The Singing Detective is an absolutely cracking piece of drama, and it is wonderful to see it superbly transferred to DVD by the BBC. The last time I saw this was on VHS tape, when the picture was murky and dull; now we have a clear sharp image-as good as we can expect from a programme 20 years old.
Good drama depends on three factors: script, acting and production/direction. Dennis Potter's script is one of the finest he produced. Whilst a crime writer, with a horrible skin condition, lies in hospital, his thoughts turn to one of his books. He looks back on some incidents from his childhood. He imagines hospital staff dancing to 1930's popular songs (some memorable scenes here). One moment there is laughter, the next, pathos. And gradually the threads are brought together leading to a surprisingly upbeat ending. Michael Gambon's performance as the writer Marlow is stunning, yet this is one of those series where everyone's is a fine performance. Production is excellent: those crazy dance scenes must have taken some work.
The extras are considerable, including excerpts from 'Points of View' (I never did understand what all the fuss about the 'sex' scene was about) , and a Close Up documentary I had never seen before, with some interesting and relevant observations on Potter's life and works.
At just fifteen pounds for the set-3 discs-this is astonishing value and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
on 18 March 2004
This is the greatest achievement of Dennis Potter's wildly uneven career. For every original masterpiece like Blue Remembered Hills or Brimstone and Treacle, there was a self-indulgent stinker like Blackeyes or Cold Lazarus. But there is only one Singing Detective. I watched all six-and-a-half hours in two days: it's magical and gripping.
Everything about this series just *sings*, from the towering performance by Michael Gambon, spitting with one breath and simpering with the next, to the production values which hold up remarkably well in a digital age (with the exception of the contemporary scenes outside the hospital, all big hair and red earrings, monochrome decor and 5-inch floppy disks - if you can remember those - but we can put those to one side and just think of it as a period piece within a period piece). But what holds it together is Dennis Potter's zinging way with words and images, which can mix clever Kubrickian cut-shots (Marlow the singing detective waving to his audience / Jim Carter as Philip's dad waving his train away silently, in the saddest scene in the whole series - which also shows that Potter knew when to drop the words) and the ability to make a two-minute word-association game knuckle-whiteningly gripping.
The themes and elements are ripe and raw - sex and spies, goons and whores, suicide and adultery - but it's rarely explicit (as the content rating on the box shows: "Sex/Nudity: Infrequent, mild": sorry, guys). This makes it all the more astonishing that the show should have been greeted in 1986 not only as anything other than a transforming masterpiece, but as a piece of filth by 'Dirty Den,' as campaigners and newspapers had it. (The DVD includes extracts from Points of View giving these barbarians the permanent shame they deserve.) One can only presume, sadly, that they just lashed out at what they didn't understand, because it's complex stuff all right, with three or possibly four worlds running in parallel and occasionally interacting, particularly when the contemporary characters start saying things on cue from Marlow, and his fictional characters enter the real world...
In an age when we are asked to celebrate the anodyne and remember with delight and irony the formerly awful, it's a joy to be able to see something that truly stands up and lives up to its reputation almost 20 years on - and indeed, because of the lack of serious competition now, towers higher than ever before. Probably the finest drama series ever made.
on 6 October 2000
The sick mind of a sick man. Doesn't sound like a very promising premise for a TV mini-series, does it? Yet Dennis Potter's multilayered masterpiece is quite extraordinary to watch, to re-watch and to enjoy.
A hospitalised Michael Gambon is a pulp author enduring painful and embarrassing treatment while musing on the past, skirting round dreadful, unspeakable events, mingling his reminiscences with dreams of his fictional alter-ego, the Singing Detective.
Paranoia mingles with fantasy as you and he gradually draw closer to the truth - and it's not what you expect.
Intense, moving, uproariously funny, disconcerting and bewildering, it's all held together by Michael Gambon's extraordinary performance.
You could surely never sell this series from the plot precis alone, but within half an hour of the first episode, it's selling itself. Nothing like this has been made since.
on 14 September 2004
The "Singing Detective" was a TV series that almost passed me by. I was too young to watch it when it first aired in 1986. I had always wanted to see it since I saw the famous interview with Dennis Potter and Melvyn Bragg, and after my subsequent disappointment with "Cold Lazarus" and "Karaoke" (Potter's posthumous TV productions, cobbled together in his final 3 months of life) I thought that the only real way to understand Potter's work was to watch his masterpiece.
Last week, I watched all six episodes. And the strangest thing is that watching this just made me quite miserable. Why? Well, not because of the subject matter, even though it is hardly upbeat. Nor in fact due to obvious pain expressed in this piece -- Potter's emotional and physical memories unpeeled effortlessly on screen. Rather, it is the fact that such a series just does not (and sadly could not) exist on British TV anymore. It belongs to no genre, it is confusing, it is shamelessly stylised. In fact, it is a direct predecessor of such great American TV series such as "6 Feet Under."
If you have not seen this truly remarkable piece of Television (and I know that may sound cheap, but that is what has happened to TV in the past 10 years) get hold of a copy. It really is nothing like you will have seen for years.
on 12 February 2004
One of our finest actors in a play by one of Britain's most innovative TV dramatists at the very peak of his powers. Original, gloriously unpredictable and completely addictive viewing. Both absurdly funny and painfully poignant. This must be watched by anyone who wants to see what TV is capable of when a writer refuses to patronise its viewers by giving them a production of uncompromising personal vision. Through the finely balanced juxtaposition of escapist fantasy and bleak reality Potter peels back the skin of the human condition to expose the fears and frailties we all share; and thus, in doing so, gives life's small pleasures greater lustre and intensity. What all good modern drama should strive to do after all and it does it almost perfectly.
on 1 May 2004
The Singing Detective is one of those great works of filmic art that inspire something deep within the viewer, leaving them both shaken and elated by the spectacle they have just witnessed. Few cinematic works can inspire such a feeling within me, let alone a work for television, and it is this sense of genius in the face of idiocy that elevates this work above the merely cosy ranks of say, Cracker, Brideshead Revisited, and Prime Suspect et al. This is down to the fact that The Singing Detective is a work bigger than anything else... a microcosm of life, love, anger, defeat, consciousness and the sub-conscious. It deals with the intricate realms of fantasy and reality, the written, the understood and the real. If this sounds complicated to you then we're on the right track... because this is one of Dennis Potter's most detailed narrative constructs; chronicling a writer's decent into personal hell, as well as a decent into a book being written in his own imagination and a book written many years before, with his past, present and future all jostling for our attention throughout the epic, six-hours-plus running-time.
It is a testament to Potter's ability as a screenwriter that the whole thing zips along so quickly, with the multi-layered story never pausing for a moment... being carried along at every step by the combined genius of Potter's characters, the skilful and visually sublime direction of Jon Amiel and that towering central performance from the brilliant Michael Gambon. The writing is truly ecstatic (or explicit, depending on your appreciation of foul mouthed monologues and narration delivered straight to camera) with Potter obviously relishing every chance he gets to play with both the musical and detective-movie clichés - bringing to mind both Casablanca and Potter's own-classic Pennies From Heaven - whilst the dialog of Gambon's inner-monologues have more in common with the profane poetry of writers like Mike Leigh and David Leland etc. The story also has political overtones (didn't everything in the 80's?) with Potter using the hospital setting of the present sequences to double as an allegory of 80's Britain under the tyrannical leadership of Margaret Thatcher (bringing to mind the Elvis Costello song Tramp the Dirt Down and that other hospital set political parable, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).
The story is also somewhat semi-autobiographical from Potter's point of view with the writer, at this point in time, suffering from the same psoriatic-arthritis that Gambon's character Marlow has (creating that devastating, iconic image of the paralytic Marlow languishing half-naked in bed, being greased by a young Joanne Whally!!). There are also the much deeper autobiographical aspects with the young Marlow's childhood in the shady and evergreen Forest of Dean, in which the pastoral setting gives way to some truly shocking moments (recalling similar childhood traumas from such diverse examples as Iain Bank's Complicity and Rob Reiner's film Stand by Me). However, within this mire of bitterness, surrealism, bouts of lip-synced cabaret and phantasmagorical shoot-outs, there is also a great deal of humour. Anyone who has seen one of Potter's early TV plays or, for that matter, later classics like Karaoke and Cold Lazarus will know of his depth and range as both a humorist and a satirist... and it is this darkly acerbic wit that underlines the central narrative strands of The Singing Detective.
Some would argue that this is the best that television has to offer, though I would politely disagree. The Singing Detective is a work of art too good for TV. Now, thanks to the magic of DVD we have the chance to experience Potter's classic in it's definitive unabridged, unedited, uninterrupted from. The screen restoration and the sound are all perfect with this digital transfer, bringing out the intricacies in Amiel's framing, whilst that wonderfully anachronistic use of sound is more thrilling than ever... There are also a couple of documentary extracts from TV programmes at the time that look specifically at Potter the writer and his influence on the way television is/was shaping, as well as extracts from the points of view episode in which almost half of Britain complained about the almost endless onslaught of 'gratuitous sex, profane-humour, stark-violence and un-Godly behaviour'! Meanwhile the commentary track from the director and producer (Ken Trodd) respectively sheds some light on the controversy, as well as reflecting on Potter's passing, and the legacy of this great piece of work...
on 15 July 2007
When this was first aired I was in about the same dermatalogical state as the central character: bedbound, in agony, hallucinating, and unable to move enough to do anything but think for the best part of a year. This is the most brilliant depiction of what it is like to go through that. I may have been only twelve years old at the time, and a girl, but it was still like someone had made a movie of my mind.
Of course I agree with all the plaudits of other fans, but I thought you might like a different perspective! ;-)
Reading one negative review I was reminded of a New Yorker cartoon of a couple leaving a production of 'Macbeth' and one saying to the other, "Well I don't get it, it wasn't funny at ALL!". Yes, some of this autobiographically inspired masterpiece has to do with what the hero, Marlow, and Potter share, Psoriatic Arthropathy, in which joints are locked and skin dries and cracks, excruciatingly. Part story of this English patient, part fantasy in which he relives a version of his youth in part through the person of this Singing Detective, since he is in love with musicals and Hollywood noir. Prone in his hospital bed, sparring with his childhood enemy Binney, it seems his illness connects in some (Freudian) way with him discovering his mother with her lover in his home in Gloucestershire's Forest of Dean (amusingly referred to in 'The Glittering Coffin', his first book, as 'The Forest of Nead.'). Periodically music, dancing and mysterious wartime scenes and espionage intersperse the present in a beguiling drama that is unique. The acting is superb, future stars like Jim Carter, (his wife) Imelda Staunton, Patrick Malahide, an entrancing Joanne Whalley, the Great Bill Paterson and especially Michael Gambon - not for nothing did Sir Ralph Richardson early dub him The Great Gambon - the latter's 'Job speech' at the end of the first episode (preceding a beguilingly mimed and danced 'Dem Bones') is the finest acting I have seen on film, the actor going from tears to laughter and beyond with utter conviction. This is stunningly ambitious, brilliantly directed by John Amiel and exploring the world of illness and alienation as only Potter has ever tried. The miracle is, they succeeded. A masterpiece; ignore the nay-sayers.
P.S. I read in the Observer 9th Oct., that Brando used regularly to watch this peerless work, which is testament to its bold originality and Gambon and the others' fantastic performances. There's something fitting about Brando enjoying The Great Gambon's finest hours...which is saying something: even Brando has never bettered Gambon here. Lovely to read he appreciated this superlative performance and the BBC at its best: for all the hype about 'Breaking Bad', 'The Wire' etc., this pushes the boundaries as none of them, for all their briliance, try. A pity Tarkovsky never lived to see it.
on 20 July 2002
If you have never seen this masterpiece then you have missed out on one of the 20th centuries great dramatic works. Wonderfully complex, funny, sad, intriguing and disturbing screenplay combined with an outstanding performance by Michael Gambon. Quite brilliant. Buy it.
on 21 February 2003
This is indeed one of the finest television productions ever filmed. I see that it is the property of Fox, so one would hope that a DVD is on the way, as the price for the taped set is exorbitant. Michael Gambon achieved deserved praise and fame for his brilliant, tour-de-force performance as Philip Marlowe (yes, that's rather an obvious pun, but the humor and wealth of ideas on display in this work in no way fall into that category). Director Potter had one of the truly eccentric, surreal and comic imaginations of the past 50 years. This masterpiece definitely falls under the heading, "MUST VIEWING." Hopefully, it will be far more accessible to the viewing public in the near future. In fact, since this review was first written, I've learned that a DVD will be released shortly in the states. Not certain about UK plans.