33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
A spectacle for the eyes & a treat for the brain...,
This review is from: The Singing Detective [DVD]  (DVD)
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...