote, vote, vote for Nigel Barton"
  • You cannot make a pair of croak-voiced Daleks appear benevolent, even if you dress one of them in an Armani suit and call the other Marmaduke.
    • "Occupying Powers," The Guardian (28 August 1993); the quote is from the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival (27 August 1993) and refers to John Birt and Marmaduke Hussey, who were then Director-General and Chairman of the BBC.
  • As a writer you will know that one of the favourite fantasy plots is where a character's told you've got three months to live, and who would you kill? I call my cancer Rupert. Because that man Murdoch is the one who, if I had the time (I've got too much writing to do)... I would shoot the bugger if I could. There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press. And the pollution of the press is an important part of the pollution of British political life, and it's an important part of the cynicism and misperception of our own realities that is destroying so much of our political discourse.
    • "The Long Goodbye," The Guardian (6 April 1994); the quote is from Potter's final television interview with Melvyn Bragg (5 April 1994)
  • My only regret is to die four pages too soon.
    • Final television interview with Melvyn Bragg (5 April 1994)
  • The blossom is out in full now, it’s plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white. It’s the whitest, frothiest blossomest blossom that ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the now-ness of everything is absolutely wondrous.
    • Final television interview with Melvyn Bragg (5 April 1994)

Stand up, Nigel Barton (1965)

  • Nigel Barton: Eh dad, why do you always walk in the middle of the road?
    Harry Barton: I don't know.
    Nigel Barton: What do you think the pavement's for?
    Harry Barton: Dogs to poop in, by the looks of things!
  • Harry Barton: Clever sod, aren't you? I expect they think the sun shines out of you down at Oxford.
    Nigel Barton. Up.
    Harry Barton: What?
    Nigel Barton. Up, dad. Up.
    Harry Barton: Aye, and up you, too!
    Nigel Barton: Everyone says 'Up at Oxford'. You come 'down' when you've finished there.
    Harry Barton: Well, what's this then? Does bloody Oxford move up and down the bloody map then?
  • Georgie Pringle: The word of the LORD came again unto me, saying, Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother: And they committed whoredoms in Egypt; they committed whoredoms in their youth: there were their breasts pressed, and there they bruised the teats of their virginity.
    • Pringle, "the class comic", has been asked to choose the bible reading for a secondary school class. He has a reputation for knowing "all the dirty bits in the bible off by heart," according to Nigel Barton's narration. The quote is from Ezekiel, chapter 23, verses 1-3.
  • Miss Tillings: Stand up, Nigel Barton! Well, Nigel, do you know anything about this? I can't believe it was you!
    Nigel Barton: No, Miss!
    Miss Tillings: Then what do you know about it?
    Nigel Barton: I think - I think I might have had the daffodil, Miss—
    Miss Tillings: You might have had it? What do you mean, boy? Speak up!
    Nigel Barton: The stem was all broke and somebody gave it to me, Miss.
    Miss Tillings: Who gave it to you?
    Nigel Barton: Ooh, I don't like to say, Miss.
    Miss Tillings: You better had, Barton, and quick about it.
    Nigel Barton: Georgie Pringle, Miss.
    • Barton incriminates Pringle, who has bullied him, in the crime of destroying the class's daffodil; the daffodil was actually destroyed by Barton himself.
  • Nigel Barton (On TV): I feel I don't belong here, that's my trouble.
    Interviewer (on TV): Well, where do you belong? At home?
    Harry Barton: Of course!
    Nigel Barton (on TV): No, I'm afraid I don't. Now it hurts to say this, of course, but it's the truth. Back at home, in the village, in the workingmen's club, with people I went to school with, I'm so much on the defensive, you see. They suspect me of making qualitative judgments about their environment, you understand, but it's not that I wish to do so. Yet I even find my own father looking at me oddly some times, waiting to pounce on some remark, some expression in my face, watching me like a hawk. I don't feel at home in either place. I don't belong. It's a tightrope between two different worlds, and I'm walking it.
    Harry Barton: You're a bloody liar, Nigel!

Vote, vote, vote for Nigel Barton (1965)

  • Jack: You'll have to compromise, smile, concern yourself with your public image, measure your words as carefully as possible... and turn yourself into a dutiful party hack! [chuckles] Never mind, Nigel, never mind.
    • Jack Hay was based on Ron Brewer, who had been Potter's agent when he was Labour candidate for East Hertfordshire in the 1964 general election.
  • Jack: A potential Cabinet Minister if ever I saw one. Dishonest in a way which seems embarrassingly frank. Upright when creeping. And dignified when at his most stupid.
  • Nigel: Why the cheap jokes?
    Jack: Cheap? When I was a kid, we were made to stay away from school on Empire Days so we wouldn't have to wave one of those little Union Jacks. We were the richest country in the world then, or so I'm told, and my old man bow-legged from malnutrition. Us kids nearly died laughing.
    Nigel: And?
    Jack: Well, I've been laughing ever since, haven't I? Put a few smiles between yourself and the world, Nigel. You don't bruise so easy that way.
  • Jack: I once had a candidate who went around expressing his concern about myxomatosis. I had to tell him that it would be time to worry about myxomatosis when rabbits got votes.

The Singing Detective (1986)

  • Philip Marlow: Minute by minute we make the world. We make our own world.
  • Philip Marlow: You're the girl in all those songs. De-dum.
    Nurse Mills: What songs?
    Philip Marlow: The songs, the songs, the bloody, bloody songs.
    Nurse Mills: I wish I knew what you were talking about.
    Philip Marlow: The songs you hear coming up the stair.
    Nurse Mills: Sorry?
    Philip Marlow: When you're a child, when you're supposed to be asleep. Those songs.

External links

Wikipedia has an article about:

Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address